Live review – Benjamin Grosvenor, CBSO / Vassily Sinaisky – Mozart, Sibelius & Wagner

Benjamin Grosvenor (above, piano), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraVassily Sinaisky (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 October 2018 (matinee concert)

Wagner Der fliegende Holländer – Overture (1841)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.21 in C major K467 (1785)
Sibelius Symphony no.1 in E minor Op.39 (1899)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It has often been remarked that concerts adhering to the once ‘standard’ format of overture, concerto and symphony are hardly frequent nowadays, so making this afternoon’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Vassily Sinaisky the more welcome.

Wagner has always made for an effective curtain-raiser, not least his overture to The Flying Dutchman. Earliest of his acknowledged operas, its eventful 10 minutes fairly encapsulate the salient incidents and principal themes – not least in this performance, Sinaisky confirming his operatic credentials (in which capacity he has been regrettably little heard in the UK) with an assured reading; most perceptive in its approach to Senta’s eloquent ballad near the beginning and in its Tristanesque return during the closing bars such as Wagner transformed in revision.

A scaled-down CBSO was equally responsive in Mozart‘s K467, happily no longer indelibly associated with one of the dreariest 1960s films. Often at his most perceptive in 19th-century music, Benjamin Grosvenor is no slouch in Mozart and his performance – as was that at this year’s Proms with the BBCSO and Sakari Oramo – was full of felicitous phrasing, even if the formal focus of the imposing first movement was likely of Sinaisky’s choosing. The Andante was affecting without affectation, Grosvenor embedding the solo part closely into that of the orchestra, then the final rondo conjured up effervescence at a not unduly headlong tempo. All credit to Grosvenor in choosing cadenzas by Robert Casadesus (whose Mozart recordings are required listening) and for a limpid reading of Rachmaninov‘s Lilacs as his encore.

Although his ambivalent relationship with the Austro-German symphonic tradition has often been noted, Sibelius’s Russian heritage is often downplayed – yet his first two symphonies would be inconceivable without Tchaikovsky’s input. The First of these has been compared with the Pathétique in its epic and ultimately tragic nature, but the influence of the Russian’s Fifth Symphony feels even more overt in its sombre clarinet-led introduction and an Allegro with its ingenious take on the sonata format. Sinaisky duly has the measure of its brooding power and surging energy, then opted for a flowing account of the Andante that brought out its pathos and quixotic changes of mood without it seeming turgid or episodic. The Scherzo, too, had the requisite dynamism and, in its trio, an appealing whimsy that was deftly drawn.

The highlight, though, was the finale – most often the movement which fails to ignite by dint of its discursive structure. Yet ‘Quasi una Fantasia’ need not imply rhapsodic and Sinaisky treated it accordingly, characterizing its dramatic then fervent themes with due appreciation of their formal integration towards an impassioned climax whose fateful outcome was never in doubt. It helped that orchestral playing was of unwavering commitment, with the CBSO giving of its collective best in a piece which it has played frequently over the past 86 years.

It set the seal on a concert which was a reminder one that even a mainstream programme can surprise and engage when the constituents are thoughtfully planned and performances never less than responsive. The enthusiastic reception of a sizable house was its own confirmation.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Oxford Lieder Festival – Mr McFall’s Chamber: Solitude

Mr McFall’s Chamber (above – Cyril Garac, Robert McFall (violins), Brian Schiele (viola), Su-a Lee (cello), Rick Standley (double bass), Maria Martinova (piano)

Sallinen Introduction and Tango Overture Op.74a (1997)
Pärt Für Alina (1976)
Tüür Dedication (1990)
Mustonen Toccata (1989)
Pēteris Vasks A Little Summer Music (1985)
Toivo Kärki Täysikuu (1953)
Sibelius Einsames Lied (arranged for piano sextet)
Unto Mononen Satumaa (1955)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018 – 5:30pm

Written by Ben Hogwood

This recital, given in the intimate surrounds of the Holywell Music Room, was centred on Solitudes, a recent release of Baltic chamber music from Mr McFall’s Chamber, a group founded by violinist Robert McFall and centred around friends from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

This is surely how chamber music should be – a group of friends playing music that has mutual appeal – and the chemistry between the group was that of easy familiarity and affection. That affection spread to the audience, thanks to an easygoing set of introductions from McFall to put the music in context.

Over an hour’s concert we had seven very different and well-chosen pieces, linking nicely with the Oxford Lieder Festival’s theme of the Grand Tour and providing context of the Estonian music ahead of the evening concert from Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles.

Neighbouring Finland also got in on the act, and the Introduction and Tango Overture from Aulis Sallinen proved a bold opening piece once its persuasive rhythms and bold melodies got going. We heard more of the tango in Finland towards the end, with brilliantly swung versions of Toivo Kärki’s Täysikuu and Unto Mononen’s Satumaa.

Contrasting nicely with this was a brief but very poignant excerpt from SibeliusBelshazzar’s Feast, Einsames Lied (Song of Solitude, giving the concert its name), and a substantial Toccata by Olli Mustonen, which took Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as its inspiration but used powerfully driven rhythms and motifs to make a punchy piece with full bodied Romantic harmonies. As with the tangos, these were performed with great character and verve by the sextet.

To balance the concert rather nicely there were pieces for reduced instrumental forces. The brief meditation of Für Alina from Arvo Pärt, Estonia’s favourite composer, left a lasting mark through the sustain applied by pianist Maria Martoniva. So too did the powerful Dedication for cello and piano by fellow Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür, whose output falls under the influence of his time in progressive rock band In Spe. This blended catchy melodic riffs into a powerful call and response between cello and piano, with expressive cellist Su-a Lee and Martoniva quick to get to the heart of the piece.

Meanwhile A Little Summer Music, from Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, offered a sunny counterpart, its six short movements bursting with life and melody. Written as something of a pastiche, this did nonetheless work beautifully as six brief picture postcards of a Baltic summer, the violin imitating insects in the final movement while exploring attractive Latvian dances in the second, third and fifth. Cyril Garac played these with great dexterity and energy, helped with the fulsome accompaniment of Martoniva.

This was a hugely enjoyable concert, opening the door to a number of musical discoveries. Yet Mr McFall’s Chamber had one more trick up their sleeve, an encore of the hymn from SibeliusFinlandia, with the piece de resistance a solo role for Su-a Lee on musical saw. It was strangely moving as well as humorous – and capped a terrific concert.

Further listening

You can hear all of the repertoire from this concert performed by Mr McFall’s Chamber on Spotify. The album was made for Delphian Records:

Prom 14 – BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds: Single-movement Sibelius, Zimmermann, Schubert & Wagner

Prom 14: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic OrchestraJohn Storgårds

Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act One (c1861)
Schubert (orch. Liszt) Four Songs (1825/1815/1826/1815, orch. 1860)
Zimmermann Symphony in One Movement (1947-51, rev. 1953)
Schubert (arr. Liszt) Fantasy in C, D760, ‘Wanderer’ (1822, arr. c1850)
Sibelius Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 105 (1924)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 24 July 2018

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

John Storgårds has given some enterprising concerts during his tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and this evening’s Prom was a further instance with its programme of mainly one-movement pieces and an underlying emphasis on symphonic cohesion, even unity.

The exception was the sequence of four songs by Schubert, arranged for orchestra by Liszt so that a tenuous cohesion is evident – without this being a song-cycle as such. Elizabeth Watts (below) duly had the measure of their predominantly sombre sentiments – ranging from the distanced recollection of Die junge Nonne, via remorseless passing of experiential time in Gretchen am Spinnrade and speculative radiance of Lied der Mignon, to visceral representation of fate in Erlkönig. Storgårds teased many subtleties from Liszt’s judiciously restrained orchestration.

Preceding this came a surprisingly dour account of the Prelude from The Mastersingers of Nuremburg. This grandest of Wagner music-dramas is also the most symphonic, not least its Prelude as it deftly outlines a four-movements-in-one format. While not being oblivious to this, Storgårds might have characterized these episodes more potently, though this may have been in line with his tendency to play down the music’s opulence and majesty. What resulted was a subdued and earnest performance that hardly marked him out as a budding Wagnerian.

Concluding the first half was the Symphony in One Movement by Bernd Alois Zimmermann; a timely hearing in this centenary year of the composer’s birth. Although the more discursive original version (complete with organ histrionics) has recently been revived, this revision is audibly more focussed in form and expression as it traverses a quirky yet combative sonata design – (modified!) exposition repeat included – before emerging full circle in a mood of unbridled ferocity. Storgårds was at his interpretative best here, maintaining a tensile course over an eventful score where influences of mid-century symphonism do not outface pointers to the intricacy or intensity of Zimmermann’s mature music. A notably enthusiastic reception suggested that tonight’s audience ‘got’ what the composer was about in this singular piece.

Time was when Liszt’s concertante realization of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was a staple at these concerts, but this was only the second hearing in nearly six decades. 33 years ago, the soloist was Jorge Bolet at his unpredictable best, but Louis Lortie’s rendition (above) was altogether subtler as he brought out the pathos of the Andante then jocularity of the Presto. If the outer Allegro sections felt reined-in, this was not at the expense of that keen virtuosity informing Lortie’s playing in his solo passages or coruscating interplay with the orchestra at the close.

A century on, Sibelius not only ran movements together in his Seventh Symphony but fused them into a seamless and powerfully cumulative whole. Storgårds was certainly alive to this in what was a purposeful and often insightful reading; a little unsettled in those introductory pages, perhaps, but thereafter gauging the various transitions with a sure sense of where this music was headed while investing the vertiginous trombone entries with implacable majesty. One of this season’s most absorbing concerts thus far was brought to an impressive close.

Wigmore Mondays: Apollon Musagète Quartet play Grieg, Puccini & Sibelius

Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski, Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)]

Sibelius Andante Festivo (1922) (1:55 – 6:00 on the broadcast link below)
Puccini I Crisantemi (1890) (6:25 – 13:45)
Grieg String Quartet in G minor Op.27 (1877) (16:00 – 52:46)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29 January 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was a well thought out and brilliantly played concert from the Apollon Musagète Quartet, bringing together three composers not normally associated with the idiom of the string quartet, and making a very strong case for their efforts.

The Andante Festivo dates from a period when Sibelius was struggling, inspiration arriving at the Finnish composer’s house only fitfully. This piece was written on one such day, with the same luminous scoring that would characterise the Sixth Symphony. Here it was given an appropriate, ceremonial air – apt given that it was written for the 25th anniversary of the Säynätsalo sawmills. The full chords were deeply resonant here, hinting at a suitability realised by the composer’s later arrangement for string orchestra.

Puccini‘s I crisantemi is if anything more familiar in the composer’s arrangement for larger forces, but it was also very affecting here. The recurring harmonies have a strong, nostalgic tug at the heart strings, and again the Apollon Musagète were as one, skilfully putting deep feeling over sentimentality.

Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor is, in my opinion, a neglected masterpiece. That is a phrase you will of course read all too often in reviews, but in my defence I have no less a figure than the composer Franz Liszt to back me up!

“It is a long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg.”

In this performance (from 16:00) on the broadcast link) the bold, solemn introduction quickly yielded to a fast movement that meant business and was already digging deep. Frequently the string writing is beefed up, and the impressive volume of this performance was balanced by a cleanliness of ensemble and attack. At 23:44, a brief pause between a big, sweeping statement and a very small response felt like the start of a new movement, so pronounced were the four players in their response.

From 28:56 the charming second movement Romanze made great appeal, with a lovely warm solo from cellist Piotr Skweres. The third movement Intermezzo (36:45) returned to the bold, assertive outlines of the first movement, resolutely sticking to a minor key – until, that is, its rustic second theme gave a jaunty alternative. This introduced a tension to the performance, as though Grieg himself was flitting between the two moods and unable to settle.

This battle of wills continued into the finale (from 43:59), the twisting lines of its brief introduction led by first violinist Paweł Zalejski until a nervy fast theme took hold. The quartet made much of Grieg’s daring harmonies, with some surprisingly bold dissonances, until finally the refuge of a major key was reached (from 51:46) Now the struggle – for performers as well as composer! – was more emphatically won, putting the seal on a really fine account of a piece that should be heard far more often.

As an encore the Apollon Musagète gave us a string quartet arrangement of Osvaldo Fresedo’s Vida mía (from 54:39), one of the Argentinian composer’s best-loved tangos.

Further listening

You can listen to recordings of the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Grieg’s String Quartet had a profound influence on Debussy, when he came to write his only work in the form sixteen years later. It is paired in a playlist here with Sibelius’ best known work in the form, his quartet known as Voces intimae:

Wigmore Mondays: Meccore String Quartet – Szymanowski & Sibelius

Meccore String Quartet (above – Jarosław Nadrzycki, Wojciech Koprowski (violins), Michał Bryła (viola), Karol Marianowski (cello)

Szymanowski String Quartet no.1 in C major, Op.37 (1917)
Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 ‘Voces intimae’ (1909)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 20 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Szymanowski’s two String Quartets took a while to establish themselves in the string quartet repertory, but certainly not on grounds of quality. The first anticipates the composer’s biggest stage work, King Roger, and has music of great depth with a relatively exotic harmonic language.

Sibelius wrote his only published string quartet – there are three other unpublished works – at his new home of Ainola, where he moved with his wife in 1903. At this point the composer was suffering from the effects of alcoholism and debt, and needed to move away from Helsinki and temptation. Ultimately this did not provide full relief, but he was at least able to move on with composition, and the Symphony no.3, written just before the quartet, offers more optimism. The quartet however is dark and unforgiving.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Szymanowski String Quartet no.1 in C major, Op.37 (from 1:51) (17 minutes)

At 1:51 the quartet begins as though in a time warp, the soft harmonies in a chorale from the four instruments harking back to a much earlier time. Gradually the music establishes its rich harmonies, helped by added notes from the instruments using double stopping (playing more than one note at once), which gives added density to the music.

The added note harmonies are a big part of the composer’s newer style, where he does still on occasion imitate Debussy but where he now has one foot planted relatively firmly in the explorer’s camp. The music goes through some unexpected harmonic shifts towards the end, but then from 9:27 feels on firm grounds once more with the luxurious beginning to the slow movement.

This features soaring melodies from the first violin and higher playing from the rest of the instruments towards the end, where the listener feels suspended in the air.

A different air altogether hangs in the third movement (15:07) where the music is quick, urgent and full of smaller phrases passed between the instruments. At 17:19 a dance section gives cut and thrust, before the quartet wraps up with surprising haste.

Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 ‘Voces intimae’ (from 21:24) (28 minutes)

The theme from the violin (21:24), answered by the cello, is the melodic material on which the first movement is based. The phrases are restless, passed between the instruments and often overlapping with little pause for breath. There is a sense of the wide open countryside in which Sibelius now finds himself, but also of the dark days. This comes to a head around 26:48, a sparse cadence played by the quartet, before they move on to the second movement with flitting motifs from each instruments, creating a vision of circling birds.

The slow movement (29:36, marked Adagio di molto) is the centre of the work both emotionally and musically, deeply emotional but also offering resolution. Here the quartet are closely together, and the main theme, which comes back several times, has a deep yearning.

From 39:00 the fourth movement begins, and here the quartet digs in as though searching for strength and resolve. Gradually the individual lines become restless again, the melodies increasingly fractured, and the textures are heavy. Leading on from this is an even faster movement (44:35), where the instruments become even more reckless and desperation sets in (especially from 46:17). There are fleeting glimpses of folk melodies but the momentum carries all before it to a dazzling flurry of semiquavers at the end.

Thoughts on the concert

A powerful concert from the Meccore String Quartet. Their Syzmanowski felt utterly authentic, played with style and feeling, and with the quartet full in voice. They took a standing position for the concert (except the cellist of course) and this suited their freedom of expression.

The quartet tended to take the fast music at daringly fast tempi, especially in the Sibelius, where the second and fifth movements seemed to be gone in a flash of breakneck speed. Despite the technical brilliance this did mean a few musical statements were swept up in the sheer momentum of it all. However the quartet were more measured for the slow movement, where emotion was concentrated and intonation wonderfully secure. There was a feeling throughout that the interpretations from the quartet were singular in voice, and watching them in person made the experience much more meaningful.

As a substantial encore it was nice to hear the second movement (a Romanze) from Grieg‘s String Quartet in G minor, Op.27 (51:00), which the quartet have recently recorded, and which here provided a reminder of the melodic gifts of the Norwegian composer, whose music seems to have fallen off the radar a little bit of late. The cello is particularly beautiful in its melody here.

Further listening and reading

Here is the first movement of the Grieg String Quartet, performed by the Meccore String Quartet live from the Polish Radio in 2015.

For a further taster of their Szymanowski, here is the third movement of the String Quartet no.2, part of a disc of the composer’s quartets recently released on Warner Classics:

Meanwhile for further listening on Spotify, in the absence of the Meccore versions, here are the Emerson String Quartet in a winning combination of the Sibelius and Grieg Quartets, with a little Nielsen for good measure:

Meanwhile both Szymanowski Quartets can be found here, in a version from the Goldner String Quartet: