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 – Jayson Gillham, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes: Grace Williams, Grieg & Sibelius

Williams Penillion (1955)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (1868)
Sibelius
Symphony no. 5 in E flat major Op. 82 (1919)

Jayson Gillham (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes

Cadogan Hall, London
Tuesday 12 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) Benjamin Ealovega (Jayson Gillham)

Its high-profile concerts may currently be elsewhere in London, but the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra continues its schedule of regular performances at Cadogan Hall, and this evening was heard under the direction of former principal associate conductor Owain Arwel Hughes.

Hughes has rightly featured Welsh music whenever possible, and this programme began with Penillion that Grace Williams wrote for National Youth Orchestra of Wales. Two symphonies aside, several other of Williams’s pieces are inherently symphonic – not least her ‘symphonic poem in four movements’ whose title infers the Welsh tradition of singing against an existing melody. This is heard at its most evocative in the initial Moderato with solo trumpet intoning its (original) theme in the context of ethereal contributions from woodwind, harp, and strings. There follows a tensile Allegro then haunting Andante as ‘scherzo’ and ‘slow movement’ of a piece where the trenchant final Allegro proceeds toward a gently fatalistic close. Certainly, this is music such as warrants frequent hearings – irrespective of the present cultural climate.

Hard to imagine Grieg’s Piano Concerto undergoing a period of neglect, yet familiarity need not breed contempt at the hands of a skilled and sensitive exponent which Australian-British pianist Jayson Gillham assuredly is. After a commanding start the first movement felt unduly sectional in its unfolding, its orchestral tuttis a little overwrought, but the second main theme was limpidly rendered then Gillham came into his own with a cadenza whose developmental aspect was as audible as its virtuosity. With its poetic contributions from solo horn and cello, the Adagio was no less affecting, then the finale’s lyrical middle section threw into relief the combative dialogue either side. Its flute melody returns in a peroration whose grandiloquence found effective contrast with the Notturno in C (Op.54 No 4) that Gillham gave as an encore.

Even if Sibelius’s Second Symphony had been replaced by his Fifth during the run-up to this concert, the latter’s inclusion played no less to the RPO’s collective strengths. Building those earlier stages of the first movement’s intricate evolution patiently and methodically, Hughes amply brought out this music’s epic as well as ruminative qualities on the way to a powerful central climax – from where its scherzo-like continuation headed stealthily and purposefully to a coda that, if it lacked the last degree of visceral impact, generated undeniable dynamism.

The highlight was an Andante enticingly poised between intermezzo and slow movement – its plaintive repartee of not without its more ominous moments, yet whose winsome essence was itself a telling foil to the finale. Here the coursing interplay of strings and enfolding eloquence of its ‘swan theme’, horns magnetically to the fore, set in motion the eventful progress toward an apotheosis whose affirmation was never in doubt. If some of those concluding chords were not quite unanimous, this hardly detracted from the majesty of Sibelius’s overall conception.

A memorable ending, then, to an appealing programme that found the RPO on fine form and confirmed Hughes’s insights. The orchestra returns here next week in a concert of Schumann, Brahms and Dvořák with the violinist Fumiaki Miura and the conductor Domingo Hindoyan.

The inclusion of Penillion was made possible with funding from the ABO Trust’s Sirens programme, a ten-year initiative to support performance and promotion of music by historical women composers. Further information can be found by clicking here For further information on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here Click on the performer names to read more about Jayson Gillham and Owain Arwel Hughes, and for more on Grace Williams click here

In concert – Tonhalle Orchester Zürich & Paavo Järvi: Sibelius Symphony no.2

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Sibelius Symphony no.2 in D major Op.43 (1901-2)

Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich / Paavo Järvi

Grosser Saal, Tonhalle, Zürich
Tuesday 5 April 2022

Written by (and photos below) Ben Hogwood

Sometimes a single work in a classical concert is enough – especially if that work has the lasting power of Sibelius’s Second Symphony.

Paavo Järvi certainly thought so, programming the 45-minute work as part of a concert celebrating the visit of the annual IAMA conference. IAMA – International Artist Managers’ Association – is a vital industry body representing the interests not just of artist managers but of artists themselves, liaising with creative spaces such as the resplendent, refurbished Zürich Tonhalle. Their conference moves around Europe, so a visit from them is a great opportunity for the ‘host’ city to exhibit their creative wares.

The Tonhalle-Orchester did that in this concert with some aplomb, performing as they were in a venue opened by Brahms himself in 1895. The composer appears as part of a mural (partially visible in the photograph above) on the ceiling in the resplendent company of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Gluck. Sibelius was too late for inclusion, of course.

In their company, his Second Symphony received a performance of poise and power, the music on occasion appearing to issue from the very earth beneath our feet. This was most notable in the second movement, whose sequence of tempo changes and shifts of mood was the defining feature of this performance. The Tonhalle-Orchester wind shone out, especially the bassoon’s main theme, while the double basses and cellos used their wonderful grainy sound to provide the most solid undercarriage for the white-hot exchanges above.

The orchestra are a technical powerhouse, their ensemble well-nigh perfect, as was demonstrated in the unity of the strings’ pizzicato in the second movement, and the cushioned, velvety tones with which the work began, a similar effect to waves lapping the shore of a lake.

After the emotional tumult of the second movement the third sprang forward almost in alarm, scurrying figures nervously bouncing off each other until the gradual crescendo to the start of the finale itself. This was carefully managed, and although you could argue Järvi and his charges peaked too soon they just kept getting louder and ever more exultant, aiming always at the end goal. The orchestra forged a fiery path, propelled by the lower strings but with searing contributions from brass and wind, not to mention rumbling timpani, all these elements once again tracing back to the earth itself.

Järvi led his charges with clear, largely cool direction, though his love of the music was clear in more animated sections, driving the orchestra on. They responded with clear and obvious enjoyment to his direction, the team reflecting Sibelius’ ultimately victorious charge to the finish in that glorious final cadence. A special performance with which to mark an auspicious occasion, as in that night conducted by Brahms 127 years ago.

In concert – Clare Hammond, CBSO / Michael Seal: Nielsen, Grieg & Sibelius

clare-hammond-grieg

Nielsen Helios Overture FS32 (1903)
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 16 (1868)
Sibelius
Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 39 (1898-9)

Clare Hammond (piano, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 9 March 2022 (2.15pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

A Scandinavian programme this afternoon from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, featuring music by the three most famous of this region’s composers (so no representation for Sweden), and presided over with his customary authority by CBSO’s associate conductor Michael Seal.

Unusual nowadays to have a programme consisting of overture, concerto and symphony – but Nielsen’s Helios is as fine a curtain-raiser as any, its ‘sunrise to sunset’ scenario captured with one of the most graphic crescendos and diminuendos in the literature. Seal ensured this gradual emergence, and its faster evanescence, were unerringly paced – the horns’ echoing sonorities enfolded into the orchestral texture; and if the intervening intermezzo and fugato rather tread water by comparison, their role within the formal scheme made for a cohesive overall entity.

Whether or not Grieg tired of hearing or at least playing his Piano Concerto, he would surely have appreciated Clare Hammond’s take on its solo part. The inedible opening gesture might have been less than usually arresting, but the opening movement proceeded methodically and often poetically so its structural seams were barely in evidence – culminating in a resourceful account of the cadenza with the composer’s motivic ingenuity much in evidence. Easy to pass off as a bland interlude, the Adagio had an appealing poise that opened into keen pathos at its height. Trenchant rather than impetuous, the outer sections of the finale were rarely less than engaging but it was the warm soulfulness at the centre that really struck home; its return for a triumphal apotheosis did not quite avoid portentousness, but it ensured a decisive conclusion.

A distinctive and, for the most part, convincing performance which Hammond followed with the caressing harmony of the eleventh from Szymanowski’s Op. 33 Etudes – music in marked contrast to the existential drama of Sibelius’s First Symphony which came after the interval.

The latter work’s emergence against a background of fraught self-determination has inevitably taken on far greater resonance during recent weeks, and it was to Seal’s credit that he played down any tendency to overt sentiment – rendering the first movement, its sombre introduction limpidly realized by Oliver Janes, as the striking and frequently innovative study in expressive contrasts it should be. Nor was there any lack of Tchaikovskian pathos in the Andante, whose whimsical passages were as vividly delineated as those eruptive outbursts towards its climax.

The ensuing Scherzo had the right rhythmic tensility and, in its central trio, enticing whimsy – but it was the Finale as set the seal on this performance. The ‘Quasi una fantasia’ marking can result in emotional overkill but Seal kept its prolix follow-through in focus at all times – whether with the anguished recall of the work’s initial theme, surging impetus of its swifter sections, or the heart-on-sleeve immediacy of its ‘big tune’; pervaded by an ambivalence to the fore in a peroration which (almost) avoided histrionics on the way to its fatalistic close.

A fine response from the CBSO, playing here with burnished eloquence and Matthew Hardy making the most of a timpani part that has structural as well as expressive significance. Few having heard it are likely to underestimate this work’s status in Sibelius’s symphonic output.

For more information on the CBSO’s current season, visit their website. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Clare Hammond and Michael Seal

In concert – Clara-Jumi Kang, CBSO / Ryan Bancroft – Coleridge-Taylor, Mendelssohn & Sibelius

clara-jumi-kang

Coleridge-Taylor Solemn Prelude in B minor, Op. 40 (1899)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844)
Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 (1901-2)

Clara-Jumi Kang (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Bancroft

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 13 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse Ryan Bancroft picture (c) Benjamin Ealovega

Having seen in the new year in customary Viennese-style, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra continued its season with this programme of repertoire staples along with what was (probably) only the third performance of a relatively early orchestral work by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The recent revival of interest in Coleridge-Taylor hopefully means such enticing pieces as his Violin Concerto and Clarinet Quintet will be heard more frequently at concert hall and recital rooms. If the Solemn Prelude is not quite on their level, it certainly deserved more than total neglect following its premiere at Worcester Cathedral in 1899; a further hearing last July only made possible after the manuscript was relocated at the British Library. Combining Elgarian nobility with Brucknerian grandeur, its outer sections exude a portentousness complemented by the expressive immediacy at its centre; abetted here by Ryan Bancroft’s flexible handling of tempo so a welcome melodic spontaneity came to the fore. No undiscovered masterpiece, but an appealing work that doubtless fulfilled its remit back then and could do so again today.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has never lacked for performances during the 177 years of its existence such that familiarity can breed, if not contempt, then at least a certain predictability. Credit to Clara-Jumi Kang for reminding one how (to quote David Kettle’s apt description in the programme) ‘‘quietly innovative’’ the piece is as to formal continuity and motivic fluidity. Not that this was a low-key or understated reading – Kang bringing out the combative side of the opening Allegro (‘appassionato’ it duly was), not least her impetuous take on the central cadenza whose developmental function was tellingly underlined. The Andante melded warm lyricism and plaintive regret to a bewitching effect then, after its teasing entrée, the animated repartee of the finale was deftly rendered through to a vivacious coda and decisive conclusion.

Now in his early thirties, Bancroft (above) is into his second season as principal conductor of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and takes up a similar post with Royal Stockholm Philharmonic in 2023. This account of Sibelius’s Second Symphony left little doubt as to his interpretative credentials, not least with a finely proportioned yet impulsive reading of the initial Allegretto, then an Andante as lacked in little in that formal focus essential if its fervour is not to become histrionic. To which, an attacca from one movement to the other might have been beneficial.

The latter movements run continuously in any case – and, after a scherzo by turns tensile and tender, the transition was unerringly handled such that the finale hit the ground running. This can easily become discursive or even sprawl but, with its ‘big tune’ kept in check and starkly modal second theme keenly ominous, it built purposefully and with some inevitability to an apotheosis that, while it evinced more in the way of triumph than catharsis, none the less set the seal on an idiomatic performance with the CBSO woodwind and brass often at their best.

After an evening of Stephen Sondheim (now the more poignant following his death last November), then chief conductor designate Kazudi Yamada returns on Wednesday 19 and Thursday 20 January in a programme of Strauss, Mozart and Mahler.

For more information on the next concerts with Kazudi Yamada you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Clara Jumi-Kang and Ryan Bancroft.