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

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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.

In concert – Raphael Wallfisch, CBSO / Gergely Madaras: New Worlds – Sibelius, Jonathan Dove & Dvořák

gergely-madaras

Sibelius Finlandia Op.26 (1899)
Dove In Exile (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere]
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Sir Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Raphael Wallfisch (cello, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gergely Madaras

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 9 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra amounted to a themed programme with late 19th century evergreens by Sibelius and Dvořák framing another of this orchestra’s Centenary Commissions in the first UK performance of a major work from Jonathan Dove.

In his introductory remarks, Dove spoke of In Exile as a hybrid of cantata, operatic scena and concerto; a fusion that has surprisingly few antecedents – one being Concerto on Old English Rounds by William Schuman, with viola and chorus as ‘soloists’. Here the roles were taken by baritone and cello during a half-hour piece whose texts, adapted by Dove’s regular librettist Alasdair Middleton, examine the state of exile from a perspective less about those emotions experienced in the adoptive country than of sensations evoked by what has been left behind.

Drawing on Medieval sources, Dante and Shakespeare then, from the early 20th-century, the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran and Irish scholar Douglas Hyde, to the Iranian-American Kaveh Bassiri, In Exile unfolds as a formally continuous and emotionally cumulative sequence whose traversal from the general to the specific is complemented by its undulating texture, enhanced with resourceful writing for strings and tuned percussion, which graphically evokes a journey of the mind as well as body. Simon Keenlyside gave a powerful rendering of the vocal part in all its burnished rhetoric, while Raphael Wallfisch (to whose mother, the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, this piece is dedicated) was no less searching as his ‘alter ego’ whose role takes in several exacting cadenza-like passages. Certainly, a work that should bear repeated hearings.

Making his debut with the CBSO, Gergely Madaras conducted with a sure sense of where this piece was headed, having opened the concert with a gripping account of Finlandia. Sibelius’s apostrophizing of his homeland can descend into bathos – Madaras ensuring otherwise in this tensile reading whose sombre brass, supplicatory woodwind and strings, then dashing central episode led into a lilting take on what became Finland’s unofficial national anthem, before the peroration urged the music on to a conclusion whose grandeur was shot-through with defiance.

There was equally much to admire in Dvořák’s New World after the interval, even though this was essentially a performance of two halves. Madaras’s listless way with the first movement’s introduction set the tone for a rather terse and short-winded account (made the more so by its lack of exposition repeat) of the Allegro, while Rachael Pankhurst’s eloquent rendering of the Largo’s soulful melody was hardly enhanced by peremptory changes in tempo, notably in the tense middle section. Not so the Scherzo, its coursing outer sections ideally complemented by the whimsical trio at its centre, then the final Allegro brought an impulsive response that kept its histrionics on a firm rein yet without losing sight of an intently growing momentum whose outcome was a powerfully wrought apotheosis – its radiant closing chord judged to perfection.

So, a well-conceived and finely executed concert featuring a conductor who will hopefully be returning in due course. The CBSO has three Choral Christmas concerts coming up later this month, then can be heard on January 9th in a Viennese New Year programme to see in 2022.

For more information on ‘A Choral Christmas’ click here. For more information on the January – July 2022 CBSO season, you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Jonathan Dove, Gergely Madaras, Sir Simon Keenlyside and Raphael Wallfisch.

In concert – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods – Sibelius: Symphony no.7

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English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sibelius Symphony no.7 in C major Op.105 (1924)

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth on 2 May 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is good to see that, despite resuming its live schedule this autumn, the English Symphony Orchestra has continued the Music from Wyastone online series as was such a boon over 18 months of lockdown. Moreover, this latest instalment begins the ESO’s most ambitious such project – the seven symphonies (with Tapiola) by Sibelius to run across the 65th anniversary of his death next year. Starting with the Seventh Symphony is certainly a provocative gambit, and it remains to be seen whether this cycle unfolds in strictly backward chronological order.

A decisive (but not simple) test in a performance of this work is how the overall trajectory is perceived. In almost all the most successful readings, the music evolves as if intuitively – the end being implicit in the beginning more than with any symphony before or since. This was certainly true of the ESO’s account, in which the formal constituents were hardly tangible as such until after the event. Sibelius may have distilled the thematic aspect to its essentials, yet in so fusing form and content he endowed this piece with an inevitability always evident here.

Following an expectant if not unduly tense introduction, Kenneth Woods built the first main section with unforced eloquence to a first statement of the trombone chorale as provides the formal backbone. His transition into the ‘scherzo’ was less abrupt than many, while picking up energy such that the chorale’s reappearance generated the requisite momentum to sustain the relatively extended ‘intermezzo’ with its felicitous interplay of woodwind and strings. If his approach to the chorale’s last emergence seemed a fraction cautious, the latter’s intensity carried over into the searing string threnody (much emulated but not equalled by generations since) that subsided into pensive uncertainty – from where the music gathered itself one last time for a magisterial crescendo which, rightly, did not so much end as merely cease to be.

A deeply thoughtful and superbly realized performance which launches the ESO’s Sibelius cycle in impressive fashion. A pity, though, that the end-credits should be accompanied with a repeat of music heard earlier. At the close of such a piece, the rest really should be silence.

Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website

Playlist – The Rustle of Spring

Welcome to The Rustle of Spring.

This is a playlist designed to look at the positive, to anticipate our emergence from what has been an incredibly difficult winter for many.

Although we are not out of it yet nature is doing its best, with green shoots making themselves known, birds and animals starting to flex their muscles, the nights drawing out a bit and the weather – hopefully – improving.

This selection offers a range of responses to spring from classical composers. We have the outright optimism of Schumann’s Spring Symphony, his first, alongside more mysterious responses to the season from Lili Boulanger and John Foulds. Spring doesn’t have to mean orchestral music, either – there are intimate thoughts from the piano works of Grieg, Sinding and Tchaikovsky, while rarely heard choral pieces from Holst and Moeran lend an exotic air.

We finish with two very different portrayals of spring, in the form of one of Johann Strauss II’s best-known waltzes, Voices of Spring, and an all too rarely heard tone poem by Frank Bridge, Enter Spring. There isn’t even room for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons!

I hope you find something to enjoy.

Ben Hogwood