Esther Abrami (violin), English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods
Saxton Scenes from the Epic of Gilgamesh (2022-3) [World Premiere] Bruch Scottish Fantasy in E flat (1880) Mendelssohn Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.56 ‘Scottish’ (1841-2)
Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford Friday 10 March 2022
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
There cannot be any more historic or atmospheric performance venues than the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, which is still going strong after over 350 years and the setting for this latest contribution to the English Symphony Orchestra’s ‘21st-Century Symphony Project’.
Speaking only recently, Robert Saxton stated a reluctance to call his Scenes from the Epic of Gilgamesh a symphony and yet the piece, a result of many years’ thinking about the musical treatment right for one of the oldest written texts, has a formal cohesion and expressive unity comparable to previous instalments in the ESO’s project. Scored for late Classical forces of pairs of woodwind, horns and trumpets with timpani and strings, its textural clarity serves to imbue any illustrative aspect with an abstract focus duly sustained across the five movements.
Charting a deft course over its narrative, the work heads from the fluid motion of a Prologue to The Journey to the Forest of Cedar, whose passacaglia-like evolution finds this composer at its most harmonically alluring, then to From dawn to dusk and a scherzo as tensile as it is evocative. Lament distils a tangible emotional force into its gradual yet inexorable build-up, moving straight into an Apotheosis which opens out the melodic content of earlier ideas and so brings a powerful culmination as the hero is forced to seek his immortality by other means.
More overtly tonal it may have become, Saxton’s music still presents considerable challenges technical and interpretive. Suffice to add these were met with finesse and no little conviction by Kenneth Woods (above) and the ESO who, having previously recorded this work for future release, were fully conversant with its elusive while always approachable idiom. Almost four decades on from the flamboyant pieces which helped establish his name, Saxton revealed an orchestral mastery that will hopefully find an outlet in further such pieces – whether or not ‘symphonic’.
Tonight’s concert was also notable for featuring the ESO’s new Creative Partner and Artist in Residence – violinist Esther Abrami (above), her presence on social media enhanced by the release of her eponymous debut album for Sony. Stylishly attired (with an image that, for older readers, might recall Audrey Hepburn), she gave an account of Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy at its best in the transition from sombreness to eloquence of its Introduction and high-flown sentiments of an Andante in which the composer’s recourse to folk melodies is at its most felicitous. Before it, the Scherzo ideally needed more incisiveness for its engaging humour fully to register, with the final Allegro (given in abbreviated form) rather less than ‘warlike’ – though its mellifluous second theme enabled Abrami to conjure a tonal warmth which was never less than appealing.
After the interval, the ESO came fully into its own with an impressive take on Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony. Whatever its genesis in his tour of that country when just 20, the work is demonstrably that of a composer who, having reached a creative mid-point, surveys his many successes but also failings. Hence the fatalistic aura such as informs the opening movement’s introduction or the tense agitation of its main Allegro – both of which were palpably brought out by Woods, who then gave the brief if scintillating scherzo its head. The highlight was an Adagio whose constant pivoting between pathos and anguish was graphically stated – aided by an orchestral discipline no less evident in the final Allegro, its martial overtones carrying through to a pause in which the decision to opt for tragedy or triumph is held in the balance.
That the work closes in triumph has often been felt its downfall but, as conveyed by Woods at a swift if not inflexible tempo, such an apotheosis is one of determination or even defiance in the face of whatever is to come. It certainly brought this concert to a memorable conclusion.
Prokofiev Symphony no.1 in D major Op.25 ‘Classical’ (1916-17) Bruch Violin Concerto no.1 in G minor Op.26 (1866-8) Mendelssohn Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.56 ‘Scottish’ (1829-42)
Daishin Kashimoto (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Wednesday 4 May 2022, 2.15pm
Written by Richard Whitehouse
Just under a year before he becomes chief conductor, Kazuki Yamada was back with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for a programme of well-established favourites, which no doubt accounted for the gratifyingly full house that duly greeted his arrival on the podium.
There was humour aplenty in this account of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony – not least with Yamada almost acting out the initial Allegro’s whimsical second theme, but the highlight was a Larghetto whose sometimes disjunct episodes came together effortlessly. The outer sections of the ensuing Gavotte seemed a little too mannered to be convincing, but the Finale found conductor and orchestra at one in conveying the scintillating wit but also winsome pathos of its main themes, with a pointing of incidental detail then audible ‘lift off’ to the closing bars.
His decade as first concert-master of the Berlin Philharmonic likely accorded him less profile as a soloist, but his take on Bruch’s First Violin Concerto confirmed Daishin Kashimoto as a force to be reckoned with. Determined not to undersell the Prelude, he and Yamada brought out this music’s sombreness as keenly as its lyricism and, at its climax, a tempestuous energy that found the CBSO at its collective best. Nor was there any lack of emotional gravitas in the Adagio, Kashimoto drawing out its rapturous lyricism without neglecting those more intimate asides which resonate long after the music ceases. Emerging with real anticipation, the final Allegro had no lack of underlying impetus and, in its second theme, a high-flown eloquence that set the seal on this movement, and this piece overall, going into the decisive closing bars.
If the second-half performance of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony was not so consistently satisfying, it reaffirmed just why this work (and this composer) has remained a favourite of Birmingham audiences over the decades. Many latter-day accounts tend toward a decidedly Classical brusqueness, but Yamada chose never to rush the opening movement such that the poignancy of its introduction (rightly) persisted through those agitated contrasts of its main Allegro – the absence of an exposition repeat barely detracting from the music’s emotional weight. Effervescent without being overdriven, the scherzo provided ideal contrast between this and an Adagio whose alternate fervour and rhetoric never skirted that sentimentality as was once all too familiar – with Yamada ensuring clarity through even the densest textures.
As in the Bruch, this performance adhered to the ‘attacca’ indications by which Mendelssohn helps to maintain long-term cohesion. That into the finale launched this movement in bracing fashion and if impetus marginally faltered over the latter stages, the pathos at the outset of its coda made for an ideal transition into the peroration which, uplifting or grandstanding as one hears it, ensures a rousing conclusion that seldom fails to bring the house down. Which it did at the close of a reading that found the burgeoning CBSO/Yamada partnership in fine fettle.
Yamada will be back with this orchestra for the start of the 2022/23 season (details of which have just been announced), while next week brings the season’s last appearances with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla for a brace of programmes that feature Tchaikovsky, Bruckner and Brahms.
For more information on the CBSO’s 2021/22 season, visit their website, and for details on the newly announced 2022/23 season clickhere. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Kazuki Yamada and Daishin Kashimoto
written by Ben Hogwood Photo of Julia Fischer (c) Felix Broede
Arcana has an audience with Julia Fischer, the multi-skilled violinist and pianist who is Artist-in-Residence with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Her most recent concerts have contained a complete cycle of Mozart’s five Violin Concertos, along with the Sinfonia Concertante and a chamber concert with LPO soloists. The Mozart will shortly be available to view online, after which Fischer will be busy rehearsing the Elgar Violin Concerto for performance with the orchestra in April.
Our online call finds her bringing a little sunshine to an otherwise grey morning, full of enthusiasm as she greets us from her home city of Munich. To begin, she recalls her first encounters with the Mzart concertos. “The G major Concerto, no.3, was taught by my first violin teacher when I was really very little. I must have been eight, and I remember hearing Arabella Steinbacher play it. I think that was my first encounter with that concerto.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Fischer does not have a vivid memory of the impact it had on her – but was soon reacquainted with the piece. “A few months after that I actually performed the first movement of the concerto for my then teacher Ana Chumachenco so when I auditioned with her, it was with that first movement of the G major Concerto.”
Fischer recorded the concertos for Pentatone with Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, recordings that have aged will in the 15 years or so since she made them. Having spent a relatively long time with them, has her view changed at all? “I suppose, yes, but not in a conscious way. I learned them between the age of eight and fourteen, when I played the Fifth Concerto, then the Fourth Concerto when I was 16. The First and Second concertos I learned for the recording in 2006. After that I performed the cycle two or three times, and of course there are always things changing from one performance to the next, but my emotional approach didn’t change much.”
There are smaller considerations to be made, however. “Maybe the technical approach, the bowings, the note relations have changed a little, as there is always something you can discuss. You can do it with a large or small orchestra, with a conductor or without a conductor, with a harpsichord or without. There are many options, and I don’t think that any of those options are wrong. For the moment you have to find a good approach, and it depends on the people who are involved and who you play with.”
February seems a good time of year to be discussing and playing these essentially sunny, optimistic works. She smiles. “Let’s hope that we can be optimistic, you know?!” The concerts have interesting and exciting programmes around the Mozart works. Many of them will be given under Thomas Dausgaard, a conductor Fischer has worked with before. “Yes, he is a wonderful conductor. He is a very kind man, a wonderful musician. I specifically asked for him for these concerts.”
Dausgaard it was who chose the Richard Strauss pieces accompanying the Mozart – Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung with the Third and Fourth Concertos, and Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche with the Sinfonia Concertante. Meanwhile Fischer herself took charge of one concert. “I will always play and direct the first and second concertos, because I really don’t need a conductor there. I put together the first two concertos with the TchaikovskySerenade for Strings, and he did the rest of the programming.”
With the Mozart works, is there an assumption that the works are too easy to perform? “Yes. You can always find difficulties in any piece, but I think when you do the cycle it is important that each concerto has its own character, so that they don’t all sound the same. The First and Second Concertos are very different from Three, Four and Five, they are still very much from a perspective coming out of the Baroque-ish way of playing. I think Mozart probably had Vivaldi and Tartini in his mind, as they are much more difficult than Three, Four and Five.”
She expands on these three pieces. “The Third is probably the most lyrical one, and has the beautiful aria as its second movement, With the Fourth, it is a beautiful work, and as well as the portmanteau the second movement has this singing part. The Fifth is very different because it has the famous Turkish March finale, but with Three and Four you have to be careful that they don’t get too similar.”
Throughout the concertos, Fischer finds elements of Mozart’s operatic style. “I think it is everywhere”, she says emphatically. “In any Mozart, one has to see him first as an opera composer, and then it’s far easier to perform his instrumental pieces.”
From her answers above you will have gathered that Fischer learned the violin at an extremely young age. Indeed, she met Yehudi Menuhin well before her teens. Did she speak to him about the Mozart concertos at all? “Actually I played the Fifth Concerto with him, when I was 13, maybe 14. I remember playing that with him, but I don’t really remember the musicality of it. I also played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with him and that had a huge impact on me. We had a conductor for the rehearsals so he spent more time with me personally, and we worked on it together. The Mozart was a one-off concert in France, so we just met very briefly for that.”
As part her Mozart season with the London Philharmonic Fischer programmed a chamber concert, placing herself as soloist in the DvořákPiano Quintet no.2 – for she is indeed a fully-fledged concert pianist. It is an extra challenge, but one that she warms to. “I have played the first and second violin parts in that piece, and the piano part!” Does she find chamber music an essential complement to playing concertos? “There’s no difference”, she says. “It’s not as if I use a different technique or different perspective. For me it’s very natural that music is about communication, and communication is crucial to chamber music as well as orchestral pieces. For me it is not a different way of playing.”
As part of the chamber programme, Fischer included the little-heard Octet for Strings by Max Bruch – a composer who is all too often solely represented by his First Violin Concerto. “I love many pieces of his, I think they are really fantastic. The Octet is such a great piece of chamber music, and of course it’s fun to play. My first violin part is like the Mendelssohn Octet, it’s very challenging, and I like the double bass added to it which makes it almost like an orchestral piece. Whenever I am in residence with an orchestra, I try to programme the Bruch because usually I don’t get the opportunity to perform it.”
Fischer is relishing being back on the road and performing to audiences overseas. “In November I did my first tour in one and a half years, so that was very interesting!” she says with characteristic understatement. “Then I lost the LPO tour to Germany in December, and in January I was supposed to have a tour with my quartet. We were supposed to have nine concerts but in the end we had three. It’s a little bit frustrating but I’m very happy to have had this residency to perform.”
Playing the violin was not a challenge during the initial lockdown of 2020, but there were more immediate challenges. “It was very easy for me to keep playing”, she says. “I have no problem with making myself practice every day. I’ve never had a problem with that, but I am a mother to two school-age kids, and German schools were closed altogether for something like two months in the first lockdown. In the second lockdown my son was not in school for around six months. I had problems other than if I practiced or not!”
While she was grateful for the freedom to keep playing, Fischer was aware of the hardship caused. “There were certain professions that had to suffer the most, and we belong to those. Some people kept working through the entire pandemic, and I was basically without work for one and a half years. Of course I am lucky because I didn’t have any financial issues, and have a house and great family and everything, but from a professional point of view, artists were suffering a lot.”
Turning back to the more immediate future, Fischer will be performing the ElgarViolin Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski in early April. “It was my debut piece with the LPO in 2004”, she remembers, “it was my first performance with them. It was the first season that I played it in concert, but I learned it two years before that when I actually graduated from school. For my graduation I took five months off from concerts, so I didn’t perform for five months. My teacher said, “OK, let’s learn a few concertos in that time”, so I learned the Elgar and the Khachaturian. That was when I first learned it. I had it on my London Philharmonic tour with Vladimir Jurowski to Asia three years ago. And yeah, we actually wanted to play it on the December tour to be prepared for the April concert, which didn’t happen, so now we have to start over again, but I’m very much looking forward to it.
She is fulsome in her praise for the conductor. “Jurowski is absolutely phenomenal in these huge pieces, because it’s so big. You have such a big orchestra, the piece is very long, and you really need a conductor capable of finding the architecture of such a huge piece, and also one who is capable of accompanying because it is a very free concerto. You need somebody who can really follow you well, so I’m very much looking forward to that.”
She did not get a chance to converse with Yehudi Menuhin about the Elgar. “I remember when I met him, I started to collect his recordings. I have the recording of him when he was 16, with Elgar conducting, and that’s when I first heard the piece. My first encounter was with his recording, but I never talked to him about it.”
The Elgar concerto will be coupled with the Second Symphony of George Enescu, a typical example of Jurowski’s imaginative approach to his concerts. “I know Jurowski is pretty amazing with programming”, Fischer says. “When I need to find new programmes I text him and ask for his opinion, because I know that it’s not my strength, programming – so I always try to get inspiration from somewhere else!”
Fischer has not yet recorded the Elgar – is that something she would like to address? “I was supposed to record it a few times, and then something always just didn’t happen. We are recording the concert in April, so I’m looking forward to seeing that. I don’t think the Elgar is a piece I would want to record in a studio, because it’s so long. It’s hard to find the excitement through the piece, but in a concert recording I think it is entirely possible.”
In the longer term, are there other pieces Julia would like to learn and record? “I have always been very curious, and I used the pandemic to read through a lot of music and learn a few pieces. I don’t have a master plan though. When a conductor asks me to learn something I think about it. For example I’m playing in a year from now in Warsaw with Andrey Boreyko, and he asked me to learn the Violin Concerto by Karłowicz, which dates from around 100 years ago. I’m very happy to do that. I think it’s tough to judge a piece, because usually with many pieces you only know if they are going to work or not when you are on the stage. It’s worth learning and performing them once to decide if that is a piece you are going to keep in your repertory or not.”
Julia has a busy performing schedule for the rest of the year – pandemic permitting, of course. “Well, let’s see what’s going to happen! I’m very much looking forward to touring Europe with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in May. The past two tours fell apart and this is a big tour. The problem with touring is that if you lose one country then the entire tour can fall apart. Unfortunately it is usually Germany that is the country with the most strict rules, and with the least support for arts, I have to say. I don’t think as many concerts have been cancelled anywhere as they have been in Germany. Or, even worse, when they don’t cancel but have these 25% or 50% rules. Until last week in Bavaria we had 25% and rules of being vaccinated two or three times. Some people wanted to come but it was too much of an effort, and in Austria it was the same. With those restrictions it is impossible to programme anything, so we will see – but for May the prognosis is good. That sounds hopeful but what we’ve learned in the last two years is not to be certain of that!”
She remains busy as a teacher, “a bit busier than I should be! I have too many students, which was a great thing during the pandemic of course. I was teaching every week, and that gave me a lot of joy, with a wonderful class and wonderful students, some very interesting musicians. We even did little concerts for each other just so that we could keep on performing, even if it was four or five of us we continued to do that. I am a very happy teacher!”
Julia Fischer performs and directs Mozart with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in two concerts set for broadcast on Marquee TV on 5 March and 12 March. For more details click here.
In the first concert she is soloist and director in the first two concertos, while Thomas Dausgaard conducts in the third. The second concert pairs the Fourth and Fifth concertos, while viola player Nils Mönkemeyer joins for the famous Sinfonia Concertante.
Fischer will perform the Elgar Violin Concerto with the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski in the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 13 April, with Enescu’s Second Symphony. Tickets for that concert can be found here.
Finally, for more information on Julia Fischer’s European tour with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, click below:
Believe it or not, Beethoven is not the only classical composer to have an anniversary in 2020!
While Arcana are spending a great deal of time examining and enjoying his output, we should definitely spare some moments to appreciate the gifts of Max Bruch, a gifted melodist who died 100 years ago today.
Born in 1838, Bruch is known chiefly for his works for violin and orchestra, in particular the Violin Concerto no.1 completed just before he turned 30. As is so often the case, however, if you look beneath the surface there are many more riches to be found.
Even at the age of 11 he was showing considerable talent in his Septet in E flat major, a work only discovered in 1981. The first violin concerto was followed by a first Symphony of three – attractive works which have just recently been released by Robert Trevino and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on the CPO label, reviewed on this site. Full of attractive tunes and outdoorsy textures, they are very enjoyable works.
This is before we get to the works for solo instruments and orchestra, where Bruch is at his most consistently inventive. The imaginative combination of clarinet and viola work well in the Concerto in E minor (1911), while the Concerto for two pianos and orchestra from a year later has added steel from the two keyboard instruments. The shorter pieces for strings and orchestra are more directly moving, headed by the soulful Kol Nidrei for cello and the Romance for violin.
On a larger scale, Bruch’s Scottish Rhapsody, based on themes from James Johnson’s collection of folk songs The Scots Musical Museum, is a wonderful piece, full of positive energy, which leads us to the three violin concertos themselves. The Violin Concerto no.1 is rightly celebrated for its blend of romanticism and technical virtuosity, but the second and third are cut from a very similar cloth, reaching similar heights of expression and daring. A late Serenade for violin and orchestra, published in 1899, is also a fine piece.
Bruch is a figure who often dips beneath the radar in concert programming, and who suffers from over-exposure of his ‘flagship’ piece, but it is worth taking some time around his centenary to appreciate the body of his output. Happily there are some fine records to aid us in that quest!
Bruch’s symphonies can be heard in the most recent recording by Robert Trevino, while the violin concertos have all been recorded by Jack Liebeck and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins for Hyperion. You can visit their Bruch page to examine these and other attractive chamber pieces from the Nash Ensemble:
Symphony no.1 in E flat major Op.28 (1868)
Symphony no.2 in F minor Op.36 (1870)
Symphony no.3 in E major Op.51 (1882)
Lorely Op.16 – Overture (1863)
Hermione Op.40 – Prelude (ed. Jacob); Funeral March; Entr’acte (1871)
Odysseus, Op. 41 – Prelude (1872)
Bamberger Symphoniker / Robert Trevino
Producers Torsten Schreier, Michaela Wiesbeck
Engineers Christian Jaeger, Markus Spatz
Recorded 2-5 January & 8-12 July 2019, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg
CPO 555252-2 [two discs, 149’04”]
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
CPO continues its coverage of Max Bruch with his complete symphonies, finely rendered by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Trevino with the same insight and perception he brought to his recent Malmö traversal of Beethoven symphonies (Ondine).
What’s the music like?
Seldom encountered in the concert hall, Bruch’s symphonies have been recorded frequently these past three decades – with cycles from such conductors as Kurt Masur (Philips/Decca), James Conlon (EMI/Warner) or Richard Hickox (Chandos) and at least three others. Trevino is at least the equal of any, not least because the playing from his Bamberg forces has all the warmth and eloquence this taciturn music requires; with the acoustic of the Joseph Keilberth Room affording clarity and definition in Bruch’s often densely layered orchestral textures.
This recording of the First Symphony is the first to restore the Intermezzo that Bruch placed second in what was originally a five-movement structure. Here its wistful charm offers subtle contrast between the slow-burning momentum of the opening Allegro and Mendelssohnian impetus of the Scherzo. The sombre grandeur of the Quasi Fantasia functions as extended introduction to the Finale – its vaunting energy featuring what must be the nearest in any of these works to a ‘catchy tune’, on the way to a coda whose affirmation is equally uninhibited.
It may be much less approachable, but the Second Symphony is undoubtedly the finest of this cycle. Formally innovative, too, in that its three movements – each of them moderately paced and gradually cumulative – builds from salient motifs all derived from a ‘motto’ idea stated at the outset and which duly returns to crown the finale. Coolly received at its premiere and then accorded only grudging respect, this remains a highpoint of Bruch’s output as also of German mid-Romanticism, and Trevino does full justice to its deep-seated logic and cumulative power.
Bruch evidently conceived his symphonies as a triptych, but he laboured over completing his Third Symphony – by which time, the first two of Brahms’s cycle had shifted the symphonic goalposts irrevocably. That said, the restrained initial movement has a delightful insouciance, while the Adagio evinces a ruminative poise worthy of Dvořák. The bustling Scherzo (better placed second) feels a little too generic, however, while the short-winded Finale hardly rises above the routine. Bruch thereafter essayed concertos and suites, but no further symphonies.
Does it all work?
Yes, allowing Bruch was very much a product of that century between the Napoleonic and First World wars when cultural, as opposed to societal change was incremental rather than radical. Excerpts from his operas Loreley and Hermione (the latter’s Prelude disfigured by Wolfgang Jacob’s crude ‘concert ending’) and his oratorio Odysseus fill-out the picture of a composer who, if his innate conservatism may have been wielded increasingly out of spite rather than conviction, wrote appealing music which did not lack for integrity of purpose.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. Those who have heard Ray Chen’s engaging account of the First Violin Concerto (Decca) will be aware of Trevino’s identity with this music and so it proves here, in what is a welcome addition to Bruch’s discography as the centenary of his death fast approaches.
For further information, audio clips and purchase information visit the Presto website