City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: First Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 17 & Sunday 18 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There are numerous commemorations this month of the centenary of Debussy’s death, but the Debussy Festival taking place in Birmingham over the weekends of 17/18 and 24/25 March is likely the most extensive mounted in the UK.

Together with chamber and song recitals, films and talks, there is a series of concerts by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as its related orchestras and ensembles, which between them offer an overview not only of Debussy’s major works but also those who influenced him and those who have been influenced by him in their turn.

Saturday evening focussed on Sensual Debussy, opening with the piece in which the composer effectively became himself. Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1894) began proceedings, its pervasive sensation of lazy eroticism palpably conveyed. This segued into Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898/1908) – a rare instance of Debussy’s acappella writing, its lithe alternation of solo and ensemble voices enticingly conveyed by the Birmingham University Singers. Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (above) then directed a perceptive account of La Damoiselle élue (1888), its Rossetti text inspiring a cantata whose luminous modality and ecstatic lyricism fairly define musical pre-Raphaelitism. Soprano Ilse Eerens was eloquent in the ‘title-role’ and mezzo Aga Mikolaj (below) searching in her narrative, with the CBSO Youth Chorus’s singing ethereal but never cloying.

Mikolaj returned for three of Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz (1914) and captured their capricious flights of fancy as made one wish the whole cycle of eight could have been given. This might have been preferable to the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) that rounded-off the concert – finely played and convincingly directed, save for a rather jarring accelerando toward the climax of the Prelude, but whose emotional intensity was rationalized by Debussy into something more oblique and understated. As had just been heard in the latter’s Nocturnes (1899), first of his orchestral triptychs and a marvel of shifting textures in Nuages, then ominous evocation in Fêtes. The diaphanous yearning of Sirènes was hardly less evident; less than perfect integration with its female voices the only real flaw.

Sunday afternoon brought Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a programme devoted to Debussy’s Legacy. Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) set the scene with its wave-like eddying of pithy motifs, then the music of Tristan Murail (above) took centre-stage with pieces from across three decades of his career. Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) is a reminder of how radical yet understated (à la Debussy) his music must have sounded in a French scene dominated by Boulezian serialism, harmonic overtones a constant around which the ensemble inhales then exhales its glistening timbres. How Murail got there was duly underlined by Couleur de mer (1969): almost his first acknowledged work, its five sections pit serial constructions against a more intuitive take on harmony and texture in music whose eruptive central span is almost as startling as its cadential sense of closure. Between these, Feuilles à travers les cloches (1998) is an evocative and eventful miniature anticipating the stark post-impressionism of Murail’s more recent music. Fastidious playing from BCMG, and perceptive direction by Julien Leroy.

The CBSO returned that Sunday evening for Modern Debussy, another hour-long sequence opening with a further account of Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune in the arrangement that Schoenberg’s pupil Benno Sachs made in 1921. With flute, oboe and antique cymbals left in place, and harmonium ingeniously filling-out the ensemble, this proved an appealing novelty and ideal complement to the Première Rapsodie (1910) in which Debussy transformed a test-piece into a minor masterpiece – CBSO principal clarinettist Oliver Janes as responsive to its melodic elegance as to its deft virtuosity.

Responsive in support, Graźinytė-Tyla then directed a bracing account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921) where some refined playing toned down the 1947 revision’s asperities. A pity Takemitsu’s exquisite Green had to be dropped (were the parts not received in time?), but Michael Seal presently took charge for a characterful reading of Jeux (1913) – confirming Debussy’s developing variation as no less crucial than Stravinsky’s mosaic-like construction to the evolution of music this past century.

Food for thought, indeed, over the course of this first weekend – not least for reminding one of just how central to modern Western music Debussy’s presence has been. Hopefully, too, the overall quality of interpretation will be maintained throughout next weekend’s concerts.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website

 

Wigmore Mondays: Isabelle van Keulen & Ronald Brautigam play Beethoven, Fauré & Szymanowski

Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Ronald Brautigam (piano)

Beethoven Sonata for piano and violin in G major Op.30/3 (1801-2) (from 1:37 on the broadcast)
Szymanowski The Fountain of Arethusa from Myths Op.30 (1915) (from 19:51)
Fauré Violin Sonata no.1 in A major Op.13 (1875-6) (from 26:34)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Full marks to the Wigmore Hall for their choice of established recital partners and an invigorating program to start the 2018 BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert series. Isabelle van Keulen and Ronald Brautigam were clearly brought in to blow away the January blues and dispel any ‘back to school’ feelings among the audience, and they did so with freshly minted interpretations of Beethoven, Szymanowski and Fauré.

Beethoven’s eighth published Sonata for piano and violin, the third of his Op.30 set, began the concert (from 1:37 on the broadcast link). This spring-like work flew off its perch with a flourish, and once a few minor tuning issues at the outset were settled van Keulen and Brautigam enjoyed the close-knit ensemble playing in the first movement.

The second movement, a slow Minuet (from 8:00), was delivered as a passionate song and dance, a little quicker than expected, while the third movement (from 15:00) threw open the doors once again, van Keulen enjoying its folk dance associations.

The first of Polish composer Karel Szymanowski’s 3 Myths, also Op.30, had added electricity. Heralding a new sound world for the composer, The Fountain of Arethusa began with a watery cascade of notes from Brautigam (from 19:51), matched by tensile high register playing from van Keulen, both vividly portraying the fountain but also exploiting the sensual harmonies and rich textures. Hopefully van Keulen will go on to record the composer’s works for violin and piano.

The concert finished with one of the sunniest of works for the combination. Fauré’s Violin Sonata no.1, his first work in the form, surged forwards from the outset (from 26:34), the longer melodic phrases beautifully measured on the violin, while Brautigam’s sensitivity in balancing a busy piano part was a notable achievement.

The second movement (from 35:35) introduced darker, shaded thoughts and grew to a passionate climax of real stature. The third movement Scherzo (from 41:55) was a delight, showing off the qualities that secured an encore at the work’s first performance in Paris in 1877. The finale (45:45), initially elusive, brought all these elements and more together, and finished with an impressive sweep.

There was room at the end for an appropriate encore, giving homage to centenary composer Lili Boulanger. She died in 1918, aged just 24, and her Nocturne (from 52:13 on the broadcast), beautifully shaded here, was an atmospheric example of her unfulfilled potential.

Further listening

You can listen to recorded versions of the repertoire in this concert on this Spotify playlist. Meanwhile if you enjoyed the Fauré and Szymanowski in particular, this lovely disc from Augustin Dumay and Maria João Pires shows the depth of European repertoire from the 20th century for violin and piano.

Wigmore Mondays: Meccore String Quartet – Szymanowski & Sibelius

Meccore String Quartet (above – Jarosław Nadrzycki, Wojciech Koprowski (violins), Michał Bryła (viola), Karol Marianowski (cello)

Szymanowski String Quartet no.1 in C major, Op.37 (1917)
Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 ‘Voces intimae’ (1909)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 20 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Szymanowski’s two String Quartets took a while to establish themselves in the string quartet repertory, but certainly not on grounds of quality. The first anticipates the composer’s biggest stage work, King Roger, and has music of great depth with a relatively exotic harmonic language.

Sibelius wrote his only published string quartet – there are three other unpublished works – at his new home of Ainola, where he moved with his wife in 1903. At this point the composer was suffering from the effects of alcoholism and debt, and needed to move away from Helsinki and temptation. Ultimately this did not provide full relief, but he was at least able to move on with composition, and the Symphony no.3, written just before the quartet, offers more optimism. The quartet however is dark and unforgiving.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Szymanowski String Quartet no.1 in C major, Op.37 (from 1:51) (17 minutes)

At 1:51 the quartet begins as though in a time warp, the soft harmonies in a chorale from the four instruments harking back to a much earlier time. Gradually the music establishes its rich harmonies, helped by added notes from the instruments using double stopping (playing more than one note at once), which gives added density to the music.

The added note harmonies are a big part of the composer’s newer style, where he does still on occasion imitate Debussy but where he now has one foot planted relatively firmly in the explorer’s camp. The music goes through some unexpected harmonic shifts towards the end, but then from 9:27 feels on firm grounds once more with the luxurious beginning to the slow movement.

This features soaring melodies from the first violin and higher playing from the rest of the instruments towards the end, where the listener feels suspended in the air.

A different air altogether hangs in the third movement (15:07) where the music is quick, urgent and full of smaller phrases passed between the instruments. At 17:19 a dance section gives cut and thrust, before the quartet wraps up with surprising haste.

Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 ‘Voces intimae’ (from 21:24) (28 minutes)

The theme from the violin (21:24), answered by the cello, is the melodic material on which the first movement is based. The phrases are restless, passed between the instruments and often overlapping with little pause for breath. There is a sense of the wide open countryside in which Sibelius now finds himself, but also of the dark days. This comes to a head around 26:48, a sparse cadence played by the quartet, before they move on to the second movement with flitting motifs from each instruments, creating a vision of circling birds.

The slow movement (29:36, marked Adagio di molto) is the centre of the work both emotionally and musically, deeply emotional but also offering resolution. Here the quartet are closely together, and the main theme, which comes back several times, has a deep yearning.

From 39:00 the fourth movement begins, and here the quartet digs in as though searching for strength and resolve. Gradually the individual lines become restless again, the melodies increasingly fractured, and the textures are heavy. Leading on from this is an even faster movement (44:35), where the instruments become even more reckless and desperation sets in (especially from 46:17). There are fleeting glimpses of folk melodies but the momentum carries all before it to a dazzling flurry of semiquavers at the end.

Thoughts on the concert

A powerful concert from the Meccore String Quartet. Their Syzmanowski felt utterly authentic, played with style and feeling, and with the quartet full in voice. They took a standing position for the concert (except the cellist of course) and this suited their freedom of expression.

The quartet tended to take the fast music at daringly fast tempi, especially in the Sibelius, where the second and fifth movements seemed to be gone in a flash of breakneck speed. Despite the technical brilliance this did mean a few musical statements were swept up in the sheer momentum of it all. However the quartet were more measured for the slow movement, where emotion was concentrated and intonation wonderfully secure. There was a feeling throughout that the interpretations from the quartet were singular in voice, and watching them in person made the experience much more meaningful.

As a substantial encore it was nice to hear the second movement (a Romanze) from Grieg‘s String Quartet in G minor, Op.27 (51:00), which the quartet have recently recorded, and which here provided a reminder of the melodic gifts of the Norwegian composer, whose music seems to have fallen off the radar a little bit of late. The cello is particularly beautiful in its melody here.

Further listening and reading

Here is the first movement of the Grieg String Quartet, performed by the Meccore String Quartet live from the Polish Radio in 2015.

For a further taster of their Szymanowski, here is the third movement of the String Quartet no.2, part of a disc of the composer’s quartets recently released on Warner Classics:

Meanwhile for further listening on Spotify, in the absence of the Meccore versions, here are the Emerson String Quartet in a winning combination of the Sibelius and Grieg Quartets, with a little Nielsen for good measure:

Meanwhile both Szymanowski Quartets can be found here, in a version from the Goldner String Quartet:

Tasmin Little, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Edward Gardner at the Barbican – Janáček, Smetana, Szymanowski & Eötvös

Ed Gardner
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above) (photo © Benjamin Ealovega)

Barbican Hall, Saturday January 7, 2017

Janáček Jealousy

Smetana Ma vlast: Vltava; Šarka

Szymanowski Violin Concerto No.2 (soloist – Tasmin Little)

Eötvös The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies [UK premiere]

Janáček Taras Bulba

L-R Leoš Janáček (1854-1928); Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884); Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937); Péter Eötvös (b1944)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Edward Gardner returned to the BBC Symphony for this diverse if not wholly successful programme, which opened with the ultimate in terse curtain-raisers. Intended then abandoned as the overture to his opera Jenůfa, Janáček’s Jealousy (1895) has latterly enjoyed a peripheral place in the repertoire. Heard here in the late Charles Mackerras’s realization of the original version, it made for a vivid impression – not least when its alternation between strident brass gestures and eloquent string writing unerringly evokes Sibelius during much the same period.

Next came the second and third instalments from Smetana’s cycle of symphonic portraits, Ma vlast. The performance of Vltava (1874) was a disappointment – its constituent sections rather failing to cohere, with Gardner making little of the visceral ‘St John’s Rapids’ episode and the apotheosis doddering along at a jog-trot.

Šarka (1875) fared better – Gardner exerting a tight grip over its scenario of female retribution, with felicitous playing from solo clarinet and horn prior to the fateful close. In context, these pieces sounded curiously adrift, suggesting that a different selection (Šarka, then From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields maybe?) might have proved more effective. Even better to opt for one of those early ‘Gothenburg’ symphonic poems that are rarely revived, of which Wallenstein’s Camp would ideally have complemented the Janáček in the second half.

Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little

Time was when Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto (1933) existed in the shadow of its predecessor, but this last major work by the composer enjoys increasingly regular revival – its amalgam of luscious textures and folk-inflected harmonies underpinned by a formal cohesion where elements of sonata and rondo forms link hands over a powerful cadenza (by the initial soloist Paweł Kochánski) that Tasmin Little rendered with aplomb.Elsewhere her intonation occasionally faltered as she strove for parity against often dense orchestral writing, though a cumulative impact was rarely less than evident on the way to the affirmative closing pages.

After the interval, a welcome first hearing in the UK for a recent orchestral piece by Peter Eötvös. Written for the Basque National Orchestra, The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies (2012) utilizes not only the quirky rhythmical profile of that region’s traditional music but also its indigenous percussion – two cajóns situated near the front of the orchestra goading the music on with their distinctive timbre. The piece follows an eventful (and suspenseful) trajectory in which the imagery conveyed by the title is amply though subtly conveyed; the typically stratified textures making possible the luminous final stages then an ending which, not for the first time with this composer, suggests a possible continuation just out of reach.

Later Janáček fairly specializes in such oblique endings, and if Taras Bulba (1918) is not one of these, this rhapsody’s graphic yet by no means literal depiction of events related by Gogol leaves no doubt as to its composer’s identification with his subject. Gardner brought fervency then starkness to the respective deaths of Andriy and Ostap, and while the opening stages of the final section were a little temperate, the apotheosis had a glowing inevitability – though some fallible playing was a reminder of this music’s demands for all its relative familiarity.

Wigmore Mondays – Nelson Goerner plays Debussy & Chopin

nelson-goerner

Nelson Goerner (piano) © Jean-Baptiste Millot

Chopin Polonaise in F# minor Op.44 (1841) (11 minutes)

2 Nocturnes Op.62 (1846) (12 minutes)

Polonaise in A flat major Op.53 (1842-3) (7 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 23 November

Arcana’s commentary

For both Chopin and Debussy the piano became arguably their primary means of musical expression. Both used relatively traditional forms – studies, preludes for instance – but stretched them from conventional structures to suit their own means.

Here we heard seven of the twelve Préludes Debussy wrote as a book, the first of two, published in 1909 and 1910. These are character pieces where he was painting a picture or an impression, without always specifying his exact stimulus. Some were more obvious; others were left to the player for interpretation.

Nelson Goerner made each of these his own. The languid, humid atmosphere of Danseuses de Delphes (1:32 on the broadcast), with control and shading, set the scene and led to an enjoyable and mysterious La serenade interrompue (4:35). This was playful but wary too – dancing but not wanting to fully let itself go.

The ‘underwater rolling of pebbles’ from Verlaine’s poem could be sensed in Le vent dans la plaine (7:00), while the simplicity of La fille aux cheveux de lin (9:09) was rather moving. La danse de Puck (11:24) could have found the Midsummer Night’s Dream character in a more playful mood perhaps, while the thick atmospherics of Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (14:02) hung heavy on the air. Finally Les collines d’Anacapri (17:58) danced and shimmered, controlled but letting itself run wild too. The last four high notes were hammered out convincingly (20:37)

Goerner’s Chopin was rather different. The first of the Polonaises (22:14) was Chopin’s most ambitious work to use the dance form, using a Polonaise in its outer sections but a Mazurka in the middle (from 26:56). This central section had more charm but the outer sections were stern, almost obsessive – and brilliantly played. Their return after the Mazurka (30:05) was like two bolts of lightning, the mood almost that of a Tango from Goerner’s native Argentina.

The Nocturnes (33:40) and (40:12) could have done with a bit more air and relaxation; Goerner seemed rather anxious to push on with them. That said the trills of the first (from 37:55) were expertly managed, while the second was really nicely pointed.

The Polonaise (45:53) was heroic indeed, strutting its stuff but frequently dazzling, especially in Goerner’s white hot ostinato (49:02)

There was an encore to finish, an Impromptu of poise and grace (53:48), more of a Nocturne than the other two arguably.

Further listening

There is something rather special about Polish piano music – and to continue from the Chopin the Spotify playlist below offers up some lesser-heard treats in the form of piano concertos by Paderewski and Moszkowski, prefaced by a sprinkling of exotic Mazurkas from Szymanowski.

by Ben Hogwood