In concert – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Ruth Gipps, Adès & Brahms

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Gipps Symphony no.2 Op.30 (1945)
Adès
: The Exterminating Angel Symphony (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World premiere]

Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This unexpected yet worthwhile addition to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s season saw the revival of two works recently heard along with a belated premiere – twice postponed – for one of the most notable among the orchestra’s impressive roster of Centenary Commissions.

Its UK premiere guardedly received four years ago, Thomas Adès’s third opera felt limited as to provocative intent by the difficulty of transferring its theme of Spanish religious fascism to a different era. What was undeniable is the suitability of its numerous orchestral passages to being rendered in a more abstract context, hence The Exterminating Angel Symphony heard tonight. Its four sections arguably amount to a symphonic suite rather than symphony per se, yet their formal follow-through undoubtedly makes for a cohesive and finely balanced entity.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla evidently thought so – obtaining an incisive response in the ‘Entrances’ music whose expressive ambivalence intensifies second time around, then a virtuosic one in ‘March’; its malevolence building over a remorseless side-drum tattoo in a vivid foretaste of what lies ahead. Although it draws on one of the opera’s love-duets, ‘Berceuse’ seems a little unyielding in its emotional content despite the allure of scoring as was always apparent here.  It remains for ‘Waltzes’ (following without pause) to provide a suitable finale and, while this extended and ingeniously organized sequence of fragments from across the opera undeniably evokes a notable precedent in terms of its inexorable motion toward ultimate catastrophe, the animation and sheer panache of the CBSO’s playing brought about a suitably emphatic close.

Before this MGT again made a persuasive case for the Second Symphony by the orchestra’s one-time oboist Ruth Gipps, the contrasted sections of its single movement – a martial scherzo and eloquent Adagio framed by an ambivalent Moderato and cumulatively energetic Allegro – audibly unfolding as variations on an evocative theme heard at the start. An autobiographical aspect, concerning personal aspirations near the end of war, explains this piece’s confessional nature. Whether or not it will undergo several further decades of neglect remains to be seen.

After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, which orchestra and conductor had given before the lockdown last December. Tonight, however, the first movement (exposition repeat taken) was purposefully controlled with real cumulative thrust, a less than decisive transition into the reprise affording the only lapse in momentum prior to a coda of unfettered eloquence. The Andante was once again unerringly shaped in terms of its ruminative contrasts, and if the third movement had now become a little torpid, this hardly affected its unforced pathos. MGT rightly made the finale the culmination in every sense, her tautening of tension at the apex of its development yielding as tangible an expressive frisson as did the coda – where the work’s main motif descends as if from afar to secure the most transfigured of emotional touchdowns.

A memorable addition to an inevitably truncated yet memorable (and for all the right reasons) season, which the CBSO repeated at the Proms the following night. Beyond that, the autumn portion of its 2021/22 season has just been announced.

You can find information on the CBSO’s new season here.

In concert – Timothy Ridout & Tom Poster: Brahms Sonatas & Schwertsik world premiere @ Wigmore Hall

ridout-poster

Timothy Ridout (viola), Tom Poster (piano)

Brahms Sonata for viola and piano in F minor Op.120/1 (1894)
Schwertsik Haydn lived in Eisenstadt (2021, world premiere)
Brahms Sonata for viola and piano no.2 in E flat major Op.120/2 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 10 May (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was, on paper, an ideal match of repertoire and performers – and it proved that way on screen too, as the Wigmore Hall served us the latest offering in its lunchtime concert program.

Timothy Ridout and Tom Poster are both beneficiaries of the invaluable Young Concert Artists Trust (YCAT) scheme and the BBC’s New Generation Artists program, of which Ridout is still a member. They are both plotting exciting paths as distinctive artists, and as a duo they enjoy an easy rapport, clearly relishing the music they play – an observation which can never be taken for granted!

The two sonatas published as Op.120 are Brahms’ final notes in chamber music, and indeed among his last works altogether. To have younger artists playing them is to reveal the youthful heart amid their autumnal colours, showing off their elusive qualities and winsome melodies.

Both works may have originated for clarinet and piano but work equally well through the burnished tones of the viola. Indeed Ridout proved with the first notes of the Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 that the range is ideal for his instrument, and the tone – not to mention Poster’s complementary piano line – was ideally weighted once he had fully secured the intonation.

The second movement had a cold shiver, thanks to the use of less vibrato, but grew warmer as it progressed. The genial Allegro grazioso was a treat, the finale more celebratory but enjoying its flowing second themes too.

The E flat sonata was if anything even more successful, lighter on its feet and with airy phrases and interplay. The first movement bobbed and weaved beautifully, especially when Ridout was playing in the higher register, which Poster clearly relished. The second movement literally rolled up its sleeves for a powerful outpouring, Ridout’s tone beautifully supple. By contrast the central section benefited from the burnished tones of the double-stopped viola. The finale’s theme and variations were well judged, thoughtful and mellow to begin with but then more capricious as they progressed, finishing with a thoroughly convincing flourish.

Between the two Brahms works was an interesting new piece by Kurt Schwertsik, commissioned by Ridout himself. Schwertsik is a Viennese composer now in his 70s, aware of his place in musical history but making original and intriguing music. This piece was characteristically elusive, under the intriguing title Haydn lived in Eisenstadt. Set in several movements, it posed questions and answers, but remained curiously unsettled. BBC Radio 3 presenter Andrew McGregor thought the piece had ended at one point, only for another two movements to follow – a situation we have all surely experienced as audience members! Ridout swept through the longer phrases of the penultimate movement against softly tolling chords from the piano, before the last movement threw furtive glances into the shadows amid bursts of activity, ending in a similar vein to early Schoenberg.

Poster ensured the harmonies were a point of focus throughout, hinting at exotic late Romanticism but never quite settling in that mood. This was a piece of intriguing thoughts and colours, a substantial utterance well worth hearing again. It proved the ideal complement to the poised Brahms sonatas around it – and the encore of the older composer’s Wie melodien, with which the concert softly concluded.

This concert is available to play for 30 days using the YouTube embedded link above.

RSNO Friday Night Club – Brahms’s German Requiem

A second installment for the RSNO Friday Night Club today – and an appropriate choice for Good Friday in the form of Brahms‘s German Requiem. This particular archive performance is conducted by Gregory Batsleer, with soloists Alison McNeill (soprano) and Oskar McCarthy (baritone), with the RSNO Chorus and pianists Edward Cohen and Christopher Baxter.

You can watch the on the orchestra’s website here, or join on Facebook here

Live review – CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Brahms’ German Requiem & Mozart Serenade for wind

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Florian Boesch (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 March 2020

Mozart Serenade for wind in C minor K388 (1782-3)
Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Op.45 (1865-9)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season features several major choral works that have long been central to this orchestra’s repertoire. While it has received numerous readings (most recently with Andrew Manze), Brahms‘s A German Requiem is not among these – so it was fascinating to hear what Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla might make of a piece that, though it has never fallen from favour since its premiere 152 years ago, remains a stern interpretive test in terms of projecting formal integration and an expressive essence more elusive for its restraint.

In the event the performance was a fine one – not least because this conductor found the right balance between flexibility of motion, without which the textures all too easily risk stolidity, and that seriousness of manner without which the music soon loses any sense of purpose. A balance as evident in the lengthy second movement, the inexorable tread of its outer sections framing an interlude of wistful grace then with the ensuing fugue building animatedly to its serene close, as in the brief fourth movement whose blithe exterior conceals music of artful dexterity. Camilla Tilling (above) summoned a winsome response in the fifth movement, a late but necessary addition in its opening-out the work’s emotional range, while Florian Boesch (below) was suitably if not unduly vehement in his initial contributions to the third and sixth; the former crowned by a fugue of visceral and unflagging energy, though that in the latter movement marginally lost focus as its grandly rhetorical gestures ran their (too?) predictable course.

It is in the first and seventh movements that Brahms’s highly personal concept of redemption through love is at its most explicit, MG-T duly having the measure of their calmly insistent searching towards eventual catharsis – even if the finale’s gradual winding-down resulted in less than the ideal repose. The CBSO Chorus was on fine form throughout – a tribute to the expertise of associate chorus director Julian Wilkins, who also made a pertinent contribution in an organ part no less crucial for its understatement; underpinning and often motivating an orchestration which adds in no small measure to the work’s humane and compassionate spirit.

A relatively short first half gave welcome opportunity for the CBSO’s woodwind to take the stage for an un-conducted reading of Mozart’s Serenade in C minor, last in his trilogy of such pieces which transcended an ostensibly lightweight genre and, in doing so, made possible the emotional substance of the symphonies that followed. Ensemble seemed a shade insecure in the opening Allegro, but its underlying intensity carried over to an Andante whose ineffable rapture was itself contrasted with the textural severity of the Menuetto. Best, though, was the final Allegro – a set of variation on an unassuming theme with the formal outline of a sonata-rondo made explicit with its major-key ending. Overall, a winning account of a piece whose scoring for wind octet has gained it less exposure than Mozart’s comparable orchestral works.

It also made for an unlikely while successful coupling and a similarly thought-provoking one is scheduled for next Tuesday, MG-T making her first foray into Bruckner with the erstwhile elusive Sixth Symphony alongside the deceptive simplicity of Bartók‘s Third Piano Concerto.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded either of these works before but these are fine alternatives:

For further information on the current season of CBSO concerts, visit the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Mondays – Lise Berthaud & David Saudubray: Schubert & Brahms sonatas

Lise Berthaud (viola), David Saudubray (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 2 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Neither of the two principal works in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime concert originated as viola pieces, but both have become repertoire staples for the instrument, the warmth of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata and the sage experience of Brahms’s First Clarinet Sonata being ideal vehicles for its silvery tone.

The Schubert is an especially unusual case, being the only prominent piece written for the arpeggione. This was an instrument with six strings and frets like a guitar, which was bowed and held between the knees.

Though it did not catch on as an alternative to the cello or the viola, Schubert wrote a substantial piece for a friend of his who played it. Because of the practicality of performing the work it was not until 1867 that it was finally published, with the realisation that it transcribes ideally for either cello or viola with piano accompaniment, the melodies lying under the fingers with deceptive ease.

The Arpeggione Sonata is a largely happy work, though it begins lost in thought (from 2:42 on the broadcast link). This was a measured intro from David Saudubray but as the first movement progressed the songful tone of Lise Berthaud’s viola took over, the pair enjoying the spring in the step of the faster music as though they were venturing out to dance. There was a really nice passage around the 8:38 mark, the viola using pizzicato to accompany the piano.

The second movement Adagio (14:28) explored more tender thoughts, the piano’s rocking motion suggesting the profile of a lullaby, especially with Berthaud’s soft musings above. However it was not long before we were straight into the Allegretto finale (18:13), the players investing more urgency until we arrived back at the dance (19:31), Schubert unable to resist setting the players on the floor once again. This good humour continued until the bright ending.

Brahms’s first contribution to the viola and piano repertoire is a very different animal, being from late in his career. Having decided to finish as a composer in 1890 it was something of a surprise when Brahms, having rid himself of the pressure of a Fifth Symphony, found inspiration in the clarinet. He wrote a Trio, Quintet and two Sonatas for the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, but it was soon brought to his attention that the Trio and both Sonatas transcribed very easily for viola – and those arrangements were made with his blessing.

As Lise Berthaud showed, the profile of Brahms’ melodies in the Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 are ideal for the instrument, the wide range of the first movement (29:07) easily under her fingers. The sweep of this melody and its subsequent development was impressive, as was the graceful second theme, with just the occasional slip from Saudubray in Brahms’s more congested piano writing. The controlled but expressive Andante was delightfully played (37:14), its roots clearly in song. A lilting Intermezzo was third (42:10), both players finishing each other’s musical sentences as equals, the music itself like a breeze in the branches of an old tree. The fourth movement (46:07), marked Vivace, threw caution away, with a peal of bells from the piano leading to a flowing and good spirited exchange, prone to the odd outspoken burst from the piano. Here was proof that the older Brahms still had the enthusiasm and musical vitality of his youth.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D821 (1824) (2:42)

Brahms Viola Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 (1894) (29:07)

As an encore we had a lovely piece from Frank Bridge, the Berceuse (52:40), whose rocking motion was evident in Saudubray’s sensitive piano playing, the ideal foil to Berthaud’s velvety tone.

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, with versions of the Schubert and Brahms recorded by Berthaud herself:

As alluded to in the review, late Brahms works particularly well for the viola, as this collection shows – with both sonatas and the trio for viola, cello and piano coupled together:

Frank Bridge wrote some winsome music for his first instrument, collected here by the viola player Louise Williams and pianist David Owen Norris, joined for three songs by mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby: