Arcana at the Proms – Prom 18: Edward Gardner conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Mahler and Britten

Prom 18: Stuart Skelton (tenor, above), Claudia Mahnke (mezzo-soprano), Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above)

Britten Piano Concerto Op.13 (1938)
Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (1908-1909)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 1 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) received its Proms premiere in the year 1914, long before the huge upturn his music experienced in the 1960s. It is an example of Sir Henry Wood’s instinct for new music that it reached the Proms so soon, though the programme labelling of the piece as a ‘Henry Wood novelty’ does the work a massive disservice. A certain Benjamin Britten was on to it too, describing in 1937 the impact of its final set of poems, Der Abschied, and how it ‘passes over me like a tidal wave’.

Mahler was one of Britten’s foremost influences, specifically the Fourth Symphony, which you can hear at the Proms later in the season on Sunday 11 August. There is not much Britten this year, but what there was in this concert was brilliantly performed. The Piano Concerto has a youthful spring in its step, treating the instrument equally as a creator of percussion and melody, following in the traditions of Prokofiev and Shostakovich as it does so.

This performance showed it off in full. Leif Ove Andsnes (above), who has lived with the work for 25 years and performed it on his Proms debut in 1992, had its measure. Technically he was superb, leading from the front with an account of targeted bravura, never showing off for the sake of it and always keeping a melodic shape to even the most percussive of chord sequences. Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra offered solid support, if very occasionally falling behind the piano rhythmically – though that could also have been the Royal Albert Hall acoustic playing tricks. The strings were beautifully shaded in the quieter moments of the Impromptu, whose emotional depths hinted at a darker presence behind the technical feats – perhaps the presence of the Second World War, only a few years away.

Andsnes delivered an unexpected encore in the first movement of Mompou’s Suburbis, stylistically close to Ravel and Falla but still evoking its own individual nocturnal scene.

The Mahler followed the interval, lasting just over an hour – but given the quality of the performance the time passed in a flash. To date Edward Gardner’s encounters with Mahler have been relatively minimal, but the natural gravitas he gave to the orchestral writing in Das Lied von der Erde, not to mention the room made for the chamber-like instrumental solos, showed his instincts are ideally suited to the composer. The BBC Symphony Orchestra wind – fully deserving of their curtain call at the end – were on top form, as were the strings, their quiet thoughts during the final song in particular staying rooted in the memory.

Fine as the orchestral playing was, the two singers rightly shared the limelight. Stuart Skelton’s tenor was a thing of wonder, called into high register action at a daringly early stage in proceedings but delivering wholeheartedly from the off. His characterisation of the two drinking songs was spot on, the gestures and body language wholly at one with the words, giving him the creative licence to exaggerate a note or two. Here he had support from BBC Symphony Orchestra leader Igor Yuzefovich, and a suitably inebriated violin solo during Der Trunkene im Frühling (The Drunkard in Spring). Meanwhile in Von der Jugend (Of Youth) some nimble negotiation by Skelton of Mahler’s score gave the song an invigorating freshness. That he was able to project these natural and very human elements of phrasing without ever sounding contrived spoke volumes for the degree to which he has clearly inhabited this piece, as evidenced in his contribution to the Proms Twitter feed a few hours before.


Mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke (above) was equally assured in her delivery, the voice and its phrasing again completely comfortable with Mahler’s demands in Der Einsame im Herbst (The Lonely Soul in Autumn) and Von der Schönheit (Of Beauty) before, in the celebrated Der Abschied (The Farewell), time stood still and the music became a thing of wonder. These otherworldly contemplations felt as though they extended from the Arena floor of the Royal Albert Hall right up to the stars, far beyond the dome, and Mahnke’s rapt expression spoke of how she too was experiencing the same transporting effect. Gardner’s operatic instincts stood him in good stead, particularly in the recitative-like sections, where orchestral players held notes like baroque continuo staples, but the overall effect was in aid of the contemplation of life itself.

The rude interjection of a mobile phone did nothing to break the spell, for these two singers, and the 80 or so instrumental singers behind them, had created something very special together.

Live review – Lucy Crowe, Karen Cargill, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Mahler Symphony no.2

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus,
City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 13 June 2019

Mahler
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’ (1888-95)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Almost 46 years since this orchestra first played it, then 39 years since Sir Simon Rattle made it his mission-statement, Mahler’s Resurrection is one of those pieces which constitutes a ‘rite of passage’ for conductors at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony. Tonight it was the turn of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – who, coming towards the end of her third season as music director of this orchestra, presided over a reading which assuredly had the measure of a work that, over recent decades, has too often felt in danger of becoming a classy lifestyle accessory.

If there was anything at all lacking (aside from a handful of imprecisions as would only have surprised those drawn to this music for its showpiece potential), it was of the piece evolving as a cumulative and inevitable unity. As often, the first movement brought most reservations – Gražinytė-Tyla’s handling of its long-term momentum being slightly less convincing than her characterization of its individual components; though at its best, as in her easing into the ruminative second subject or her sustaining of tension going from the eruptive climax of the development into the reprise, this was highly impressive. Mahler seldom approached sonata design other than obliquely, and the deadpan fatalism conjured from its final pages suggests this conductor already has the measure of its expressive range if not yet its formal cohesion.

Coming after a judicious pause, there was little to fault in the Andante – its lilting main theme as felicitous as the counter melody with which it finds common cause, and with the animated secondary theme sounding suitably crepuscular. More unexpected was the scherzo, exuding a suave and even phlegmatic air as Gražinytė-Tyla hears it – though few could have objected to the aching nostalgia of its trio, even if tempo elisions during its final stages were just a touch awkward. Karen Cargill (left) then brought out the tenderness and intimacy of the Urlicht setting.

It was in the epic expanse of the finale, however, that this performance readily came into its own. Launched with explosive intent, its starkly contrasted constituents were drawn together so that the sense of a steadily evolving whole was never in doubt. Such as the baleful chorale passage and the ‘last judgement’ frenzy which duly parodies it were judiciously realized, as was the contribution of offstage brass and percussion in opening-out its emotional remit on the way to the (partial) setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode which forms the culmination.

Tellingly, Gražinytė-Tyla had the chorus remain seated for most of its length – building gradually but intently towards its blazing affirmation of the beyond. Lucy Crowe (left) was a little overwrought in her initial entries, while joining ecstatically with Cargill in their subsequent duet, yet it was the CBSO Chorus (who must have sung this music more often than almost any other such group) that ensured a truly blazing culmination; after which, the brief orchestral postlude unfolded swiftly and headily toward those majestic closing chords.

Eschewing bathos, and shorn of any tendency to grandstanding, this was a powerful end to what is an impressive interpretation in the making, besides confirming the rapport between orchestra and conductor that is audibly on the incline as the CBSO approaches its centenary.

Further listening

You can listen to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of the Resurrection Symphony with Sir Simon Rattle on Spotify below:

Live review – CBSO & Ilan Volkov: Mahler Symphony no.9, Krása & Klein

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 April 2019

Krása Overture for small orchestra (1944)
Klein arr. Saudek Partita for strings (1944)
Mahler Symphony no.9 (1909)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Ilan Volkov (c) Astrid Ackermann

Pursuing one of the more eventful conducting careers of his generation, Ilan Volkov returned to Birmingham for this pertinent juxtaposition of music by composers who numbered among countless Nazi atrocities next to what is arguably Mahler’s greatest symphonic achievement.

Mahler has long been central Volkov’s programming (performances of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies when principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra resonate in the memory), and this evening’s account of the Symphony no.9 exuded conviction borne of long familiarity.

Even now, it is uncommon to hear a reading of the expansive first movement which unfolded with such unforced inevitability; those extremes of anguish and introspection finding seamless accord within the composer’s most elaborate formal design. Nor was there any lack of contrast with what follows – the ‘fantasia’ on ländler rhythms whose symmetrical elegance is constantly undercut by that glancing irony at its most acute during the final pages, when the texture appears to disintegrate out of weariness then from any more rational intent.

Excellent as was the City of Birmingham Symphony’s playing thus far, it raised its game for the third movement – the Rondo-Burleske whose contrapuntal intricacy can become turgid at too stolid a tempo and lose definition at too rapid a pace. Not that this fazed Volkov, who duly steered a secure course across what is tonally and emotionally Mahler’s most fractious statement – the soulful strains of its trio section allowing for precious little repose before the initial music returns in an explosive denouement. After this, the closing Adagio emerged as long-breathed yet never flaccid as it accumulated gravitas through to a fervent climax, then subsided into a coda shorn of false emoting or affectation – the CBSO strings all the while maintaining focus as Mahler’s silence-riven gestures seemingly attained the desired closure.

The brief though worthwhile first half had featured a brace of works by Czech composer who both flourished in the Nazi transit camp at Terezin before being murdered at Auschwitz. Not that there is any sense of encroaching dread in the Overture by Hans Krása – its purposeful elision of traits drawn from Stravinsky and Hindemith abetted by scoring as economical as it is characterful. Volkov secured an incisive rendering, only easing up for the final bars whose sense of suddenly opening-out onto new and unforeseen vistas was palpably conveyed here.

Even more engaging was the Partita by Gideon Klein. An arrangement – by Vojtěch Saudek (1951-2003) – of the String Trio that proved to be Klein’s last completed work, it features at its centre a sequence of variations on a Moravian folksong in which elements derived from Janáček take on a distinctive and undeniably personal guise at the hands of one who would have surely found a defining role in post-war Czech music. If the vigorous outer movements seem less individual, they are none the less effective within the context of this piece overall.

In both these works, Volkov secured a spirited response from the CBSO strings (perhaps a little too dogged in the Klein). Hopefully he will return to this orchestra during the 2019/20 season, and hopefully include further pieces by the ‘Terezin generation’ in his programmes.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

This concert will be broadcast as part of ‘Radio 3 in Concert’ on Friday 3rd May. To access that concert click on this link

Ilan Volkov is yet to record a Mahler symphony, but for a leading version of the Symphony no.9 from the Berliner Philharmoniker and Herbert von Karajan you can listen on Spotify below:

Live review – Christopher Maltman & CBSO / Michael Seal perform Mahler, Sibelius & Nielsen

Christopher Maltman (baritone), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 10 April 2019

Sibelius Symphony no.3 in C major Op.52 (1907)
Mahler Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Nielsen Symphony no.5 FS97 (1922)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Christopher Maltman (c) Pia Clodi

Michael Seal’s concerts as Associate Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony are seldom without interest and tonight’s programme featured a typically bold juxtaposition of Nordic symphonies from the early twentieth century, alongside orchestral songs by Mahler.

Time was when Sibelius’s Symphony no.3 was overlooked even by his keenest advocates, but it has long since become a regular fixture and this account doubtless benefited from the CBSO’s lengthy association with the piece under Sir Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo. That said, Seal had ideas of his own to impart – most evident with the gradually intensifying curve of momentum over the first movement’s development into the reprise, then close alignment of tempo between its successor’s diverse episodes and the lilting main theme so it elided deftly between slow movement and intermezzo. The finale was a slight disappointment – lacking that ominous mystery in its initial ‘scherzo’ phase, with the closing pages a little provisional in their affirmation – though there was no mistaking the unanimity of response on the way.

After the interval, Seal set a notably swift tempo for the first phase in the opening movement of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, though this was never at the expense of ongoing incident or the music’s questing ambivalence. The ensuing Adagio was eloquently projected, building to an apotheosis more powerful for Adrian Spillett’s bravura rendering of its side-drum cadenza – subsiding into a rapt though never somnolent coda where the receding presence of offstage side-drum was ideally offset by Oliver Janes’s limpid clarinet solo at the rear of the platform.

There was nothing anticlimactic about the second movement, its four-sections-in-one design itself amounting to a cohesive entity such as Seal recognized in his taut yet flexible handling of the initial Allegro – tapering away seamlessly into a Presto whose surging energy poses a challenge to ensemble that was confidently met here. The yearning polyphony of the Adagio was finely sustained by strings and woodwind, and if the notoriously tricky final pages felt a shade reined-in, their clinching of the tonal and emotional argument could hardly be gainsaid.

Between these imposing symphonies, a selection from Mahler’s song-sequence Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Christopher Maltman was the persuasive guide through their evocations of life in all its manifestations – beginning with the guileless exchanges of soldier and lover in Der Schwildwache Nachtlied (1892), before bringing a suave nonchalance to the ruminations of Rheinlegendchen (1893) then an ominous sense of dread from amid the sombre fanfares of Wo die schönen Trompeten bläsen (1898). A brief though pertinent interlude was provided by the droll moralizing of Lob des hohen Verstandes (1896), then the selection was rounded off by the stark processional of Der Tamboursg’sell (1901) with its anticipations of the Fifth Symphony then in progress. Maltman once again proved a sensitive and insightful exponent.

Throughout the selection, Seal drew playing of refinement and finesse from the CBSO which seems never to have given this sequence as an integral whole. The orchestra will, however, be returning to Mahler with Ilan Volkov when they perform the Ninth Symphony on April 23rd.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here You can read about the forthcoming Mahler Ninth Symphony concert here

Further listening

Unfortunately the concert was not recorded for broadcast, but you can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below on leading versions:

Wigmore Mondays – Leila Josefowicz & John Novacek play Sibelius, Prokofiev, Knussen, Mahler and Bernd Zimmermann

Leila Josefowicz (violin), John Novacek (piano) (photo: Hiroyuki Ito for the New York Times)

Sibelius arr. Friedrich Hermann Valse triste (1903-4) (2:10-6:40)
Prokofiev Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.80: 2nd movement Allegro brusco (1938-46) (6:45-13:21)
Knussen Reflection (2016) (15:17-23:44)
Mahler arr. Otto Wittenbecher Symphony no.5 in C sharp minor: 4th movement Adagietto (1901-2, arr. 1914) (25:45-34:00)
Zimmermann Sonata for violin and piano (1950) (34:51-48:11)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 21 January 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

On paper, this was a strange programme for an hour-long lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall. Yet that in itself is refreshing. Why should programming have to be conventional and fit a particular blueprint all the time? So while I may not have necessarily warmed to their choices initially, on reflection Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek gave us something different. There was a chance for those attending and listening on BBC Radio 3 to hear two very familiar pieces out of context, complemented by music such as the Zimmermann Violin Sonata that we may not have heard before.

Josefowicz and Novacek begin with a highly charged account of Valse triste (2:10 on the broadcast link), the third number from Sibelius’s Kuolema Suite. This is normally heard in the hands of a string orchestra, but the arrangement here – and the ardour with which Josefowicz plays the violin line – especially when doubled with the piano – brings a striking dimension to the piece.

It would have been lovely to hear Josefowicz and Novacek take on the whole of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.80, for this is a dramatic piece indeed with a chill to its writing that would have matched the weather outside. Sadly the second movement was all we had time for (from 6:45), and it felt disjointed outside of its familiar context, despite the passion invested in it by both performers.

Of far greater meaning was Oliver Knussen’s Reflection (15:17), one of his last completed works. Josefowicz was a close acquaintance of the composer, and he wrote his Violin Concerto of 2002 for her. The Reflection is not necessarily what you would expect, a reminder that not all reflections are calm and reflective. It begins urgently, the violin ascending before being joined by the bell-like sonorities of the piano. Some of the reflections are jagged, and most are urgent – and typically for Knussen there is a great deal of interest in the melodies and textures, a style that is compact and extremely listenable but also forward-looking. It finishes abruptly.

The excellent writer Paul Griffiths clearly had trouble finding any information on arranger Otto Wittenbecher, let alone anything to do with his version of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony no.5. This famous excerpt transfers surprisingly well to the reduced forces here, helped by sumptuous tone and control from Josefowicz, whilst Novacek distils the orchestral parts into something surprisingly manageable. Played with soft affection, the main theme leaves its mark, even though the arrangement is taken at quite a quick pace.

The main work of this recital, Bernd Zimmermann’s Violin Sonata made a strong impact. In three concise movements, it manages to explore the outer realms of twelve tone writing without compromising its composer’s folk-inflected style. From the outset at 34:51 Josefowicz and Novacek carry the urgency of the piece as though it were hot in their hands. The inflections are reminiscent of Bartók but have a more jagged melodic style; the punchy percussive approach from the piano is similar however. The slow movement (39:00), is written in a 12-tone form (that is, each of the 12 pitches has to sound before it can be heard again). It is however surprisingly tonal, with its stress on the pitches of ‘C’ and ‘F sharp’ giving the music a restless base. The nocturnal scene again recalls Bartók but is resolutely Zimmermann’s own, with passionate lines from the violin. The busy third movement (44:07) revisits the mood of the first, with terse but meaningful statements from the duo.

As an encore the duo added Charlie Chaplin’s Smile (50:06) in an initially eerie, high-range arrangement made by Claus Ogermann.

Further Listening

Most of the music in this concert (with the exception of the Knussen) can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

For further insight into Josefowicz’s clever programming, her disc with Novacek For The End Of Time provides ample evidence, bringing together works by Falla, Messiaen, Grieg and Bartók: