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:

Live review – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Grieg Peer Gynt; Sibelius, Rautavaara & Salonen

Klara Ek (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 14 February 2019

Salonen Dona nobis pacem (2010)
Rautavaara Cantus Arcticus (1972)
Sibelius Rakastava Op.14 (1893/8)
Sibelius En Saga Op.9 (1892/1902)
Grieg Peer Gynt – incidental music (selection), Op.23 (1875)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to the concert as broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking on this link

It may not have been a typical Valentine’s Day concert, but this evening’s programme from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra certainly had an abundance of rapture and wonder.

Not least in its welcome revival of Cantus Arcticus, the ‘Concerto for Birds and Orchestra’ with which Einojuhani Rautavaara had confirmed a decisive turning away from the twelve-note procedures of the previous decade. Its utilizing his recordings of birdsong from the Finnish marshland may be nearer conceptually to Respighi’s Pini di Roma than Messiaen’s Oiseaux éxotiques, but the interplay with orchestra is deftly and poetically carried through – from the stark backdrop of The Bog, through the searching poise of Melancholy then to the gradual build-up of Swans Migrating, its hymnic apotheosis duly becoming a Rautavaara hallmark.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla secured a warm and euphonious response from the CBSO, which was no less attuned to the emergent drama of Sibelius’s En Saga. After an atmospheric opening, the ensuing episodes unfolded a little sectionally for momentum to be gauged consistently, though the magical passage with solo strings before the climactic section was spellbindingly delivered – then, after a suitably fraught culmination, the closing pages affectingly mingled poignancy and resignation; qualities evident not least in the clarinet playing of Oliver Janes.

Prefacing each of these works were short but pertinent a-cappella choral pieces. The upward striving of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dona nobis pacem gave the CBSO Youth Chorus its chance to shine, while a rare hearing for Sibelius’s The Lover brought the CBSO Chorus to the fore for a melting account of three settings from the Kanteletar – their tales of yearning, encounter then farewell between lover and beloved eloquently rendered with no trace of false sentiment. Maybe Gražinytė-Tyla will tackle the almost as seldom heard version for strings before long?

After the interval, Grieg’s incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What to include became far less straightforward after publication of the complete score, but tonight’s selection centred on the familiar two suites and three additional items. Gražinytė-Tyla secured a lively response in the Overture, then brought out the pathos of ‘Ingrid’s Lament’ and encroaching menace of In the Hall of the Mountain King. The influence upon Sibelius of The Death of Åse was no less evident than that of Morning on Debussy, while the Arabian Dance had nonchalance to spare and Anitra’s Dance an alluring poise. Peer Gynt’s Homecoming sounded suitably windswept, and inclusion of the soulful Whitsun Hymn gave the CBSO Chorus its moment in the spotlight. Klara Ek was soloist in Solveig’s Song and Solveig’s Cradle Song, both of which she sang simply and affectingly, avoiding the operatic overkill often encountered. A pity the grotesquely comical Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter was not included, but what remained was a more than plausible overview – skilfully and evocatively rendered.

It more than set the seal on this well planned and rewarding concert, some of whose relative unfamiliarity was outweighed by its undoubted appeal. The Peer Gynt selection can be heard again on Saturday on BBC Radio 3, alongside the UK premiere of tone poem The Sea by Mikalojus Čiurlionis.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert, including the whole incidental music to Peer Gynt (with the exception of the Salonen, which has not yet been recorded):

Further information on this concert can be found here

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:

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: