Live review – Anna Vinnitskaya & CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla perform Shostakovich

Anna Vinnitskaya (piano, above), Jonathan Holland (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 16 March 2019

Shostakovich
The Limpid Stream: Suite Op.39a (1935)
Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor Op.35 (1933)
Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Anna Vinnitskaya (c) Gela Megrelidze

With Birmingham Opera Company’s staging of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk having finished its run, an all-Shostakovich concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony was not just apposite but underlined the rapport between the orchestra and its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

The programme centred on Shostakovich’s music before and after an infamous Pravda article irrevocably altered the composer’s evolution. Attacks on The Limpid Stream were admittedly gratuitous; this last of his ballets finds Shostakovich at his most accessible – as witnessed by the suite devised several years later. Starting with a suave Waltz (which found fame as title-music for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), this continues with a vigorous Russian Dance then breezy Galop. The highlight is an Adagio whose soulful cello melody was eloquently rendered by Eduardo Vassallo. A deft pizzicato Polka was a rather inconclusive ending: the uproarious final dance (which follows-on almost continuously) would have made for a more decisive conclusion. No matter, this was still an engaging sequence and captivatingly played.

Shostakovich conceived his First Piano Concerto for his own pianism. Influences derive more from stage and screen than any earlier concertos, but its formal ingenuity is undeniable. Anna Vinnitskaya gauged ideally the first movement’s volatile tempo changes, while the Lento had poignancy and no mean vehemence at its climax; the ensuing intermezzo an upbeat to a finale whose high-jinx were teasingly held in check. Jonathan Holland was engaging in the obligato trumpet part, and the CBSO strings retained their articulation even in the hectic closing pages.

Whether or not an explicit response to that condemnatory Pravda article of January 1936, the Fifth Symphony is crucially important for moving the emphasis within Shostakovich’s output away from the theatrical. Nothing reinforces this more than the opening Moderato, with its individual take on sonata design that Gražinytė-Tyla handled with real assurance – keeping the exposition in motion with a fleeter than usual second subject, before eliding seamlessly into a purposeful development then an anguished reprise and desolate coda. The Scherzo had ironic wit without heaviness, whereas the slow movement impressed through its inevitability of progress towards a central episode of rapt inwardness; after which, the searing climax did not pre-empt the coda with its musing interplay of harp and celesta against suspended strings.

The finale offers the greatest challenges but Gražinytė-Tyla had its measure too, her fast yet never inflexible tempo for the surging initial stages segueing into the central episode with its heartfelt recall of earlier ideas then ethereal searching towards a crowning peroration. Neither wantonly triumphal nor turgidly defeatist, this was a thoughtful yet decisive conclusion to the overall emotional trajectory; maybe those searching trumpet dissonances could have sounded even more baleful, though a sense of coming through against the odds was never in doubt.

This was an impressive account of a symphony which has been much harder to interpret once its ultimate ‘message’ became a matter for debate. Gražinytė-Tyla provided no easy answers; instead, her presenting the work as a cohesive and integral whole was its own justification.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

Unfortunately the concert was not recorded for broadcast, but you can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Anna Vinnitskaya‘s recording of the Shostakovich with Kremerata Baltica:

Live review – City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Grieg Peer Gynt; Sibelius, Rautavaara & Salonen

Klara Ek (soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 14 February 2019

Salonen Dona nobis pacem (2010)
Rautavaara Cantus Arcticus (1972)
Sibelius Rakastava Op.14 (1893/8)
Sibelius En Saga Op.9 (1892/1902)
Grieg Peer Gynt – incidental music (selection), Op.23 (1875)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to the concert as broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking on this link

It may not have been a typical Valentine’s Day concert, but this evening’s programme from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra certainly had an abundance of rapture and wonder.

Not least in its welcome revival of Cantus Arcticus, the ‘Concerto for Birds and Orchestra’ with which Einojuhani Rautavaara had confirmed a decisive turning away from the twelve-note procedures of the previous decade. Its utilizing his recordings of birdsong from the Finnish marshland may be nearer conceptually to Respighi’s Pini di Roma than Messiaen’s Oiseaux éxotiques, but the interplay with orchestra is deftly and poetically carried through – from the stark backdrop of The Bog, through the searching poise of Melancholy then to the gradual build-up of Swans Migrating, its hymnic apotheosis duly becoming a Rautavaara hallmark.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla secured a warm and euphonious response from the CBSO, which was no less attuned to the emergent drama of Sibelius’s En Saga. After an atmospheric opening, the ensuing episodes unfolded a little sectionally for momentum to be gauged consistently, though the magical passage with solo strings before the climactic section was spellbindingly delivered – then, after a suitably fraught culmination, the closing pages affectingly mingled poignancy and resignation; qualities evident not least in the clarinet playing of Oliver Janes.

Prefacing each of these works were short but pertinent a-cappella choral pieces. The upward striving of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Dona nobis pacem gave the CBSO Youth Chorus its chance to shine, while a rare hearing for Sibelius’s The Lover brought the CBSO Chorus to the fore for a melting account of three settings from the Kanteletar – their tales of yearning, encounter then farewell between lover and beloved eloquently rendered with no trace of false sentiment. Maybe Gražinytė-Tyla will tackle the almost as seldom heard version for strings before long?

After the interval, Grieg’s incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What to include became far less straightforward after publication of the complete score, but tonight’s selection centred on the familiar two suites and three additional items. Gražinytė-Tyla secured a lively response in the Overture, then brought out the pathos of ‘Ingrid’s Lament’ and encroaching menace of In the Hall of the Mountain King. The influence upon Sibelius of The Death of Åse was no less evident than that of Morning on Debussy, while the Arabian Dance had nonchalance to spare and Anitra’s Dance an alluring poise. Peer Gynt’s Homecoming sounded suitably windswept, and inclusion of the soulful Whitsun Hymn gave the CBSO Chorus its moment in the spotlight. Klara Ek was soloist in Solveig’s Song and Solveig’s Cradle Song, both of which she sang simply and affectingly, avoiding the operatic overkill often encountered. A pity the grotesquely comical Dance of the Mountain King’s Daughter was not included, but what remained was a more than plausible overview – skilfully and evocatively rendered.

It more than set the seal on this well planned and rewarding concert, some of whose relative unfamiliarity was outweighed by its undoubted appeal. The Peer Gynt selection can be heard again on Saturday on BBC Radio 3, alongside the UK premiere of tone poem The Sea by Mikalojus Čiurlionis.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert, including the whole incidental music to Peer Gynt (with the exception of the Salonen, which has not yet been recorded):

Further information on this concert can be found here

Live review – CBSO Weinberg Weekend: Symphony no.21 & Shostakovich: Symphony no.15

Freddie Jemison (treble), Maria Makeeva (soprano), Gidon Kremer (violin, above), Kremerata BalticaCity of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Grazinyte-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 24 November 2018, 11am

Weinberg Symphony no.21 op.152
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major op.141

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Weinberg Weekend being held in Birmingham reached its culmination tonight with this uncompromising yet rewarding symphonic double-bill. Those unfamiliar with the composer’s music may have been disconcerted by what they heard. Whereas the early Violin Concertino (heard at the previous concert) feels not so far removed from comparable works by Malcolm Arnold, the Symphony no.21 breathes an air of stark fatalism. Written at a time which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and dedicated to the memory of those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto (the ‘Kaddish’ subtitle is found in his catalogue but not the actual score), it ranks among Weinberg’s deepest statements. At almost an hour it is also among his longest symphonies, so making its predominant sparseness and concentration the more remarkable.

The single movement falls into several continuous sections – an initial Largo’ introducing the plangent hymn that pervades the work then the chorale whose presence Weinberg traced back to his First Symphony, their alternation making way for the opening theme of Chopin’s First Ballade intoned somnolently on piano. An Allegro draws a theme from Weinberg’s Fourth Quartet into its reckless orbit, while a further Largo similarly utilizes one from his Double-Bass Sonata – the latter’s sepulchral tones sounding more bizarre given the ensuing klezmer-like passage with clarinet, which persists through a tensile Presto then plaintive Andantino that brings the principal climax. A final Lento unfolds with increasing introspection – violin, piano and harmonium adding their spectral sonorities until the music fades out of earshot.

The work went unheard in Weinberg’s lifetime, with its undoubted technical and emotional challenges having made revivals rare. Yet its formal cohesion and expressive consistency are undoubted – in the conveying of which, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla took especial credit for rendering the epic structure as an inevitable yet cumulative entity whose febrile outbursts were held in check by that encroaching vastness which extends right across the whole. She was abetted by an assured response from the City of Birmingham Symphony, bolstered by members of Kremerata Baltica (Gidon Kremer taking the violin solos), and if dividing the vocalise between eloquent Maria Makeeva and plaintive Freddie Jemison slightly disrupted continuity in the closing stages, it hardly distracted from the stature of this reading overall.

Shostakovich‘s Symphony no.15 made a pertinent coupling, with Grazinyte-Tyla having its measure right from her purposeful take on the opening Allegretto. The Adagio’s ominous tread was finely sustained, its numerous solo passages having ample room to unfold prior to an anguished climax then desolate coda, while the brief scherzo fairly crackled with barbed irony. Nor was there any lack of focus in the finale, emerging from its miasma of allusions through to a spectral passacaglia whose seismic culmination never pre-empted the subdued recollection of earlier ideas or, above all, the transfigured conclusion with its evocation of ‘voices overheard’ over simmering percussion. It set the seal on an impressive performance and a memorable concert: one which certainly warrants the proposed commercial release.

Sunday morning saw a lecture in the Recital Hall at the recently-opened Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. As presented by Prof David Fanning (Manchester University) and Dr Michelle Assay (Huddersfield University), Exploring Weinberg offered a selective though consistently informative overview of the composer’s life and career: from his formative years in Warsaw, via his arrival in Moscow following periods in Minsk then Tashkent against the background of war; the dark years of the anti-formalism campaign then his incarceration during the final months of Stalin’s increasingly paranoid rule, then to the decades of growing acclaim from colleagues and public alike during the 1960s and ’70s, before a period of increasing neglect as a new generation of Soviet composers came to the fore and the Soviet Union neared its end.

The lecture was illustrated with numerous visual and musical examples, but it was archival recording of Weinberg playing and singing extracts from his opera The Passenger to the Moscow Union of Composers – in a futile attempt to secure its performance – that riveted attention. Hearing a composer’s actual voice is seldom less than revealing and so it proved here, setting the seal on an event which was certainly worth attending despite the absence of a selection of chamber works from Conservatoire students that was to have followed.

Summing up, the Weinberg Weekend fairly succeeded in terms of introducing Birmingham audiences to music by a composer whose importance continues to increase and as a prelude to what looks set to be a deluge of UK performances over the course of his centenary year.

Further information on the Weinberg Weekend can be found here

Arcana at the opera: Pelléas et Mélisande @ Symphony Hall

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Saturday 23rd June, 2018

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Pelléas – Jacques Imbrailo (baritone), Mélisande – Katja Stuber (soprano), Golaud – Roland Wood (bass-baritone), Arkel – Matthew Best (bass), Geneviève – Dame Felicity Palmer (mezzo-soprano), Doctor – Renaud Delaigue (bass), Yniold – Freddie Jemison (treble)

Members of CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Graźinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 23 June 2018

It might not have been on the scale of the two weekends with which the City of Birmingham Symphony marked the centenary of Debussy’s death in March, though this evening’s concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande provided a fitting climax to this year’s commemorations.

Premiered in 1902 after a genesis of almost a decade, Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only completed opera and his treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama a highpoint of musical impressionism. It was this blend of aesthetics that the present account brought out in full measure, so confirming Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla’s authority and the CBSO’s conviction in French repertoire as extends back almost a half-century to Louis Frémaux’s tenure. Obscure as the opera’s narrative can appear, there was nothing equivocal about tonight’s performance.

Vocally it was cast from strength and not least in the title-roles – Jacques Imbrailo’s eloquent and imploring assumption finely complemented by that from Katja Stuber, whose poise and limpidity betrayed no hint of coyness. Between them they amply conveyed a sense of people drawn together despite themselves and prevailing circumstances; the serenity characterizing their relationship gradually eroded as the net of fate closes around them. Golaud unwittingly plays the defining part in this, such as Roland Wood recognized with singing of great force but equally an emotional fragility which undermined every exchange with his wife and half-brother. Dramatic tension generated in the third and fourth acts is as tangible as in any opera of the period, and there was no doubting its presence as this account reached a fateful climax.

This is not to decry the other vocal contributions. In particular, Matthew Best was riveting as Arkel – ruler of a decaying kingdom (and dysfunctional dynasty) whose haunted demeanour was allied to a pathos and compassion that commanded the platform at his every appearance. Nor was there anything undersold about Felicity Palmer’s Geneviève – which, limited as this role may be, conjured the requisite foreboding in the face of inevitability that sets the course for all that follows. Renaud Delaigue was sympathetic if a little over-insistent as the Doctor, while Freddie Jemison was ideally cast as Yniold – his exchanges in Act Three with Golaud a heart-rending instance of innocence corrupted. It may enjoy the most incidental of roles, but the CBSO Chorus duly acquitted its brief (and here offstage) contribution with great subtlety.

Otherwise, and for all its radical take on French prosody, this is an opera where the orchestra plays a pivotal (and arguably determining) role, such as Graźinytė-Tyla recognized in the way she steered the emotional ebb and flow of the music with calm assurance. Momentum during the first two acts seemed a touch fitful, but that across the two which follow was unerringly gauged – so leaving the fifth act to unfold as a distanced while undeniably poignant epilogue which ultimately evaporates as if to underline the dream-like aura of much that has occurred.

This performance was enhanced by Jonathan Burton’s idiomatic surtitles and an absence of concert presentation or ‘scenic treatment’ as might have impeded the musical impact. A pity it does not seem to have been recorded, as this reading would have been worth hearing again.

For Arcana’s coverage of the two Debussy weekends in Symphony Hall, click here for the first weekend and here for the second

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: Second Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 24 & Sunday 25 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This second weekend of the Debussy Festival featured a similar mix of orchestral, song and instrumental events, held at various venues in Birmingham in addition to Symphony Hall and extending over the broad spectrum of Debussy’s music to include several less familiar items.

Saturday evening focussed on ‘Sacred Debussy’, and opened with his prelude La Cathédrale engloutie (1910) in an orchestration by Colin Matthews faithful to its spirit. The CBSO then vacated the platform for Messiaen’s motet O sacrum convivium (1937), fervently sung by the CBSO Chorus under Simon Halsey and preceded by Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Fugue. Its methodical progress was ideally complemented by Dieu parmi nous, concluding Messiaen’s large-scale cycle La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) with a panache to which Thomas Trotter was no less responsive. Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904) ended the first half with an allure and poise that Suzy Wilkinson-Kawalec conveyed in full measure; CBSO assistant conductor Jonathan Bloxham securing an elegant and fastidious response from the strings.

After the interval, a rare chance to hear virtually the whole of Debussy’s incidental music for Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play La Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). Not, then, the 20-minute ‘symphonic fragments’ arranged by André Caplet (who also undertook much of the original orchestration) or the hour-long complete score with narration, but a 35-minute hybrid where the music for the five acts was amalgamated into a four-movement ‘choral symphony’. With its hieratic modality and austere if never merely archaic polyphony, this is arguably the most emotionally affecting of Debussy’s later works and was superbly sung by the CBSO Chorus. Sopranos Ilse Eerens and Katja Stuber were effortless in their solo parts and Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (below) drawing an eloquent response from the CBSO. Undoubtedly a highlight of this festival.

On to Sunday and an early afternoon concert of ‘Exotic Debussy’, opening with another three Preludes (1913) – the ironic wit of Minstrels, Mussorgskian heft of La puerta del vino and the bracing humour of General Lavine – Eccentric – once again heard in orchestrations by Colin Matthews responsive more to the images being evoked than the music as conceived for piano. Bloxham led the CBSO in a spirited account of the ‘Pas de six’ from Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (1956), then Graźinytė-Tyla presided over two sections from Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (1910) – the piquant Orientalism of Laideronette and the encroaching rapture of Le jardin féerique, both enticingly rendered yet an unsatisfying close to a rather piecemeal first half. A shame the Ravel ballet was not heard in full, as this has long been a CBSO speciality.

There was nothing piecemeal about the second half, with Graźinytė-Tyla taking charge of the CBSO Youth Orchestra for a complete rendering of Debussy’s Images. His largest orchestral work when heard complete, this is difficult to bring off as a totality though this account came close. The ominous understatement of Gigues was well conveyed despite an occasional lack of subtlety, then the central triptych that is Ibéria gave this capable and enthusiastic outfit its head in the traversal from sultry street-life, through nocturnal rumination, to festal celebration – the overall sequence being projected with verve and immediacy. Yet the closing Rondes de printemps was even more successful, its oblique evocation of rural revelry given cumulative impetus such as made for a more than usually conclusive end to this wide-ranging sequence.

The mid-afternoon ‘Tombeau de Debussy’ juxtaposed pieces from the supplement published by La Revue musicale in 1920 with commissions under BCMG’s Sound Investment Scheme. Jungeun Park’s Tombeau de Claude Debussy found violinist Alexandra Wood, cellist Ulrich Heinen and pianist Richard Uttley (above) evoking the composer’s death in darkly ironic terms, then the oblique tonality of Dukas’s La plainte, au loin, du faune … seemed as much a memorial to the creative impasse as to its passing. Highly sensitive here, Uttley was no less probing in the moody ‘Sostenuto rubato’ that Bartók incorporated into his Eight Improvisations; soprano Ruby Hughes joining him for the whimsical profundity of Satie’s setting of Lamartine in En souvenir. Sinta Wallur’s Tagore Fireflies sets three brief verses by the Indian poet in music whose ornamented vocal was complemented by the piano’s gamelan-like patterning. Wood and Heinen found requisite plangency in the first movement of Ravel’s Duo; then cellist and soprano took on engaging theatricality for Frédéric Pattar’s setting of Maeterlinck in (… de qui parlez-vous?). Uttley captured the bluesy elegance of Goossens’s Pièce, before Julian Anderson’s Tombeau united the musicians in a setting of Mallarmé’s tribute to Edgar Allen Poe whose chiselled vocal writing and guitar-like sonorities made for a provocative ending.

The early-evening programme of ‘Natural Debussy’ commenced with the arresting cameo of flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic playing Debussy’s plaintive Syrinx (1913) at the rear of the auditorium; overhead lights gradually raised on the platform from where Bloxham directed the CBSO in an engaging account of Printemps (1887). Whatever its formal inelegance and stylistic derivativeness, this two-movement piece has an insouciance and extroversion which Debussy only occasionally re-captured – enhanced by the knowing sophistication of Caplet’s orchestration a quarter-century later. Graźinytė-Tyla returned for George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980), its evocation of desert storms rendered with a graphic immediacy and sure sense of purpose to make one regret that an unfortunate accident onstage meant the performance had to be curtailed before the close. The orchestra reassembled after a break for La Mer (1905) – emotional contrasts stressed a little too readily in ‘Jeux de vagues’, but with the outer movements bracingly projected to round off this final concert in impressive fashion.

Even on the basis of these Symphony Hall concerts, this Debussy Festival did its composer proud by conveying the sheer variety of his output and also its relevance to Western music during the century since his death. Omissions were few – of which the most significant, his full-length opera Pelléas et Mélisande, will be redressed with a concert performance on the 23rd June. For now, Graźinytė-Tyla deserves full credit for having initiated this ambitious festival: its orchestral events leaving no doubt as to the rapport between her and the CBSO.

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