Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen at the Wigmore Hall – A Revolutionary cello recital

Steven Isserlis (cello) and Olli Mustonen (piano)

Prokofiev Ballade, Op.15 (1912)
Mustonen Chanson russe & Danse Oriental (1995)
Kabalevsky Cello Sonata in B flat major Op.71 (1962)

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 29 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A chamber concert with revolution in the air. This carefully chosen recital was short and to the point, but contained some deeply meaningful music lying just outside of the normal repertoire for cello and piano. Just before Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen played an early Sibelius Waltz as their encore, the cellist explained the programme’s themes of revolution, both in Russia and Finland.

They began with a startling performance of Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor, startling in the sense that this music was brought to life with an intensity rarely experienced in this or any of the composer’s music. Isserlis was at his probing best, particularly in the pizzicato sections, but Mustonen took the lead, bringing out the composer’s phrasing as only he can, with heavily weighted emphasis on the most important harmonic notes. Thus the piece became a Ballade in the truest sense of the word – dark, passionate and stormy.

Mustonen’s joining of links between his own Finland and Russia was next, the Chanson russe surprising in its simplicity, which was touchingly effective, before a whirlwind Danse Oriental that could have been contemporaneous with the Prokofiev. It made a highly effective concert piece, and both performers clearly enjoyed it.

The most substantial piece was Kabalevsky’s Cello Sonata, written perhaps inevitably for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in 1962. With some of the Rostropovich dedications the cellist’s spirit hangs heavily over the music, and it was easy to imagine his larger than life projections of the melodies. While Isserlis may not have the sheer volume of the late Russian (who does?!) he has sensitive phrasing and a lovely tone at his disposal, and, at the beginning of the second movement, produced a feather-light touch on the tremolos that sent a shiver down the spine.

Again it was satisfying to experience a piece packed full of melody, and with more harmonic sleights that Mustonen inevitably brought to the fore. The style could be viewed as a hybrid of Prokofiev and Shostakovich – no bad thing, certainly! – and the main melody, which reappeared at the end, had a harmonic twist and simplicity that pulled subtly at the heartstrings.

The major-minor subtleties of the writing were fully explored, and while Mustonen often took the lead rhythmically this felt wholly appropriate. Kabalevsky is a composer whose music works well in the concert hall, with memorable tunes, a sense of humour and pockets of unexpected poignancy. It is less obviously weighted than Prokofiev but extremely enjoyable on its own terms.

Gratifyingly, Isserlis and Mustonen explored those qualities to the full, and with their virtuosity and drive they gave the composer the best possible advocacy. The Sibelius waltz, known as the Lulu Waltz, was economy itself, over in a minute – but leaving a strong impression.

Further listening and reading

Unfortunately this concert is not available online, but you can hear the premiere recording, made by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich with the composer at the piano, on the Spotify link below:

In addition the Kabalevsky Cello Concertos are highly recommended – and they can be heard in these recent recordings by Torleif Thedéen and the Hannover Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eiji Oue:

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC SO / Sakari Oramo – Schmitt, Franck, Ravel & Sibelius Symphony no.3

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 27 October 2017

Schmitt Symphony No.2 in E flat major, Op.137 (1957)

Franck Variations symphoniques (1885)

Ravel Piano Concerto in D ‘for the Left Hand’ (1930)

Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op.52 (1907)

You can listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking here (available until 26 November)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Sakari Oramo‘s Sibelius cycle continued as part of a judiciously balanced programme which opened with a rare revival of the Second Symphony by Florent Schmitt. This continues the French symphonism of Roussel and Honegger; albeit with a quirkiness of melodic thought and virtuoso handling of sizable forces to confirm Schmitt as no mere epigone. Indeed, the angular wit of the first movement suggests his willingness to confront post-war modernism head on, and if the central Lent admits warmer and even tender emotion, the finale resumes the assaultive mood with an unremitting intent through to its scabrous close. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had the measure of this unsettling piece throughout; their responsiveness underlining that Schmitt was not one to accept the passing of his own era with even a hint of good grace.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (below) then joined the orchestra for two staples from the French concertante repertoire, separated in time by almost half a century. Good to see that Franck‘s Variations symphoniques has now re-established itself in UK concert programmes, as this unlikely yet successful hybrid of elements from symphony and concerto, as drawn into the pithiest of its composer’s cyclical designs, has a substance more than equal to its entertainment. Bavouzet and Oramo were especially fine in the expressive contrasts of its opening minutes, and if the rhapsodic musing at its centre seemed a little inflexible, then the effervescence of its final section too forcefully projected, there was no doubting the coherence and the ingeniousness of its composer’s response to a piano-virtuoso tradition he spent much of his life despising.

That the Franck outlines a ‘three movements in one’ formal design makes it a more than likely precursor to Ravel‘s Piano Concerto in D major, the most enduring of those left-hand works written for the redoubtable (if frequently wrong-headed) Paul Wittgenstein. Not the least attraction of tonight’s performance was its emphasizing the canniness of the balance between soloist and orchestra, such that the former was never less than audible in the context of what is the most overtly rhetorical and combative of all Ravel’s works. Add to this Bavouzet’s limpidity in the eloquent theme which returns intensified in the cadenza, not to mention Oramo’s control of momentum in the jazz-inflected animation of the scherzo, and what resulted was a reading attentive to every aspect of this masterpiece: one that justifiably brought the house down.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony is easy to underestimate as a transitional work poised between overt romanticism and renewed classicism. It was to Oramo’s credit that elements of both aesthetics were not only evident but also reconciled – not least in an opening Allegro which moved between fervency and incisiveness with no mean purpose. The highlight came with a central Andantino whose quasi allegretto marking may have been minimal, but whose opening-up of emotional space made for a riveting listen. The final movement was hardly less impressive in its purposeful equivocation between scherzo and finale, Oramo teasing resolve out of uncertainty so the hymn-like theme that eventually emerges built to a powerful apotheosis. A gripping performance, reinforced by the conviction of the BBCSO’s response.

For more concert information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to their website

You can hear a recording of the Florent Schmitt made by Leif Segerstam on Spotify below:

BBC Proms 2017 – John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Sibelius, Grieg, Schumann & Hindemith

Prom 33: Lise Davidsen (soprano), Alban Gerhardt (cello), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Grieg Peer Gynt Op.23 (excerpts) (1876)

Sibelius Luonnotar Op.70 (1913); Karelia Suite Op.11 (1893)

Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)

Hindemith Symphony, Mathis der Maler (1934)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 10 August, 2017

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here

John Storgårds has been making his mark on the BBC Proms in his appearances as Chief Guest Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. Tonight’s tale of two geographical halves commenced with excerpts from Grieg’s music to Peer Gynt; starting with the lively Overture (hardanger fiddles in evidence thanks to the violas), then continuing with a vehement Ingrid’s Lament, a deftly propelled Morning and a pensive Solveig’s Song undermined by Lise Davidsen’s fluttery vocal; finishing with the suitably quirky Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter.

Davidsen (above) was then heard to better advantage in Sibelius’s tone-poem Luonnotar, coping ably with the stratospheric range of this singular creation myth – not the least of whose fascinations was having been premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral. There have been some memorable accounts of this piece over recent years, and if Davidsen did not efface memories of such as Mattila and Komsi, she duly pointed up its drama and mystery in what was, for the greater part, a sympathetic account. The Proms audience was suitably attentive.

Sibelius’s comparatively mellifluous Karelia Suite brought this Nordic first half to its close. Storgårds’s widely contrasted tempi for the Intermezzo left a rather disjointed impression, and while the Alla Marcia sounded rumbustious enough, a certain coarseness of playing rather limited one’s enjoyment. Best by far was the Ballade, one of the composer’s most arresting earlier pieces in its enfolding modal harmonies and given a notably rapt reading with such aspects as the wistful cor anglais melody towards its close eloquently phrased.

The Germanic second half began in more restrained mood with Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Rarely performed for decades (and more often in the transcription for violin), this deceptively genial piece is among its composer’s most ingenious in terms of form and motivic continuity. Alban Gerhardt (above) maintained a determined while never merely inflexible course across its three continuous movements, the BBC Philharmonic providing support as attentive yet unobtrusive as the music required. Interesting to hear that the soloist thought the finale musically the least successful, as this emerged as arguably the most successful part – not least with its engaging dialogue kept on its toes and with no sense of dourness or grittiness as regarded the orchestral texture. Overall, a perceptive and convincing account of a work still too easily overlooked.

Storgårds then rounded-off the programme with a taut and tensile reading of the symphony that Hindemith derived from his opera Mathis der Maler. This retelling of cultural meltdown and social antagonism during the Thirty Years War proved too ‘contemporary’ for the Nazi regime to stomach, and it was no surprise that the premiere of the complete opera took place in Zurich. Storgårds had the measure of the Angelic Concert with its austere chorales and angular though never impersonal polyphony. The Entombment of Christ was affecting for all its brevity, while the climactic Temptation of St Anthony built surely and impulsively from its stark introduction, through a central interlude of tangible pathos, to a culmination such as blazed forth in affirmation. All credit to Storgårds for ensuring so cathartic an impact.

Richard Whitehouse (photo of Lise Davidsen (c) Ole-Jørgen-Bratland)

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Sibelius, Liszt and the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

oberon-orchestraOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of Sibelius, Liszt and Saint-Saëns, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 17 September

Sibelius The Swan of Tuonela Op.22/2 (1895)

Liszt Les préludes (1854)

Sibelius Valse triste Op.44/1 (1903)

Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, ‘Organ’ (1886)

Andrew Furniss (organ), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

Tonight’s concert (the fourteenth) from the Oberon Symphony had a strong element of Liszt running through it – not least a welcome revival of the symphonic poem Les préludes which, while its historical importance is undeniable, retains only a marginal place in the repertoire.

Although it started out as the autonomous overture to settings of Joseph Autran’s Les quatre éléments (the connection with Alphonse de Lamartine’s Nouvelles méditations poétiques was made later and its reasoning remains unclear), Les préludes is essentially an abstract reflection on the passage of life from aspiration to fulfilment, and Samuel Draper rightly emphasized the cyclical evolution of its themes as these outline a viable sonata design whose introduction and coda confirm the emotional distance travelled. The secondary themes are among Liszt’s most appealing and were eloquently rendered; if the stormy central development seemed inhibited, a convincing momentum was maintained from the ethereal interlude through the reprise then on to an apotheosis whose grandeur was shorn of bombast or unnecessary grandiloquence.

These latter qualities, wholly extraneous to Liszt’s thinking, had by the mid-twentieth century reduced this piece to little more than caricature: harmlessly in the case of its soundtrack to the adventure series Flash Gordon, but offensively so when the final bars were used to announce Nazi bombing successes during the Blitz. In stressing purely musical virtues, a performance such as this can only abet the work’s and the composer’s cause; hopefully Draper will have an opportunity to include another of Liszt’ s symphonic poems in these concerts before long.

When Saint-Saëns (retrospectively) dedicated his Third Symphony to the memory of Liszt, the latter’s reputation was still intact – not least in terms of its cyclical form, making this work the harbinger of an intrinsically French take on the genre that prospered over the next century.

Draper assuredly had the measure of this stealthy evolution across two parts. After a plaintive introduction, the Allegro took time to intensify towards the climactic reprise of its first theme, but the transition to the Adagio had the right expectancy and the latter movement was almost ideal in blending seraphic poise with a lucidly unfolding variation. Andrew Furniss ensured that the organ timbre was fully integrated into that of the orchestra – the Oberon being heard at its best in a scintillating account of the scherzo; after which, the finale was taken firmly in hand so that its big tune (did those smiles among the audience betray knowledge of its use as the 1977 hit ‘If I Had Words’?) emerged unhackneyed, while the fugal and pastoral episodes were drawn into a tight-knit and cumulative progression towards the resplendent peroration.

Prefacing each of these pieces in either half was music by Sibelius. For all its popularity, The Swan of Tuonela is among its composer’s most introspective statements. Draper brought out a sustained anguish in the strings, ideally complemented by plangent cor anglais playing from Bruno Bower. If the fraught climax of Valse triste was a little diffuse, the elegiac opening and close were tellingly rendered – underlining why this miniature rapidly became a worldwide success, and thus making the composer’s signing away of its copyright the more regrettable.

The next concert by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with a selection of Mozart’s arias and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (soprano Anousheh Bromfield) is on Saturday 21st January 2017

Watch the previous concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with Cosima Yu as soloist in Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

BBC Proms – Nielsen Fifth Symphony; Schumann Violin Concerto & Jörg Widmann’s Armonica – BBC Philharmonic / Storgårds

prom-23-1

John Storgårds conducts the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms on Monday 1 August. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 23; Royal Albert Hall, Monday 1 August 2016

Widmann Armonica (2006) [UK premiere] [Christa Schönfeldinger (glass harmonica), Teodoro Anzellotti, (accordion)]

Schumann Violin Concerto in D minor (1853) (Thomas Zehetmair, violin)

Sibelius The Tempest – Prelude (1925)

Nielsen Symphony No.5 (1922)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s Prom brought a first visit this season from the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by its principal guest conductor John Storgårds in a wide-ranging programme which began in ethereal near-silence and ended in a blaze of affirmation rarely equalled this past century.

The relative silence was to be found in Armonica, among the most distinctive pieces by Jörg Widmann in that it features a solo role for glass harmonica – partnered here by the more abrasive sound of accordion in music which emerges into then evanesces out of focus; heard against a backdrop where indebtedness to Ligeti’s earlier orchestral works does not preclude a wealth of imaginative textures, particularly in the opening minutes. Christa Schönfeldinger and Teodoro Anzellotti interacted seamlessly, not least in those overly gestural closing pages.

prom-23-2

Christa Schönfeldinger performs Widmann’s Armonica with and Teodoro Anzellotti, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms. (c) Chris Christodolou

Perhaps it was such ethereal sounds that the ailing Schumann heard over the troubled weeks prior to his final breakdown. If so, little of this otherworldliness found its way into the Violin Concerto which was his last major work. Its having been kept under wraps for eight decades, then miraculously relocated near the outset of the Nazi era, has passed into legend. Musically the piece can verge on the routine, not least a first movement whose progress is more than a little dogged due to insufficiently contrasted ideas, then a finale whose underlying polonaise rhythm abets the repetitiveness. Best is a slow movement that revisits Schumann’s ‘romanza’ idiom a last time; its enervated aura exquisitely judged by Thomas Zehetmair and Storgårds – musicians who have (uniquely?) encountered this unsettling work both as soloist and conductor.

The emotional temperature rose appreciably in the second half – first with the Prelude from the extensive incidental music Sibelius wrote for a Copenhagen production of The Tempest. Guardedly admired at first, it has latterly been hailed as a precursor of tonal innovations half a century on. While his account was not lacking for physical immediacy, Storgårds chose to emphasize those modal contours that spread across woodwind and brass as the piece moves beyond its climax towards as tenuous a resolution as any during the first half of last century.

How to wrest resolution from apparent chaos was the goal for Nielsen in his Fifth Symphony, a work that has rightly moved towards the centre of the repertoire over the past two decades. Consistency was the watchword of Storgårds’s interpretation – finding an unarguable ‘tempo giusto’ for the initial half of the first movement, its unfolding across shifting tonal planes as finely articulated as the intensifying ambivalence that suddenly clears going into the Adagio rejoinder. The climax had suitably majestic import, and it was hardly Paul Patrick’s fault if his side-drum ‘cadenza’ was outshone by John Bradbury’s plangent clarinet solo in the coda. The second movement’s propulsive opening Allegro was well judged and if Storgårds risked momentum in the curious bitonal transition, the ensuing Presto had the right headlong energy.

Nor was there any lack of focus in the fugal Andante which gradually works its way to where the earlier resolve can be regained, albeit now with a formal and expressive closure as makes possible a thrilling peroration that was superbly gauged at the end of this impressive reading.

Richard Whitehouse