In concert – Gabriela Montero, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Tchaikovsky & Bruckner

Gabreila-Montero

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op.23 (1874-5)
Bruckner
Symphony no.6 in A major (1879-81)

Gabriela Montero (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 11 May 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tchaikovsky and Bruckner might not be the likeliest coupling, but this evening’s programme by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra juxtaposed two works of less than a decade apart to arresting and even thought-provoking effect under the baton of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

Gabriela Montero can almost always be relied upon to ring the changes in standard repertoire, as it proved in this account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. Its introduction opulent if not unduly grandiloquent, the opening movement proceeded securely and often imaginatively – Montero unafraid to tackle the orchestra head on in this most elemental confrontation, even while her tone was not free of clatter on occasion. Powerfully shaped and incisively rendered, the cadenza brought forth a spontaneous response to this composer at his most imaginative.

At less than half the length of their predecessor, the remaining movements can feel almost an afterthought, though Montero had the measure of the Andantino with its winsome main theme (elegantly phrased by flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic) with its capricious central section incisively fleet of foot. Heading straight into the final Allegro con fuoco (mention of which was omitted from the programme), she duly balanced pianistic fireworks with tangible pathos on the way to an apotheosis with piano and orchestra at one in conveying the music’s unchecked elation.

From the outset of her career, Montero has advocated the almost lost art (with pianists if not organists) of improvisation, and her encore duly took the title-theme from Ennio Morricone’s score to Cinema Paradiso as basis for an engaging workout along the lines of a Bach fugue.

It was Bruckner’s Sixth that MG-T should have conducted (replaced by Omer Meir-Wellber) at what proved the CBSO’s last ‘home’ concert prior to the corona virus ushering in the first lockdown. Good she has been able to reschedule it, even if the overall result was inconsistent. The initial Majestoso was mostly well judged, even if her modification of tempo between its first and second themes then her hairpin crescendos towards the apexes of the development and coda – the latter being one of Bruckner’s finest inspirations – impeded formal continuity. No such issues affected the Adagio, its ineffable expanse guided with assurance and no little insight towards those climaxes supporting the structure as though pillars of an ecclesiastical edifice – the coda ensuring a benediction whose repose remained after this music had ceased.

Nor was there anything to take issue in a Scherzo whose outer sections had all the requisite verve and wit, with the insouciance of its trio ideally judged. A pity when things rather fell apart in the Finale – its genial second theme just avoiding sentimentality at this halting pace, but whose development unfolded at so inhibited a tempo as to become parenthetical to the movement overall. By the time the coda emerged, any consistency of pulse had long been sacrificed so not even the splendour of the CBSO’s collective response could save the day.

Hopefully MG-T will be able to tackle this recalcitrant work again soon, though tomorrow sees the Tchaikovsky paired with Brahms’s Third Symphony. The CBSO then embarks on another European tour before returning for a History of Soul event at the end of this month.

For more information on the CBSO’s 2021/22 season, visit their website, and for details on the newly announced 2022/23 season click here. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Gabriela Montero and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

In concert – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Tchaikovsky & Stravinsky

CBSO-mirga-patricia

Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet (1869, rev. 1880)
Stravinsky
Violin Concerto in D (1931)
Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 4 in F minor Op. 36 (1877-8)

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 2 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Coming toward the end of her tenure as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla presided over this orthodox programme of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky given additional resonance by the geopolitical context against which it was heard.

At its centre was the Violin Concerto which Stravinsky wrote for his then duo partner Samuel Dushkin, whose four succinct movements nominally correspond to what is frequently thought a typical work from his neo-classical years, but with Patricia Kopatchinskaja involved this was anything but a straightforward rendering. From the start, a theatrical burlesque undercut any notions of Classical or even Baroque poise – those acerbic contrasts of its opening Toccata complemented by the speculative ambivalence of its First Aria or plangent eloquence of its Second Aria; the final Capriccio no less provocative in its constantly changing harmonic and rhythmic emphases. Regretting the absence of a cadenza, Kopatchinskaja instead gave Ligeti’s early Ballad and Dance – the latter in partnership with leader Eugene Tzikindelean.

Ambivalence in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is more to do with what sort of piece it is – the composer taking over a decade to get the formal balance of this ‘fantasy overture’ right. While there was no lack of evocative immediacy, MG-T was more concerned with bringing out its symphonic logic; not least in a sombre introduction and notably circumspect take on the ‘love theme’. For all the ensuing cumulative impetus, it was the woodwind chorale near the end – Tchaikovsky’s empathy with his subjects made explicit – as proved most affecting.

It was with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony that MG-T concluded her first concert in charge of the CBSO at the 2016 Proms, which memory recalls as similar in approach to that heard this afternoon. The complex formal trajectory of the first movement (tempo markings given inadvertently in the programme as being those for the whole piece) was adroitly negotiated – audibly intensifying when the pervasive ‘fate’ motto emerges at the start of the development and reprise, then a coda whose ultimate implacability never descended into mere histrionics.

Its oboe melody limpidly rendered by Steve Hudson, the Andantino unfolded audibly as ‘in modo di canzona’ – the emotional surge of its central section (rightly) held in check and the closing pages suffused with pathos. Neither was the Scherzo treated as an excuse for empty virtuosity – strings articulating its ‘pizzicato ostinato’ outer sections with delectable humour, and woodwind relishing the ‘harmonien’ writing of its Allegro trio. Following on apace, the Allegro con fuoco found viable balance between untrammelled exuberance and a methodical progress such as makes the climactic return of the ‘motto’ structurally as well as emotionally inevitable. If MG-T (purposely?) underplayed this crucial episode, then there was no lack of resolve in her handling of a peroration which brought a defiant rather than triumphal close. Ukrainian flags on and above the platform were ample evidence of just where the thoughts of musicians and audience alike were directed. As postscript to this concert, MGT’s choice of a soulful Melody in A minor by the late Myroslav Skoryk could hardly have been more apposite.

This concert is repeated on Thursday 3 March at 7.30pm. For details and tickets click here

Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – and for more information on Myroslav Skoryk, click here

In concert – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: A Covid Requiem

mirga-grazinyte-tyla

Adès O Albion (1994, arr. 2019)
Pärt
Fratres (1977, arr. 1991)
Purcell (arr. Britten)
Chacony in G minor Z730 (c1680, arr. 1948)
Barber
Adagio in B flat minor Op.11 (1935, arr. 1936)
interspersed with poetry readings by Casey Bailey
Fauré
Requiem in D minor Op.48 (1887-90, rev. 1893)

James Platt (bass), Casey Bailey (poet), CBSO Children’s Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Tomo Keller (violin/director), Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 6 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Even if live music-making has gradually been returning to how it was, the (ongoing) legacy of Coronavirus could hardly be overlooked, thus a concert such as that given this evening by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was a necessary act of remembrance for all the many concertgoers to have been affected by the pandemic. As befitted such an occasion, no speeches or prefatory remarks were needed, with the darkening of the auditorium during the performance a simple but effective gesture which helped focus musicians and listeners alike.

Strings only were onstage in the first half – Tomo Keller directing a sequence as began with O Albion, Thomas Adès’s arrangement of the sixth movement from his quartet Arcadiana, whose gentle pathos made for the ideal entrée. Arvo Pärt has written numerous memorials and while Cantus might have been more appropriate in this context than Fratres, the latter’s sparing deployment of percussion as to underline its ritualistic emergence then withdrawal conveyed no mean eloquence. Surprising, perhaps, that Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Chacony is not heard more frequently on such occasions, its expressive intensification here informed by an acute rhythmic clarity. Barber’s Adagio is, of course, a staple at these times – the visceral emotion of its climax and subdued fatalism that ensues audibly conveyed here.

Interspersed between these pieces were poems by Casey Bailey, currently Birmingham Poet Laureate and whose readings were undeniably affecting in their sincerity – whether the heady reportage of 23.03.21 (a date no-one in the UK could hope to forget), the intimate evocation of Weight or graphic remembrance of Once. His appearances on stage were precisely judged as to segue into then out of the music either side and it was a pity when he did not take a call at the end of this first half, alongside the CBSO strings, given his contribution to proceedings.

Tomo Keller remained for the second half – adding ethereal counter-melodies to two of the sections in Fauré’s Requiem, whose 1893 version is without violins but with divided violas and cellos along with reduced woodwind and brass to make for a reading closer to the initial conception and certainly more apposite tonight. Her credentials in the choral repertoire well established, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted with a real sense of this work’s essential poise but without neglecting any deeper emotions. James Platt brought a ruminative warmth to the Hostias and Libera me, and it was an inspired touch to have the Pie Jesu sung in unison by the Children’s Chorus; its plaintiveness offsetting those richer tones of the Youth Chorus and CBSO Chorus, while opening-out the music’s textural and expressive range accordingly.

In one sense it would have been better had this concert not had to take place, given the legacy it commemorated (as was witnessed by the personal recollections occupying five pages of the programme) and yet, as those ethereal strains of the In Paradisum receded beyond earshot, a feeling of the Covid crisis having been recognized then overcome was palpable on the part of those present. Moreover, the CBSO’s next event is a performance of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – surely as transcendent and life-affirming an experience as could be hoped for.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Casey Bailey, click here, for James Platt click here, and for Tomo Kellner here

In concert – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Ruth Gipps, Adès & Brahms

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Gipps Symphony no.2 Op.30 (1945)
Adès
: The Exterminating Angel Symphony (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World premiere]

Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This unexpected yet worthwhile addition to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s season saw the revival of two works recently heard along with a belated premiere – twice postponed – for one of the most notable among the orchestra’s impressive roster of Centenary Commissions.

Its UK premiere guardedly received four years ago, Thomas Adès’s third opera felt limited as to provocative intent by the difficulty of transferring its theme of Spanish religious fascism to a different era. What was undeniable is the suitability of its numerous orchestral passages to being rendered in a more abstract context, hence The Exterminating Angel Symphony heard tonight. Its four sections arguably amount to a symphonic suite rather than symphony per se, yet their formal follow-through undoubtedly makes for a cohesive and finely balanced entity.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla evidently thought so – obtaining an incisive response in the ‘Entrances’ music whose expressive ambivalence intensifies second time around, then a virtuosic one in ‘March’; its malevolence building over a remorseless side-drum tattoo in a vivid foretaste of what lies ahead. Although it draws on one of the opera’s love-duets, ‘Berceuse’ seems a little unyielding in its emotional content despite the allure of scoring as was always apparent here.  It remains for ‘Waltzes’ (following without pause) to provide a suitable finale and, while this extended and ingeniously organized sequence of fragments from across the opera undeniably evokes a notable precedent in terms of its inexorable motion toward ultimate catastrophe, the animation and sheer panache of the CBSO’s playing brought about a suitably emphatic close.

Before this MGT again made a persuasive case for the Second Symphony by the orchestra’s one-time oboist Ruth Gipps, the contrasted sections of its single movement – a martial scherzo and eloquent Adagio framed by an ambivalent Moderato and cumulatively energetic Allegro – audibly unfolding as variations on an evocative theme heard at the start. An autobiographical aspect, concerning personal aspirations near the end of war, explains this piece’s confessional nature. Whether or not it will undergo several further decades of neglect remains to be seen.

After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, which orchestra and conductor had given before the lockdown last December. Tonight, however, the first movement (exposition repeat taken) was purposefully controlled with real cumulative thrust, a less than decisive transition into the reprise affording the only lapse in momentum prior to a coda of unfettered eloquence. The Andante was once again unerringly shaped in terms of its ruminative contrasts, and if the third movement had now become a little torpid, this hardly affected its unforced pathos. MGT rightly made the finale the culmination in every sense, her tautening of tension at the apex of its development yielding as tangible an expressive frisson as did the coda – where the work’s main motif descends as if from afar to secure the most transfigured of emotional touchdowns.

A memorable addition to an inevitably truncated yet memorable (and for all the right reasons) season, which the CBSO repeated at the Proms the following night. Beyond that, the autumn portion of its 2021/22 season has just been announced.

You can find information on the CBSO’s new season here.

In concert – Karen Cargill, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Mirga conducts Weinberg

Mirga

Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (above)

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Mahler Rückert-Lieder (1901-02)
Weinberg Symphony no.3 in B minor Op.45 (1949-50, rev. 1960)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 23 June 2021 (6.30pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Karen Cargill courtesy of Nadine Boyd Photography

The music of Mieczysław Weinberg has been a prominent feature in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s programmes with its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes duly started this latest of the orchestra’s concerts in impressive fashion.

Written when Soviet composers were under intense pressure to create music of a populist – or rather, nationalistic – nature, its recourse to melodies emanating from the region of Bessarabia (from where the composer’s parents hailed) draws directly on a lineage from Liszt to Bartók and Kodály. Weinberg’s handling of these, in its subtle take on a slow-fast trajectory, is never less than assured. MGT undoubtedly had its measure, whether in the ruminative opening with its plangent woodwind or the boisterous later stages when brass comes irresistibly to the fore.

Itself a revival (having been played at Symphony Hall in 2019 then at that year’s Proms), the Third Symphony is a more considered response to the anti-formalist campaign spearheaded by Andrei Zhdanov with the intention of making Soviet music more accountable to its public. Hence the inclusion of Belorussian and Polish folksong, though Weinberg is mindful to offset these with a formal rigour as, in the initial Allegro, ensures an emotionally restless unfolding to a coda shot-through with foreboding – one of several passages likely made more explicit in the subsequent revision. Here, as in the wistful second theme (akin to what Malcolm Arnold was writing around this time) then a climactic transition heading into the reprise, the CBSO’s playing underlined its ongoing affinity with this music which held good through to the close.

Hardly less idiomatic was the scherzo’s interplay of capricious with a more sardonic humour, then the Adagio’s sustained yet cumulative progress towards a climax of stark tragedy – only slightly pacified in the inward closing phase. If the animated finale strives to secure an overly affirmative ending, it was a measure of this account that any such optimism was held in check until the peremptory last bars. Weinberg could scarcely have hoped to hear a more perceptive performance: good to hear both this and the Rhapsody were being recorded for future release.

Between these pieces, Karen Cargill joined the CBSO for Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder (evidently the first time the orchestra has given them since baritone Olaf Bär with Simon Rattle in 1992). She drew a keen irony from Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder, then rendered Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft with appealing deftness. With its fugitive writing for woodwind and brass, and a fervent climax capped by garish arabesques from piano, Um Mitternacht is a difficult song to bring off but was notably effective, and the only disappointment was a rather inert take on Liebst du um Schönheit – Max Puttmann’s sub-Léhar orchestration at least partly to blame. Nor was Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ideally transcendent, yet the eloquence of Cargill’s response left no doubt concerning its status as arguably the greatest orchestral Lied.

A judiciously planned concert, then, in which the rapport between orchestra and conductor came through these past 15 months unscathed. The CBSO returns next Wednesday with its principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada in a programme of Julian Anderson and Dvorák.

You can find information on the CBSO’s next concert at their website