In concert – James Ehnes, CBSO / Finnegan Downie Dear: Cassandra Miller, Britten & Beethoven


Miller La Donna (2021) [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.15 (1938-9)
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1807-08)

James Ehnes (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Finnegan Downie Dear (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 6 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; Picture of Frankie Downie Dear (c) Frank Bloedhorn

Tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra saw a first appearance with British conductor Finnegan Downie Dear, winner of the 2020 Mahler Competition in Bamberg, and a first hearing in the UK for an orchestral piece by the Canadian composer Cassandra Miller.

Currently based in London, where she is Professor of Composition at the Guildhall, Miller’s output has often drawn on pre-existing sources as are then integrated into the work at hand. Such is the case with La Donna, premiered at Barcelona earlier this year, where a group of Genoese male voices singing La Partenza da Parigi (as recorded by the redoubtable Alan Lomax in 1954) is channelled into music of intensive polyphonic activity and topped by a falsetto melodic line – the eponymous La donna. This builds to an apex as intricate in its texture as it is immediate in expression, then gradually subsides in a resonance of suffused elation. Such was the impression left by this performance, Downie Dear drawing sustained amplitude from relatively modest forces in a visceral demonstration of tension and release.

A time there was when Britten’s Violin Concerto enjoyed only a modest presence in British concert halls, though recent years have seen it taken up by leading soloists from around the world. Its edgy yet intense lyricism has a persuasive exponent in James Ehnes (above), who brought out the restless emotion of the initial Moderato – the five-note motto underlining the context of war and unrest from which it emerged. The Vivace’s rhythmic velocity and sardonic tone were no less evident, a tensile reading of the cadenza pointing up its thematic function and leading inevitably into the final Passacaglia. After a superbly shaped orchestral introduction, Ehnes characterized its variations with mounting intensity to a powerfully wrought climax – the final pages exuding a fatalistic eloquence no less affecting now than eight decades ago.

Perhaps this music’s rapt equivocation explains why it has often been programmed in recent seasons with Beethoven’s Pastoral. While by no means revelatory, the present account gave a good indication of Downie Dear’s abilities – not least his emphasis on rhythmic articulation during what was a relatively swift traversal of the opening Allegro, along with his fastidious attention to dynamics as brought the requisite focus and lucidity to the Scene by the Brook with its warmly enveloping string textures and its bird-calls deftly inflected towards the close.

The final three movements unfolded in much the same vein – the peasants lithe if arguably a little too well-behaved in their merrymaking and the thunderstorm forceful if not electrifying in response, though with a seamless diminuendo of volume and energy going into the finale. Without drawing the ultimate gravitas from its interplay of rondo and variation procedures, Downie Dear guided it surely and attentively to a ruminative coda – Beethoven transcending the incipient era of musical romanticism through the (deliberate) absence of any defining ego.

This evening’s programme is repeated tomorrow afternoon – with the Miller being replaced by Mozart’s Idomeneo overture – while the CBSO returns next week for Rossini, Berlioz, and Prokofiev under François Leleux, along with Baiba Skride in Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Cassandra Miller, click here – and for more information on Finnegan Downie Dear, head to the conductor’s website

James Ehnes, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Chorus & Orchestra / Andrew Manze – Vaughan Williams’ ‘Sea Symphony’ & A Lark Ascending

James Ehnes (violin), Sarah Fox (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra / Andrew Manze (above)

David Matthews Norfolk March (2016)
Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending (1914)
Hamish MacCunn Overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood (1887)
Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony (Symphony No. 1) (1903-1909)

Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool; Thursday 9 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

This live encounter with Vaughan WilliamsSymphony no.1 (A Sea Symphony) was an unforgettable experience. Under Andrew Manze the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra are working their way through a recorded cycle of the composer’s nine symphonies, and this performance was the only chance to catch the fruits of their labours in the live concert hall.

There was a last-minute change to the solo ranks, baritone Mark Stone replacing the indisposed Andrew Foster-Williams, but his voice was perfectly suited to the occasion. It was twinned with the ringing soprano of Sarah Fox, and the two dovetailed beautifully in the outer movements. One of many highlights of the performance was the nocturnal glint of the moon on the waves for the second movement, On The Beach At Night Alone, which was evocatively cast.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir – over 100strong in this performance – were on superb form, sharply rehearsed and clear in diction, meaning there was no need for the accompanying words. They found the swell of the waves with unerring confidence and passion. Manze clearly loves this music, and brought the Scherzo to a half with shattering precision before grasping the last movement’s ebb and flow to great satisfaction, making good sense of what can be a long movement in the wrong hands.

Prior to this we enjoyed another encounter with the raw elements through Hamish MacCunn’s overture, The Land of the Mountain and the Flood. A tuneful work, it was immediately appealing through the tasteful ornamentation of the Scotch snaps in the cellos’ melody at the start. The music blossomed under Manze’s direction, though could have been even more exuberant in its closing pages.

Perhaps this was because it followed a rapt and incredibly restful performance of Vaughan Williams’ A Lark Ascending, his famous response to the George Meredith poem of the same name. Under the spell of James Ehnes‘ violin, we climbed effortlessly into the sky, ending the ascent in barely audible song as the bird disappeared from earshot. It was proof that despite the ubiquity of the ‘Lark’, Vaughan Williams still holds the ability to stop the listener in their tracks.

The first item in the concert was deceptively named as David MatthewsNorfolk March. It was in fact a concert performance of Vaughan Williams’ Norfolk Rhapsody no.3, a piece lost in the wake of its first performance in 1906. Matthews however had a detailed programme note about the piece with which to work, describing its structure and folksong origins, and responded with a piece that was well above mere pastiche. In fact it proved a poignant reminder of the climate in which it was written, anticipating World War I in eight years’ time. There, alongside the cheery and resolute folk tunes, was uncertainty and barely concealed dread. Just over 100 years on it proved a timely reminder for many of those in the audience young and fortunate enough not to have experienced such times.

Further listening and reading

You can read in more detail about David Matthews’ Norfolk March here

Photos of Andrew Manze and James Ehnes (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Meanwhile a Spotify playlist with music from the concert (with the exception of the Matthews, which has not yet been recorded) can be accessed below:

Review – James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong play Bartók at the Wigmore Hall


Arcana begins its coverage of Béla Bartók (above) for 2016 with Richard Whitehouse reviewing a concert of the composer’s works for violin and piano, part of the Chamber Music series taking place at Wigmore Hall this year.

Wigmore Hall, Sunday 10 January 2016

Bartók: Rhapsody No.2 (1928); Solo Violin Sonata (1944), Sonatina (1925) (arr. Gertler); Violin Sonata No.1 (1921)

ehnes-armstrongJames Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong © BBC

Bartók’s chamber music with violin fits neatly into two recitals, James Ehnes returning to Wigmore Hall tonight for the second of these. He and pianist Andrew Armstrong began with the Second Rhapsody, in which they found persuasive accommodation between the music’s folk-derived essence; its combative alternation of mood and pacing, or its notably subtle thematic interplay: these aspects being governed by the player, Zoltán Székely, for which it was written and which here complemented each other perfectly in aim and intent.

While it has never been short of advocates since Yehudi Menuhin blazed a trail, the Sonata for Solo Violin is still undervalued in the context of Bartók’s later output. In part this is through its idiosyncratic handling of procedures deriving from the Baroque in general and Bach in particular. This can be observed in the first movement’s interweaving of chaconne and sonata elements, the second movement’s opening-out of its initial fugue to incorporate disparate processes, then the interplay of dynamism and reflection in the closing Presto. Such qualities were brought out in an interpretation audibly acknowledging this work as a harbinger of music to come, though the absence of quarter-tones in the finale underplayed the movement’s astringency.

The second half began with a transcription of the Sonatina by Endre Gertler, resulting in a brief yet perfectly poised piece whose three movements emerge with marginally greater presence than in the piano original, while not any the less characteristic of its composer.

The two violin sonatas (written for Jelly d’Arányi, though neither was in fact premiered by her) are significant in marking off decisive periods within their composer’s output. The First Sonata, its three movements cast on an imposing and even heroic scale, brings to a head those expressionist tendencies of the previous decade yet, for all its leanings towards atonality, is centred on chromatic and whole-tone harmonies. Ehnes had the measure of the fractured design of the opening Allegro appassionato, the stark thematic elements pulled apart rather than being brought together over its course, and found anxious introspection in the Adagio – not least the funereal overtones of its central section. The final Allegro tempered its headlong rush with lyrical asides, re-establishing a sense of tonal ‘destination’ prior to the brutally decisive coda. Armstrong tackled the cruelly exacting piano part with notable lack of inhibition and matched Ehnes’ headlong tempo for the finale through to those coruscating climactic bars.

A fine showing for a work which has only latterly come into its own in terms of performance. Ehnes and Armstrong returned for the Romanian Folk Dances (1926), Székely’s transcription of which stays relatively close to the piano original without sacrificing the slightest degree of virtuosity or panache. That would describe this evening overall, confirming Bartók as master of his craft and a reminder of his stature in the context of earlier twentieth century music: a stature that is happily being accorded its due at the Wigmore this season.

You can listen to the works in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, using versions by Yehudo Menuhin where possible: