In concert – Alina Ibragimova, CBSO / Joshua Weilerstein: Weir, Prokofiev & Beethoven

Joshua Weilerstein 58_credit Sim Canetty-Clark

Alina Ibragimova (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein

Weir Heroic Strokes of the Bow (1992)
Prokofiev
Violin Concerto no.1 in D major Op.19 (1915-17)
Beethoven
Symphony no.7 in A major Op.92 (1811-12)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 7 July 2021 (6.30pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Joshua Weilerstein courtesy of Sim Canetty-Clark; Alina Ibragimova courtesy of Giorgia Bertazzi

While not the centenary season as had been anticipated, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current run of live concerts has nevertheless found the orchestra in great shape, reinforced by the final event that marked an equally unexpected if auspicious debut for Joshua Weilerstein.

He may have substituted the planned account of Schubert’s Fourth Symphony, but Weilerstein retained Judith Weir’s Heroic Strokes of the Bow to begin the programme. Although written before her spell as the CBSO’s Composer-in-Residence (1995-8), the present piece is among her most characteristic larger works – taking its cue from Paul Klee’s similarly titled painting for a 15-minute study in frustrated momentum, whereby violins pursue an eventful trajectory constantly undermined by rhythmic discontinuity. A belated coming to the fore of woodwind propels this music towards a peroration which never quite materializes prior to its subsiding then terse pay-off. Not a straightforward or necessarily rewarding piece to tackle, the CBSO strings still sounded engaged throughout a piece typical in its sense of ultimate anti-climax.

Alina Ibragimova then joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto, its modest scale and prevailing inwardness only partly belying technical demands that were confidently surmounted here. The partnership with Weilerstein, moreover, was a good one – whether in the first movement’s gradual expressive opening-out from, then retreating-back to sustained lyricism, or the Scherzo’s cavorting high-jinx and playful nonchalance. Ibragimova’s tempo for the finale seemed initially a little too deliberate, but the panache of those brief orchestral tuttis then stealthy intensification to the rapturous return of the opening theme left no doubt as to either soloist’s or conductor’s sense of exactly where the music was going – the violin’s airy arabesques melding into the deftest of orchestral textures for the spellbinding final bars.

The inclusion of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony made for a near full-length concert which, being given twice, says much for the CBSO’s collective stamina. Ensemble faltered slightly in the first movement’s introduction, relatively weighty as Weilerstein heard it, but the main Vivace proved unanimous in response as it was trenchant in conception – highlights being an uninhibited transition to the reprise, then inexorable build-up toward a coda whose clinching of the overall design felt more potent through a slight if perceptible acceleration at the close.

Weilerstein (rightly) went directly into the Allegretto, its alternation of pathos and sanguinity ideally gauged, then the scherzo exuded a joyous animation and its trio an eloquence which was no less apposite. The finale may have lacked its exposition repeat, but the seamlessness with which this movement unfolded left no feeling of its being sold short – not least through an astute judging of dynamic contrasts then a final peroration which, if it lacked for a degree of visceral excitement, none the less concluded this symphony with unwavering affirmation. Hopefully, Weilerstein will soon be returning to this orchestra. Next month, though, the CBSO heads to the Proms for a programme featuring Ruth Gipps’s Second Symphony and Brahms’s Third, along with a delayed premiere for Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel Symphony.

You can find information on the CBSO’s appearance at the Proms at the festival’s website.

In concert – London Chamber Ensemble & Madeleine Mitchell: A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021)

London Chamber Ensemble [Madeleine Mitchell (violin, director), Joseph Spooner (cello), Sophia Rahman (piano), David Aspin (viola), Gordon Mackay (violin), Lynda Houghton (double bass), Peter Cigleris (clarinet, bass clarinet), Nancy Ruffer (flute), Alec Harmon (oboe), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Ian Pace (piano)

Rebecca Clarke Piano Trio (1921)
Judith Weir Atlantic Drift: Sleep Sound ida Mornin’ (1995), Atlantic Drift (2006), Rain and Mist are on the Mountain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes (Movements I-IV, 2005)
Helen Grime Miniatures (2005)
Judith Weir The Bagpiper’s String Trio (1985)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad Invocation for cello & piano (1999)
Thea Musgrave Colloquy (1960)
Ruth Gipps Prelude for bass clarinet (1958)
Errollyn Wallen Sojourner Truth (2021, world premiere)
Grace Williams Suite for Nine Instruments (1934)

St John’s Smith Square, London
Monday 9 March (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Classical music still has an awfully long way to go before female composers are an integral part of its make-up, but the celebration of International Women’s Day is helping the cause considerably, gaining more traction with each passing year.

One of the highlights of the 2021 celebrations was this concert from St John’s Smith Square, masterminded by Madeleine Mitchell, who led the London Chamber Ensemble in a very satisfying hour-and-a-half of music.

In a concert celebrating eight women composers, the common threads of America and the Royal College of Music were also explored. The latter organisation is where Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams and Helen Grime all studied, and where Errollyn Wallen and Mitchell herself are now professors. Wallen wrote a new piece, Sojourner Truth, for the occasion.

The concert began however with a terrific performance of Rebecca Clarke’s Piano Trio. Completed in 1921, this substantial piece begins with a passionate outpouring, but it also has its elusive, mysterious moments. The trio of Mitchell, cellist Joseph Spooner and pianist Sophia Rahman caught these elements, getting off to a terrific start but pulling back to allow the enchanting slow movement room to breathe. At times Clarke’s music hints at influences from France – particularly Ravel but also Franck – which Spooner caught in his high intonation in the second movement. The spirit of the dance inhabited the finale, a more obviously English statement, but there was still room for more fervent thoughts when the trio united.

There was a sudden transition on the broadcast to the refreshing open air of Judith Weir’s Atlantic Drift, a compilation of three pieces for two violins proving an invigorating contrast to the denser textures of the Clarke. Weir’s incorporation of folk material into her music is enchanting, especially in the four-part last piece, Rain and mist are on the Moutain, I’d Better Buy Some Shoes. Using a Gaelic song as its inspiration, Weir’s adaptation worked really well in these open air accounts from Mitchell and Gordon Mackay, the empty St John’s providing the ideal acoustic. Weir appeared later with The Bagpiper’s String Trio, a similarly folk-powered work from 1985. Based on a Scottish pipe tune this too lifted the listener away to the great outdoors, with excellent teamwork from Mitchell, Spooner and viola player David Aspin.

Helen Grime’s trio of Miniatures for oboe and piano were next, studies in compressed expression from the pale harmonics of the first to the jagged edges of the second. The third was an effective summation of Grime’s thoughts, panning out for a wider perspective from the piano. Alec Harmon and Sophia Rahman were fully responsive to the virtuoso demands.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Invocation for cello and piano followed, a late teenage piece offering an immediate chance to appreciate the probing line given to Joseph Spooner’s fulsome cello. As the composer’s response to Edvard Munch’s painting Melanchola reached its apex there were clangorous chords from Rahman, capping a compact but powerful utterance.

Thea Musgrave’s Colloquy was next, another model of economy – four short pieces for violin and piano packed with sharp, expressive statements. There were some challenges to performance here – such as the quick interchange between pizzicato and bowing in the second movement – which Mitchell took in her stride. The third piece was a touch more playful but still assertive, but the fourth was the most effective, a private train of thought gracefully prompted by Ian Pace’s piano.

The most striking piece of the evening – for its sound, its soul and its warmth – was Ruth GippsPrelude for bass clarinet. Gipps’ centenary falls this year, and her slightly baleful writing for the instrument was beautifully captured by Peter Cigleris, a model of control. After watching this I was struck by two questions – why do we not hear the music of Gipps more, and why are there not more pieces for solo bass clarinet?

Errollyn Wallen’s Sojourner Truth followed, written not just for Madeline Mitchell but for International Women’s Day – and taking us back to violin and piano. Based on a spiritual, O’er the crossing, it features intense dialogue between the two instruments, but when the melody is heard unaccompanied on the violin the ear is pulled firmly towards the centre of the music, a striking feature of another piece with more traditional inspirations.

To finish, we heard the 75-year-old Suite for Nine Instruments by Grace Williams. Scored for piano quintet, double bass, flute, clarinet and trumpet, it is a vivacious piece, quite modal and with hints of Stravinsky’s Septet for a similar instrumental combination – and equally driven in the outer movements, bringing the interval of a tritone right to the front. The London Chamber Ensemble played with flair, commitment and virtuosity, bringing a very impressive program to a close.

The concert is available to watch until 8 April on the link below – with some spoken introductions by Mitchell herself. On occasion the gaps between pieces are very short, but there are helpful markers to make viewing easier. Do make sure you watch, as some of the best chamber music from British women composers in the last 100 years is right here.

A Century of Music by British Women (1921-2021) on International Women’s Day, directed by Madeleine Mitchell from St John’s Smith Square on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, Madeleine and the London Chamber Ensemble’s album of works by Grace Williams can be heard here:

Wigmore Mondays – Ruby Hughes, Natalie Clein & Julius Drake: Works for soprano, cello & piano

Ruby Hughes (soprano, above), Natalie Clein (cello), Julius Drake (piano, both below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 9 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

A fascinating hour of music for three instruments not often linked – soprano, cello and piano. Its imaginative programme comprised music by six composers from three different centuries using four languages! It made for a very satisfying whole.

Kodály’s single-movement Sonatina for cello and piano (1:41 on the radio broadcast) began the program. This is a work with which Natalie Clein and Julius Drake are very familiar, having recorded it for Hyperion in 2009, and they immediately found its expressive core. The Sonatina was initially intended for a Sonata the composer finished in 1909, but it happened to work particularly well on its own, and was completed later. Its colourful music – which has parallels to Debussy’s own Cello Sonata – is rich in melodic and harmonic content. Free in form, it speaks directly of the composer’s Hungarian heartlands. Clein’s tone was sumptuous in this performance and Drake’s piano exemplary, the two plotting a convincing course for the work.

This was followed without a break by three of John Tavener’s 6 Akhmatova Songs, written for soprano Patricia Rozario and cellist Steven Isserlis in 1993. In effect the cello is singing here too, its wordless line providing an otherworldly introduction for the third song of the six, Boris Pasternak (10:45). Clein’s rich sound was the ideal foil for the clarity of Ruby Hughes’ soprano. Couplet (12:48) was immediately more agitated, the gruff cello adopting a more questioning slant as it helped describe the poet’s suspicion about praise of her own work. Hughes, too, was more penetrating in her delivery. Finally Dante (14:23) grew outwards from the start, its expressive line shared between singer and instrumentalist.

Deborah Pritchard’s short but powerful Storm Song (16:46), a setting of text by Jeanette Winterson, was the last part of this unbroken first sequence. Premiered almost exactly three years ago, it was led by Hughes’ wide ranging but beautifully shaped melodic lines, soaring above the sinuous cello and piano as they descended into a powerful maelstrom at the song’s heart.

Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis were next, three heady settings of words by Pierre Louÿs, initially claimed to be erotic works from Ancient Greece. They were in fact the poet’s own construction, a fact Debussy presumably knew. La flûte de Pan (23:02) immediately transported the listener to a sultry outdoor setting and a lovers’ tryst, given appropriately chromatic settings by the composer. Julius Drake provided a rich tapestry in Debussy’s piano writing, and the humid setting was enhanced by the slow, tolling bells of the introduction to La chevelure (25:50) Hughes, now lower in her range, cast the spell. Le tombeau des naïades (29:16) closed this deliberately elusive trio, and we were left feeling as though we were all in on a rendezvous that was not supposed to be happening!

On the palmy beach is a commission from Kings Place for Judith Weir, completed in 2019 for these three performers and watched here by the composer herself. A cycle of four themed songs, it takes encounters with the sea and its inhabitants as inspiration, setting four very different poems by Wallace Stevens, Kathleen Jamie, Norman McCaig and Emily Dickinson. Weir has blogged on how she initially intended to keep the two instruments in step with each other, but how it became ‘much more alluring to liberate the cello’. Presumably for copyright reasons, the text for only one of the four poems (the Dickinson) could be printed, which made the text more difficult to follow in spite of Hughes’ wonderful singing. Yet there was a great deal of communication through the music, for which Clein and Drake were equally responsible.

Clein soared towards the heights in the prologue to the setting of Stevens’ Fabliau of Florida (34:30), where foam and cloud are one, and gave a full-throated epilogue too. Weir’s use of the cello to depict a jellyfish in Jamie’s The Glass-hulled boat (38:23) was uncanny, humorous and strangely touching, the agile lines dovetailing with Hughes’ own words. Norman McCaig’s Basking Shark (42:08) was next, the broad cello line a counterpoint to Hughes’s vivid storytelling and only latterly joined by the piano. Finally the setting of Dickinson’s I started Early – Took my Dog – (656) (46:13) was compelling, the sea toying with the author before ultimately opting not to catch her up.

To conclude a unique concert we heard Schubert’s Auf dem Strom (50:57), written for Beethoven’s memorial a year after his death in 1828 and containing a quotation from the Eroica Symphony. Setting the poetry of Ludwig Rellstab, it was written for soprano with horn and piano accompaniment, the composer later adding an obbligato cello was just as valid instead of the horn. This was to our advantage, for it enabled Natalie Clein to project the phrases beautifully, setting the scene for Hughes’ subtly wrought grief. With eloquent playing from Drake, this felt rather like the slow movement of a Schubert piano trio, but with words – expressive and touching.

Repertoire

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

Kodály Sonatina for cello and piano (1922, published 1969)
Tavener Akhmatova Songs (1993) (excerpts) (10:45)
Pritchard Storm Song (2017) (16:46)
Debussy Chansons de Bilitis (1897-8) (23:02)
Weir On The Palmy Beach (2019) (34:30)
Schubert Auf dem Strom D943 (1828) (50:57)

Further listening & viewing

The works by Deborah Pritchard and Judith Weir have not been recorded yet, but you can hear available recordings of the works by Kodály, Tavener, Debussy and Schubert on the following Spotify playlist:

References to Natalie Clein and Julius Drake’s Kodály recordings of 2009 were unfortunately missed from the Wigmore Hall program. You can hear preview clips of their collection, including the Sonatina on the Hyperion website

The most recent collection of music by Judith Weir comes highly recommended. Airs from Another Planet is a collection of songs and chamber music, released on the enterprising Delphian label:

Meanwhile the music of John Tavener continues to enchant in a lasting way. While awareness of the composer centres all too often around his piece for cello and orchestra, The Protecting Veil, this collection of works for cello from RCA – nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1997 – has aged very well. It includes all six of the Akhmatova Songs, performed by dedicatees Patricia Rozario and Steven Isserlis: