Live review – Nicola Benedetti, Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Thomas Søndergård: Polska Scotland opening concert

nicola-benedetti-rsno

Nicola Benedetti (violin, photo by Martin Shields), Royal Scottish National Orchestra Thomas Søndergård

RSNO Studio, Glasgow
Broadcast Friday 16 April 2021, available online until Friday 30 July 2021

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Szymanowski Violin Concerto no.1 Op.35 (1922)
Panufnik Sinfonia Sacra (Symphony no.3) (1964)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The first concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s Polska Scotland season provided a tempting mix of 20th century pieces. The season is exploring connections between the two countries, and watching the accompanying video (at the bottom of this page) reveals a number of interesting and pertinent connections, not least in the orchestra itself.

The choice of repertoire here was refreshing, too. Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no.1 is more of a regular repertoire piece these days, but the same could certainly not be said of the inclusions from Mieczysław Weinberg, the Polish composer who found his way to Moscow in the 1940s, and Andrzej Panufnik, who fled Warsaw for London ten years later.

Weinberg’s parents moved to Poland from Moldova in 1916, and this concert began with the composer’s Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes, exploring the heritage of his parents through the development of contrasting folk tunes. In this way he was following the lead of folk-based pieces for orchestra from the likes of Kodály, Enescu and Bartók, relishing the chance to project and develop the music of their home countries through the concert hall.

The RSNO strings were appropriately deadpan at the start, their cold and muted contributions expertly controlled and matched by suitable lighting in the hall. The woodwind gave heartfelt, soulful contributions, as did the orchestra leader, violinist Sharon Roffman, and these led to thrills and spills as the RSNO powered through the faster sections, urged on by Thomas Søndergård.

Polska-scotland

Nicola Benedetti was the soloist in Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no.1, a piece she started to play at the age of 16. Having lived with it for approximately the same length of time, she noted the increased popularity of the piece – and talked through how conductor Sondergaard’s vision of the music was slower than hers, giving her a renewed perspective.

The violin emerged rather magically from the brief but colourful orchestral introduction and dominated almost throughout, rich of tone and with extremely secure intonation. The vivid colours were an overriding feature of this performance, Søndergård achieving a sound balance between soloist and orchestra, but within the ensemble he probed the deeper shades of Szymanowski’s lyrical writing. Benedetti was passionate and driven, the searing high notes carrying easily above the orchestra and then doing their own work in ardent outpouring of the complex cadenza. Søndergård gave the piece more room than it normally receives, but this was to its benefit – and the capricious ending was beautifully weighted.

First violinist Jane Reid then recounted a Polish tour for the orchestra in 1978, which opened with Panufnik’s Sinfonia Sacra, receiving its first performance in the country. It was a daring choice from conductor Sir Alexander Gibson, given the composer’s departure for London in 1954, but Reid’s vivid account spoke of tears in the Warsaw audience. Indeed, it is hard to understand why the piece is not performed more today – given the Weinberg revival of late, the music of Panufnik is just as deserving.

This performance from the RSNO was intensely moving. The powerful opening fanfares of Vision I from the brass were razor sharp, and cut to an equally heartfelt Vision II from the strings, icy cold music of solemn countenance. This was blown apart by Vision III, where driven percussion gave way to onrushing strings the surging brass in music of dissonance and disquiet. The contrast with the final Hymn was even greater, the strings united again in a cold chorale, but gradually the music thawed and grew in power.

Sondergård expertly marshalled this section and its steady build, taking a broad tempo but controlling the unwavering intensity of Panufnik’s writing. The brass fanfares were resolute, but the final statement of the hymn had great resolve, an ultimately triumphant end – even if the dissonances remained, defiant to the finish.

This was a superb start to a season which promises much, with works to come from Lutosławski, Bacewicz and more Szymanowski – Nicola Benedetti will return to play his Violin Concerto no.2. On this evidence, all the online concerts are highly recommended.

You can watch the concert on the Royal Scottish National Orchestra website here

For more information on the Royal Scottish National Orchestra digital season, you can visit their website here

Live review – April Fredrick, Zoë Beyers, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Inspired by Mahler

April Fredrick (soprano, above), Zoë Beyers (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler (arr. Stein) Das irdische Leben (1892/1900)
Weinberg Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42 (1948)
Schulhoff Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37 (1921)
Ullmann (arr. Woods) Chamber Symphony op 46a (1943/1999)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded in 2020 for online broadcast, Wednesday 27 January 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Holocaust Memorial Day is a timely opportunity to hear music anticipatory of, inspired by or stemming from events that have defaced human history on all too many occasions, and which provided the basis for this latest online concert from the English Symphony Orchestra.

The underlying tone for this programme was set by Mahler, with one of his settings of texts from the folk collection Des knaben Wunderhorn. In pivoting between the child’s supplication and his mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of the composer’s most evocative songs – not least its portrayal of the child’s existence running out as though this were grains of sand. April Fredrick accordingly invested the vocal part with just the right combination of ominous dread and lingering pathos.

ESO leader Zoë Beyers then took centre-stage for Weinberg‘s Violin Concertino, the product of late-1940s Soviet culture when accessibility was not just desired but prescribed. Modest in expressive scope next to those chamber works that preceded it, this work is highly appealing – not least in the deftness and subtlety with which the composer unfolds his ideas across an ingratiating Allegretto, ruminative Adagio (whose cadenza-like introduction brings the most arresting music in the whole work), then a final Allegro whose thematic interplay is nothing if not resourceful. Beyers rendered it with unfailing eloquence, making it clear just why this attractive piece – which had to wait almost half a century for a first public hearing – should now have established itself among the most often performed of Weinberg’s orchestral works.

In telling contrast, Erwin Schulhoff’s Suite for Chamber Orchestra was a pert reminder of the composer’s usage of jazz as part of a lifelong and tragically curtailed stylistic odyssey. While the faster numbers recall the wit of Poulenc’s earlier chamber music and irony of Stravinsky’s suites for theatre orchestra, the Valse Boston (its soulful violin solos hauntingly rendered by David Juritz) and Tango admit of a searching introspection to the fore in those works from Schulhoff’s last years. Qualities which are pointedly side-lined by the uproarious final Jazz.

The final work provided the culmination in every respect. Written during internment at the transit camp of Terezin (aka Theresienstadt), the Third String Quartet is Viktor Ullmann’s likely instrumental masterpiece – in terms both of its formal unity and expressive diversity – and whose transcription onto the larger canvas has been persuasively achieved by Kenneth Woods. Chamber Symphony makes a not inappropriate title, this single span drawing the contrasted movements into a seamless and finely-balanced whole – the initial theme acting as a soulful refrain between the angular scherzo with its waltz-like undertow then, after the terse development, a fugal Largo whose accrued intensity carries over into the final Rondo with its striving towards a fervent restatement of the ultimately transfigured ‘motto’ theme’.

An imposing work, given a committed reading by this orchestra under its arranger in what was an appropriate tribute for the day. The ESO’s online series is scheduled to continue on the 26th of February, with a portrait concert of the American composer Steven R. Gerber.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website from 7.30pm on Wednesday 27 January 2021 here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

On record: Weinberg: Wir Gratulieren! (Congratulations!) – Vladimir Stoupel (Oehms Classics)

Weinberg arr. Henry Koch
Wir Gratulieren! (Congratulations! orig. Mazl tov!) Op.111 (1975)

Beylya – Olivia Saragosa (contralto), Reb Alter – Jeff Martin (tenor) Khaim – Robert Elibay-Hartog (baritone) Fradl – Anna Gütter (soprano) Madame – Katia Guedes (soprano), Kammerakademie Potsdam / Vladimir Stoupel

Producer Hein Laabs Engineer Henri Thaon
Recorded 23 September 2012, Werner-Otto-Saal, Konzerthaus, Berlin

Oehms Classics OC990 [two discs, 80’23”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Oehms Classics issues this first recording of a one-act opera by Mieczysław Weinberg, taken from a live performance in Berlin to the German translation by Ulrike Patow, as adapted by the composer from the drama by Sholom Aleichem (indirectly of Fiddler on the Roof fame).

What’s the music like?

Those having heard Weinberg’s first opera, the powerfully dramatic The Passenger (Neos or ArtHaus), or his last, the darkly inward The Idiot (Pan Classics) will find Mazl tov! something different again.

By the mid-1970s, the composer felt able to pen an intrinsically Jewish opera with recourse to the song and dance idioms familiar from the Yiddish theatre of his Warsaw youth, and a decidedly sardonic tone not far removed from the interwar stage works of Weill or Eisler. Any risk of provoking Soviet officialdom was offset by a vein of Socialist optimism in the ‘masters versus servants’ scenario, culminating in a ‘things will be different’ outcome. Divided into two acts (55 and 25 minutes), the narrative allows for incremental though subtle development of the four protagonists as they move as if pre-destined to their double wedding.

Does it all work?

Yes, inasmuch that this music, played in an adept reduction for chamber orchestra by Henry Koch, is itself characterful as well as ideally suited to the domestic tragicomedy at hand. Each of the four main singers is allotted their share of the limelight, without these soliloquys either detracting from or impeding the onward flow of the drama, and those familiar with Weinberg will detect various motifs or phrases that re-emerge in the symphonies and string quartets he was to write across the next decade – making for a work as central to his output as any other.

As to the cast, Olivia Saragosa brings no mean pathos to the cook Beylya, recently widowed and in thrall to an ungrateful mistress, while Jeff Martin evinces humour and no little stealth as Reb Alter, the travelling bookseller whose radical thinking motivates all those around him. Robert Elibay-Hartog is no less persuasive in the role of Khaim, servant from a neighbouring estate whose charm and panache gradually win over the maid Fradl, whose initial monologue summons the most affecting music of the entire opera and who arguably emerges as the most liberated by the close. Katia Guedes is equally arresting as Madame, her cameo appearances galvanizing the drama not least in the final scene as she is faced down by her moral superiors. Note that Weinberg’s alternative, more expressively ambivalent ending is used at this point.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Vladimir Stoupel secures a vibrant response from the musicians of Kammerakademie Potsdam, heard to advantage within the confines of the chamber hall at Berlin’s Konzerthaus, even if those demands of a live performance mean balance with the singers is not consistent. The booklet is attractively produced with full artist biographies and production sketches, but Arno Lücker’s introductory note is only adequate and the German-only libretto has numerous entries printed under the wrong singer. An English translation is available online (see below).

Hopefully, an alternative recording or production of Mazl tov! – preferably with the original orchestration and in Russian – will emerge in due course. For now, however, this lively and capable production should engage and amuse listeners as audibly as it did its Berlin audience.

Listen

Buy

For further information, audio clips and purchase information visit the Presto website

Weinberg 100

Today marks the centenary of the birth of the Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg.

After a long period without exposure for his music we are finally starting to see the full extent of this extraordinary composer’s output. Some of it has been covered by Arcana in his centenary year, including a pioneering cycle of the 17 string quartets given by the Quatuor Danel at the University of Manchester and two concerts from the CBSO’s Weinberg weekend – from an orchestral concert from the CBSO and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to Gidon Kremer‘s Preludes To A Lost Time by way of Kremer and his chamber group Kremerata Baltica in a fascinating concert of putting Weinberg’s works in context.

The Cello Concerto made quite a splash at the BBC Proms this year, and you can watch Sol Gabetta playing it with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Mikko Franck below:

Meanwhile a good place to start for the uninitiated is by taking on Kremer’s two discs on ECM. The first of these comprises the four chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet:

Meanwhile the sequel is an enticing collection of miscellaneous works from the Weinberg pen, including the Symphony no.10:

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 7: Wojciech Świtała & the Silesian String Quartet play Weinberg & Bacewicz

Silesian String Quartet [(Szymon Krzeszowiec, Arkadiusz Kubica (violins), Łukasz Syrnicki (viola), Piotr Janosik (cello) (above)], Wojciech Świtała (piano, below)

Weinberg String Quartet no.7 (1959) (2:47 – 26:49 on the broadcast link below)

Bacewicz Piano Quintet no.1 (1952) (30:36 – 53:10)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 2 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Photo credit Magdalena Jodłowska (Silesian String Quartet)

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

For this listener at least, it has taken a while for the Proms At…Cadogan Hall theme to catch on this season. However the BBC’s traversal of 800 years of musical history has turned out to be both original and interesting, touching on areas of music not often heard or given top billing. By grouping these two anniversary composers together a cogent and thought provoking program was the result; a concert subdued in delivery but high on musical and emotional substance.

Both Polish composers featured are not thought of as front rank examples of their country’s classical music tradition, but on this evidence both should be brought forward. There are past reasons for that relative neglect, in the relative unavailability of Weinberg’s music to western ears, and the effective suppression of his and Grażyna Bacewicz’s music, but as classical music looks to remove boundaries and stereotypes, these are exactly the type of musical figures that should benefit from such a move.

We heard Weinberg first, and the seventh of his impressive output of seventeen string quartets (from 2:47 on the broadcast link above). It is perhaps the one that sails closest to the style of his friend and protector Shostakovich, especially in the second movement where it quotes from his String Quartet no.3. As the Adagio first movement (2:47 on the broadcast) shows, the two composers have much in common in mood if not execution. Weinberg’s bittersweet lyricism is to the fore here, the radiance of pure C major at the very beginning reminiscent of Shostakovich’s own first string quartet in the same key from 20 years later.

As the music progresses however there are more troubled offshoots and episodes, the players digging deeper and the music lost in thought. Weinberg does still keep his audience in mind of the brighter sound of the opening material, which returns at 8:18.

The second movement (marked Allegretto, 9:24) has shadowy outlines from the cello, the music again wary but prone to quick and nimble outbursts from second violin (the excellent Arkadiusz Kubica) – very much in the vein of a Shostakovich scherzo, but with less bite to its execution.

The third and final movement (15:24), a substantial set of 23 variations on a theme, feels like the emotional crux of the work, and was performed as such here by the Silesians. Passionate solos from first violinist Szymon Krzeszowiec and viola player Łukasz Syrnicki (an extended dialogue from 24:20) took place in the Adagio sections, and were complemented by some really concentrated and increasingly fraught quartet episodes in the Allegro, the melodies compressed and tense. In keeping with the movement’s arch structure this tension built towards the viola solo, which marked the passionate final section and a resolution in C major. The feeling was that of a battle won, but at a cost.

Bacewicz contributed two piano quintets to her sizeable chamber music output, and both are works of originality and style. While many piano-led works such as these go for volume and bluster in the keyboard part there is more poise and reserve here, the piano and strings complementing each other on an equal footing.

There is a light touch to the music too, especially in the dance music of the second movement. Before then the first movement (initially marked Moderato by the composer) sets a relatively austere scene, though the string glints at the edges. A faster central section hints at a dance and certainly gains more energy before falling back to the slower approach, albeit with more depth this time, certainly as performed here.

The second movement (marked Presto, 37:47) takes the Polish oberek dance as its inspiration, the forthright piano melody supported by lilting, syncopated strings before summoning itself for a dramatic finish. The slow movement (Grave, 42:09) is every bit as powerful, though here the steps are very slow and steady to a stern, full-bodied climax.

The finale (48:35) had great purpose and originality of texture, the quartet busying their musical arguments against an increasingly outspoken piano part. A set of quick fire exchanges and bustling figures among the strings were harnessed for a full bodied closing statement.

Both pieces were superbly played in this concert, the commitment of the Silesian String Quartet beyond contention – as was also the case for pianist Wojciech Świtała. If the music itself was a little straight faced, it was a timely reminder that only 80 years ago (to the week) the Second World War had begun. The music therefore served as a warning for lessons that appear not to have been heeded!

Listen

The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:

The Silesian String Quartet have also recorded a good deal of Weinberg’s chamber output. Here is a disc of the composer’s String Quartets nos. 9 & 10:

They have also recorded all seven string quartets by Bacewicz, in an award winning double album for Chandos which you can hear below: