RSNO Friday Night Club – Richard Strauss & Berg

Tonight, Friday 17 April, the RSNO Friday Night Club returns with an intriguing pair of characters. The first is Richard Strauss‘s Don Juan, one of his most celebrated symphonic poems, in which the 24-year old composer paints a portrait of the serial philanderer. Its high spirits mask a darker underbelly. Thomas Søndergård conducts.

Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill then joins the orchestra in a performance of Berg‘s Seven Early Songs. These very late Romantic nuggets, completed 20 years after Don Juan, show Berg straining at the limits of tonality and finding great intensity as he sets the work of seven different poets.

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

Live review – Soloists, CBSO and Chorus / Kazuki Yamada – Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Keri Fuge (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Matthew Brook (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 7 November 2019

Mendelssohn
Elijah Op.70 (1846)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although 173 years have passed since it first echoed around the Town Hall, Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah remains synonymous with Birmingham’s cultural tradition. Performances may be fewer than in its 19th-century heyday but there have been memorable ones – not least that in 1989 with Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, for whom this piece was a speciality – and tonight saw a memorable account by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada, who duly banished any notions of this being a mid-Victorian period piece.

Whatever his failings on a broader aesthetic level, Mendelssohn was nothing if not creatively pragmatic when it came to a big occasion, and Elijah accordingly fulfilled its remit. Whereas the composer’s earlier oratorio St Paul had given notice of his abiding interest in the Passions of Bach, here he drew on the exemplar of those biblical epics through which Handel shaped English musical taste over the ensuing 150 years; enhanced by the rhythmic poise of Mozart and the harmonic subtleties of Beethoven to result in music wholly representative of its era.

Structured in two parts of almost equal duration, Elijah charts the trials of its eponymous hero as he draws the Israelites away from the pagan enticements of Baal and back to the true faith before himself ascending on a fiery chariot to Heaven. Julius Schubring‘s text (as sung in the idiomatic translation by William Bartholomew) fashions out of Kings and associated biblical sources a framework whose emotional rhetoric is balanced by a keen underlying momentum and unfailing sense of when to open-out the narrative to allow for more intimate expression.

The score implies eight soloists, but the four on hand (the brief role of ‘The Boy’ affectingly taken by chorus soprano Ella McNamee) proved more than able. As Elijah, Matthew Brook conveyed the anguish and the ecstasy of his part with unwavering assurance, while Robert Murray overcame initial strain to give commanding portrayals of his advocate Obadiah and detractor Ahab. Keri Fuge brought due pathos to the Widow, with Karen Cargill eloquent as the Angel – having stolen the show as the Queen who vents her wrath in unequivocal terms.

As with most of its forerunners, of course, Elijah is defined by a choral contribution in which the CBSO Chorus was not found wanting. Having recently sung the work with Yamada (and these soloists) in Monte Carlo, it conveyed the anger and supplication of the forsaken People with audible conviction, while being no less assured in those intricate choral items by which Mendelssohn frames and punctuates the drama. If choral numbers were appreciably less than the composer might have expected, then this was undoubtedly a case of less equalling more.

Neither should there have been any surprise as to the degree of Yamada’s identity with this music. Japan has produced notable exponents of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, with the present conductor evidently following in their wake. If those choruses ending each half summoned not quite the intensity evinced by Frühbeck all those years ago, the clarity and incisiveness he drew from both chorus and orchestra was hardly to be gainsaid – so setting the seal on a memorable reading of a work sure to wear its Birmingham credentials well into the future.

Listen

(Ben Hogwood writes…) Among the many available versions of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, sadly none of these appear to yet include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – though one wonders if an extension to their Mendelssohn in Birmingham series will be forthcoming under Edward Gardner.

Spotify does however have a recent recording of Elijah from the Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh, with Robert Murray once again in the roles of Obadiah and Ahab. The organ itself was recorded in Birmingham Town Hall:

Live review – Lucy Crowe, Karen Cargill, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Mahler Symphony no.2

Lucy Crowe (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Chorus,
City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 13 June 2019

Mahler
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’ (1888-95)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Almost 46 years since this orchestra first played it, then 39 years since Sir Simon Rattle made it his mission-statement, Mahler’s Resurrection is one of those pieces which constitutes a ‘rite of passage’ for conductors at the helm of the City of Birmingham Symphony. Tonight it was the turn of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – who, coming towards the end of her third season as music director of this orchestra, presided over a reading which assuredly had the measure of a work that, over recent decades, has too often felt in danger of becoming a classy lifestyle accessory.

If there was anything at all lacking (aside from a handful of imprecisions as would only have surprised those drawn to this music for its showpiece potential), it was of the piece evolving as a cumulative and inevitable unity. As often, the first movement brought most reservations – Gražinytė-Tyla’s handling of its long-term momentum being slightly less convincing than her characterization of its individual components; though at its best, as in her easing into the ruminative second subject or her sustaining of tension going from the eruptive climax of the development into the reprise, this was highly impressive. Mahler seldom approached sonata design other than obliquely, and the deadpan fatalism conjured from its final pages suggests this conductor already has the measure of its expressive range if not yet its formal cohesion.

Coming after a judicious pause, there was little to fault in the Andante – its lilting main theme as felicitous as the counter melody with which it finds common cause, and with the animated secondary theme sounding suitably crepuscular. More unexpected was the scherzo, exuding a suave and even phlegmatic air as Gražinytė-Tyla hears it – though few could have objected to the aching nostalgia of its trio, even if tempo elisions during its final stages were just a touch awkward. Karen Cargill (left) then brought out the tenderness and intimacy of the Urlicht setting.

It was in the epic expanse of the finale, however, that this performance readily came into its own. Launched with explosive intent, its starkly contrasted constituents were drawn together so that the sense of a steadily evolving whole was never in doubt. Such as the baleful chorale passage and the ‘last judgement’ frenzy which duly parodies it were judiciously realized, as was the contribution of offstage brass and percussion in opening-out its emotional remit on the way to the (partial) setting of Friedrich Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode which forms the culmination.

Tellingly, Gražinytė-Tyla had the chorus remain seated for most of its length – building gradually but intently towards its blazing affirmation of the beyond. Lucy Crowe (left) was a little overwrought in her initial entries, while joining ecstatically with Cargill in their subsequent duet, yet it was the CBSO Chorus (who must have sung this music more often than almost any other such group) that ensured a truly blazing culmination; after which, the brief orchestral postlude unfolded swiftly and headily toward those majestic closing chords.

Eschewing bathos, and shorn of any tendency to grandstanding, this was a powerful end to what is an impressive interpretation in the making, besides confirming the rapport between orchestra and conductor that is audibly on the incline as the CBSO approaches its centenary.

Further listening

You can listen to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s recording of the Resurrection Symphony with Sir Simon Rattle on Spotify below: