Live review – April Fredrick, Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Inspired by Mahler

April Fredrick (soprano, above), Zoë Beyers (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler (arr. Stein) Das irdische Leben (1892/1900)
Weinberg Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42 (1948)
Schulhoff Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37 (1921)
Ullmann (arr. Woods) Chamber Symphony op 46a (1943/1999)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded in 2020 for online broadcast, Wednesday 27 January 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Holocaust Memorial Day is a timely opportunity to hear music anticipatory of, inspired by or stemming from events that have defaced human history on all too many occasions, and which provided the basis for this latest online concert from the English Symphony Orchestra.

The underlying tone for this programme was set by Mahler, with one of his settings of texts from the folk collection Des knaben Wunderhorn. In pivoting between the child’s supplication and his mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of the composer’s most evocative songs – not least its portrayal of the child’s existence running out as though this were grains of sand. April Fredrick accordingly invested the vocal part with just the right combination of ominous dread and lingering pathos.

ESO leader Zoë Beyers then took centre-stage for Weinberg‘s Violin Concertino, the product of late-1940s Soviet culture when accessibility was not just desired but prescribed. Modest in expressive scope next to those chamber works that preceded it, this work is highly appealing – not least in the deftness and subtlety with which the composer unfolds his ideas across an ingratiating Allegretto, ruminative Adagio (whose cadenza-like introduction brings the most arresting music in the whole work), then a final Allegro whose thematic interplay is nothing if not resourceful. Beyers rendered it with unfailing eloquence, making it clear just why this attractive piece – which had to wait almost half a century for a first public hearing – should now have established itself among the most often performed of Weinberg’s orchestral works.

In telling contrast, Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was a pert reminder of the composer’s usage of jazz as part of a lifelong and tragically curtailed stylistic odyssey. While the faster numbers recall the wit of Poulenc’s earlier chamber music and irony of Stravinsky’s suites for theatre orchestra, the Valse Boston (its soulful violin solos hauntingly rendered by David Juritz) and Tango admit of a searching introspection to the fore in those works from Schulhoff’s last years. Qualities which are pointedly side-lined by the uproarious final Jazz.

The final work provided the culmination in every respect. Written during internment at the transit camp of Terezin (aka Theresienstadt), the Third String Quartet is Viktor Ullmann’s likely instrumental masterpiece – in terms both of its formal unity and expressive diversity – and whose transcription onto the larger canvas has been persuasively achieved by Kenneth Woods. Chamber Symphony makes a not inappropriate title, this single span drawing the contrasted movements into a seamless and finely-balanced whole – the initial theme acting as a soulful refrain between the angular scherzo with its waltz-like undertow then, after the terse development, a fugal Largo whose accrued intensity carries over into the final Rondo with its striving towards a fervent restatement of the ultimately transfigured ‘motto’ theme’.

An imposing work, given a committed reading by this orchestra under its arranger in what was an appropriate tribute for the day. The ESO’s online series is scheduled to continue on the 26th of February, with a portrait concert of the American composer Steven R. Gerber.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 7.30pm on Wednesday 27 January 2021 here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19

The Coronavirus pandemic has hit the arts hard, and only recently have we seen tentative shoots of recovery where live music is concerned. The great choral epics are still some way off, it would seem – which leads John Earls to ponder when he might complete his personal Mahler symphony cycle…

Mahler’s Eighth is the only one of his symphonies I haven’t seen performed live. It’s not because I haven’t wanted to. The sheer scale of the piece (it includes eight soloists, two choirs, children’s chorus and full orchestra including concert organ) means it is the least performed of his symphonies. It is also regarded by some as too grand, incoherent, and even kitsch, in comparison to the others – Part 1 is a setting of the Latin Hymn Veni Creator Spiritus and Part 2 a setting of the final part of Goethe’s Faust.

The last two times it was performed in my home city of London personal commitments (a friend’s wedding and my son’s birthday) prevented me from attending and completing my personal ‘live Mahler cycle’ (although with due respect to my son he said he wouldn’t mind too much if I went).

The Eighth has been on my mind again recently. Firstly, Stephen Johnson has just published a book on the symphony, The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910. I’ve not read it yet, but very much look forward to doing so (I loved his essay on Shostakovich). But Johnson’s book is about the time of the symphony’s premiere. My thoughts have been about the symphony in the present and the future. More specifically, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and coming out of COVID-19.

It’s been well documented how seriously live music, and the arts generally, have been hit by the pandemic. The recent government announcement of support is welcome, but much work still needs to be done and many organisations continue to face an existential crisis.

With lock down and social distancing I realised (perhaps rather selfishly) that I wouldn’t be seeing the Eighth, nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand (although not a term Mahler himself used), any time soon. But then I started thinking about the piece itself and what it gives to us in this extraordinary time and as we start to come out of COVID-19. To be honest, the Eighth isn’t even my favourite Mahler symphony. However, its themes of enlightenment, redemption, and the power of love, whilst being somewhat perennial, may have a particular resonance at this moment.

Much of the classical music I have been listening to since lock down has tended to be subdued, dare I say austere. This has particularly been the case in respect of recently streamed concerts such as the wonderful June series put on by the Wigmore Hall in association with BBC Radio 3, beautifully bookended by Stephen Hough’s playing of solo piano pieces by Bach and Schumann, and Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of Schubert’s Winterreise.

So, at first, there was something quite disconcerting and then ultimately uplifting about the sheer force of listening to the Eighth again, not least when orchestra and choirs combine to such powerful effect right from the off, including the organ. There are some wonderfully delicate moments in its hour and a half too.

Which version to listen to? Two recordings often cited are those by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca, 1971) and Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1991 (EMI, 2011). Both are excellent (although Tennstedt probably just shades it for me). I also have a soft spot for Sir Simon Rattle’s 2004 live performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI, 2005).

It is notable that two of these are live recordings and, of course, much of what is said about Mahler’s Eighth is about it being seen or heard live. Which brings me back to my point about performance. There is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. Stephen Johnson (again) put it well in a recent episode of Radio 3’s Music Matters with Tom Service: “A great deal about the ecstasy of this piece is about unity and many, many voices being combined together”. True that. And not just in the context of COVID-19.

I’m still disappointed that I probably won’t get to see a performance of Mahler’s Eighth (at least as we traditionally know it) any time soon. However, I do know that when I do eventually see it, in whatever form, it will have a very particular significance and will, no doubt, be incredibly moving. And not just because I will have completed the cycle.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

You can watch Sir Simon Rattle conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, massed choirs and soloists (including Christine Brewer, Soile Isokoski and David Wilson-Johnson) in a 2002 performance of Mahler’s Symphony no.8 as part of this year’s BBC Proms TV coverage. The broadcast will take place on BBC Four on Sunday 9 August.

Photo credit: Thomas Søndergård conducts massed Proms forces and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at the BBC Proms in 2018. (Chris Christodoulou / BBC)

On record – Sir John Tomlinson, Rozanna Madylus & Counterpoise: Kokoschka’s Doll (Champs Hill Records))

Rozanna Madylus (mezzo-soprano), Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Counterpoise [Kyle Horch (saxophone/clarinet), Deborah Calland (trumpet), Fenella Humphreys (violin), Iain Farrington (piano)]

Music by John Casken, Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, David Matthews, Richard Wagner, Anton Webern and Alexander Zemlinsky

Champs Hill Records CHRCD150 [81’54”]

Producer Matthew Bennett
Engineer Dave Rowell

Recorded 21-22 May 2018 & 17 January 2019, Music Room, Champs Hill, Sussex

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The enterprising ensemble Counterpoise returns with its second release – an ambitious and wide-ranging selection centred upon that redoubtable femme fatale who was Alma Mahler and with a major new piece of music-theatre featuring Sir John Tomlinson from John Casken.

What’s the music like?

The generous programme effectively divides into two parts. The Art of Love opens with four songs by Alma – her setting of Julius Bierbaum’s Mild Summer Night and A Nocturnal Light followed by that of Gustav Falke’s Harvest Song, all of them accorded a fresh perspective in resourceful arrangements by David Matthews. Much the finest is the recently located setting of Leo Greiner’s Lonely Walk, but even this must yield to the radiance of Paul Wertheimer’s Blissful Hour by Zemlinsky, Alma’s lover before Mahler and an underrated Lieder composer.

Matthews’s subtle arrangement of Mahler’s rapturous Rückert setting If You Love for Beauty, followed by his ominous Wunderhorn setting Where the Splendid Trumpet Sounds, proceed Iain Farrington’s violin-and-piano transcription of the start of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (it would be worth hearing the rest). Webern’s glinting Trio Movement for clarinet, trumpet and piano is intriguingly countered by Matthews’s hardly longer yet more equable Transformation (with addition of piano); after which, his arrangement of Wagner’s Dreams (last of five settings after Mathilde Wesendonck) underlines its rapt introspection. Rounding off this first part with Liszt’s take on Isolde’s Liebestod might almost be thought rather predictable, but Farrington’s pointedly unshowy rendering is an undoubted pleasure.

The second half of this programme is devoted to Kokoschka’s Doll – a melodrama for bass-baritone and ensemble by John Casken, who has also devised the text in collaboration with Barry Millington. Drawing on the artist’s letters and autobiography, this almost 40-minute piece focusses on Kokoschka’s fractious liaison with a recently widowed Alma Mahler, his near-death experience as a soldier on the Eastern front, then his ill-fated attempt to recreate Alma as a doll to his idealized specifications. Unfolding between past and present, the text provides plenty of leeway for Sir John Tomlinson to convey the tortured while not a little self-seeking protagonist through an adept interplay of speech and parlando – dispatched with his inimitable blend of fiery rhetoric and soulful rumination. Instrumentally the music is rich in timbral and textural nuance, following the emotional ebb and flow of Kokoschka’s musings as they spill over into the irrational. An engrossing concept, skilfully realized, which would certainly be worth presenting in a scenic version at some of the UK’s many studio-theatres.

Does it all work?

As an overall sequence, certainly. Counterpoise is an object-lesson of unity within diversity, whether in the range of music this ensemble brings together or in the arresting nature of the arrangements it favours. Added to which, the singing of Rozanna Madylus is a treat in store.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Performances and recording leave nothing to be desired, while the booklet features a succinct introduction by Millington along with reproductions from Kokoschka’s drawings of his ‘Alma Doll’ – more appealing visually than it becomes at the denouement of the scenario!

Listen and Buy

You can read more about this release, listen to clips and purchase from the Champs Hill website

LSO: Always Playing – Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony tonight @ 7.30pm

A real treat lies in store tonight in the form of Mahler‘s Symphony no.2, the Resurrection – and you can sing along.

This stream from the London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Semyon Bychkov (above), with vocal soloists Christiane Karg (soprano) and Ana Larsson (contralto).

The London Symphony Chorus and their director Simon Halsey provide the incredibly uplifting choral passages in the fifth and final movement – and you too can take part! For one night only the vocal score for the Resurrection is free to download, by following the link from the LSO website here

You could even pause the action at the end of the first movement, clap for the UK’s NHS staff, carers and delivery drivers, and resume after the ‘interval’. The performance, from Sunday 4 February 2018, can be seen on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7.15pm tonight here:

Semyon Bychkov photo credit: Umberto Nicoletti

Talking Heads: Paavo Järvi

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

If anyone typifies the flexibility of the modern conductor today, that person is Paavo Järvi. Like his father Neeme and younger brother Kristjan, he has an eye-watering workload and schedule, but such is his deep love for his art that it is not a factor in his musical life.

When our conversation starts, Järvi has just finished rehearsing in Estonia – in his home city of Tallinn. This time his role is that of a visiting conductor, in charge of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. The Japanese group, now 95 years old, appointed him as their chief conductor in 2016 and recently extended the arrangement until 2022. Their recent recording releases present a partnership that can only be described as going from strength to strength.

On the night of our conversation they have a concert in Tallinn itself, followed by a visit to the Royal Festival Hall in London three days later. Their program is an enticing one, beginning with Takemitsu’s orchestral piece How slow the wind. Järvi confesses to being a slow starter with his music. “I have been an admirer of his music for a long time, but recently in the last couple of years we have recorded his works with the orchestra. It has just been released in Japan, and it includes all of his orchestral music. In the last couple of years it was a big project that we took on, especially with him being so big in Japan. He died before I ever had a chance to meet him unfortunately, but as you know he is a major figure in Japanese musical life. His is the only real name from the Western world that we would know as being from Japanese music. I grew up knowing the name but not the music. It’s been a new experience for me but something I am very proud of, a new musical experience.”

One of the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s recent releases with Järvi is a searing account of Mahler’s Symphony no.6, which they gave to great acclaim in London in 2017. Wishful thinking it may be, but I suggest that some of Takemitsu’s writing draws from Mahler’s ability to write chamber-like music in the depths of the Sixth. “I think it is more likely that the influences are Messiaen”, says Järvi, his sonorous voice deeper than ever. “It was Messiaen who taught him, and the line goes back to Debussy before that, but there are echoes of certain other worlds in Takemitsu’s music for sure. Mahler could have been one of them.”

Sol Gabetta joins the orchestra for Schumann’s Cello Concerto, a work which has seen its fortunes on the stage revitalised in more recent years, before Järvi leads the orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Symphony no.2 in E minor. This is a work he recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in 2006, but as he admits his view of the piece has changed since then. “It has changed, and I have changed in that time too”, he admits. “I have fewer inhibitions since I made that recording, and I am not as cautious about the piece as I used to be. It is one of the most Russian works of Rachmaninov’s output, but it cannot be taken too literally. The orchestra have played the Second quite a lot, and it is extremely familiar music within Japan. There is certain music that they play really well, and the Second Symphony is certainly one of those pieces.”

Nor have they required much persuasion or coaching to make the move to Mahler in their recorded output. “The orchestra is extremely well versed in German Romantic music, and they have had a lot of conductors who have encouraged them to play it. Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm used to conduct regularly in Japan, and so did Eugen Jochum. Most of the Western conductors came with their own orchestras. A lot of Western conductors were connected with the NHK Symphony Orchestra – Wolfgang Sawallisch, Herbert Blomstedt and Horst Stein just to name a few – so they know the repertoire extremely well.

Alongside the Mahler release is a programme of Bartók orchestral works, comprising the Divertimento for string orchestra, the Dance Suite and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Jarvi prides himself on the output, and the overall orchestral sound, which has an extraordinary clarity. “That’s something we have been trying to get”, he admits, “the directness of sound, so that it is transparent and clear. We had to work on that a bit for the Bartók, but as you can hear the orchestra is very versatile.”

The London leg of the NHK’s mini tour will take place on Estonia’s Independence Day, which Järvi describes as ‘a very nice coincidence’. This helpfully leads me on to a new recording he has made with the Estonian Festival Orchestra of the music of fellow countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür. The main work here is his Symphony no.9, dedicated to Järvi himself, with orchestral pieces Sow the Wind… and Incantation of Tempest.

He describes the new Ninth. “It’s a big piece, and very interesting. It describes the Estonian history from its beginnings right up to today, so it is a very long narrative – but it is very atmospheric too. He (Tüür) is a master of creating great layers of sound. I think it’s an epic piece, and because I have a lot of years performing his music it is very special for me as a culmination with the Estonian Festival Orchestra. It makes it even more special because it is very close to home.”

Järvi’s familiarity with the music of Tüür goes right back to the 1990s, and a disc of new music by him and fellow Estonian contemporaries. “It’s a great place for new music”, says Järvi of his home country. We have a lot of good new music, and established composers like Arvo Pärt and others.” In spite of his worldwide travelling, he keeps up with developments. “ It’s not difficult to keep in touch with the possibilities for Estonia”, he says, “as they are all there with the internet. I am always looking at what’s happening in musical life in Estonia, and even when I am far away my heart is here all the time.”

This year will see the tenth season of the Pärnu festival, founded by Paavo Järvi in 2011 together with his father, Neeme. How does he look to bring new audiences to classical music? “This is what we are always thinking about”, he says with feeling. “I don’t have a magic formula, other than one has to do it really well and be engaged. If the programme is interesting then that is the first important thing. The other thing is to enjoy the music. Very often with orchestras it can look like business as usual, and they play as if they are working.”

That was emphatically not the case with the Estonian Festival Orchestra when they made their BBC Proms debut last August, and who were noticeably all smiles. “I think that’s the way it should be”, says Järvi. “It is very hard for me to imagine playing music and looking like you’re not enjoying it, it’s not logical to me. Orchestras that come together occasionally, like the festival orchestra does, have an advantage, but it has to happen with every orchestra. It’s such a very logical thing, and if you enjoy it makes sense to do something which is very contagious. Energy comes through being contagious!”

The NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi perform Takemitsu, Schumann and Rachmaninov at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 24 February.

You can listen to the orchestra’s new recordings of Mahler and Bartók on Sony Music on Spotify above, and follow the link to find samples and buying options on the Presto website – the Mahler here and the
Bartók here.

Järvi’s disc of Tüür’s Symphony no.9 will be available on the Alpha label in March – for more details click here