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

Live review – CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Brahms’ German Requiem & Mozart Serenade for wind

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Florian Boesch (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 March 2020

Mozart Serenade for wind in C minor K388 (1782-3)
Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Op.45 (1865-9)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season features several major choral works that have long been central to this orchestra’s repertoire. While it has received numerous readings (most recently with Andrew Manze), Brahms‘s A German Requiem is not among these – so it was fascinating to hear what Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla might make of a piece that, though it has never fallen from favour since its premiere 152 years ago, remains a stern interpretive test in terms of projecting formal integration and an expressive essence more elusive for its restraint.

In the event the performance was a fine one – not least because this conductor found the right balance between flexibility of motion, without which the textures all too easily risk stolidity, and that seriousness of manner without which the music soon loses any sense of purpose. A balance as evident in the lengthy second movement, the inexorable tread of its outer sections framing an interlude of wistful grace then with the ensuing fugue building animatedly to its serene close, as in the brief fourth movement whose blithe exterior conceals music of artful dexterity. Camilla Tilling (above) summoned a winsome response in the fifth movement, a late but necessary addition in its opening-out the work’s emotional range, while Florian Boesch (below) was suitably if not unduly vehement in his initial contributions to the third and sixth; the former crowned by a fugue of visceral and unflagging energy, though that in the latter movement marginally lost focus as its grandly rhetorical gestures ran their (too?) predictable course.

It is in the first and seventh movements that Brahms’s highly personal concept of redemption through love is at its most explicit, MG-T duly having the measure of their calmly insistent searching towards eventual catharsis – even if the finale’s gradual winding-down resulted in less than the ideal repose. The CBSO Chorus was on fine form throughout – a tribute to the expertise of associate chorus director Julian Wilkins, who also made a pertinent contribution in an organ part no less crucial for its understatement; underpinning and often motivating an orchestration which adds in no small measure to the work’s humane and compassionate spirit.

A relatively short first half gave welcome opportunity for the CBSO’s woodwind to take the stage for an un-conducted reading of Mozart’s Serenade in C minor, last in his trilogy of such pieces which transcended an ostensibly lightweight genre and, in doing so, made possible the emotional substance of the symphonies that followed. Ensemble seemed a shade insecure in the opening Allegro, but its underlying intensity carried over to an Andante whose ineffable rapture was itself contrasted with the textural severity of the Menuetto. Best, though, was the final Allegro – a set of variation on an unassuming theme with the formal outline of a sonata-rondo made explicit with its major-key ending. Overall, a winning account of a piece whose scoring for wind octet has gained it less exposure than Mozart’s comparable orchestral works.

It also made for an unlikely while successful coupling and a similarly thought-provoking one is scheduled for next Tuesday, MG-T making her first foray into Bruckner with the erstwhile elusive Sixth Symphony alongside the deceptive simplicity of Bartók‘s Third Piano Concerto.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded either of these works before but these are fine alternatives:

For further information on the current season of CBSO concerts, visit the orchestra’s website

Live review – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Beethoven Symphonies 2 & 4; Unsuk Chin & Liam Taylor-West

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 30 January 2020

Chin SPIRA – Concerto for Orchestra (2019) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere]
Beethoven Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36 (1802); Symphony no.4 in B flat major Op.60 (1806)
Taylor-West Turning Points (2019) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World Premiere]

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra laid an early marker for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth this December and, also, continued the notable series of commissions that themselves are centred around the orchestra’s centenary in September.

The new work was SPIRA – a Concerto for Orchestra by Seoul-born and Paris-based Unsuk Chin (above). Her more recent music may have tempered the incisive modernism of those works that established her reputation, though Chin has thus far avoided the race towards the mainstream evident in numerous of her contemporaries, and the present piece secured a engaging balance between the intricate complexity of its textures and an ingeniously defined formal trajectory such as ensured its long-term continuity was readily perceptible – even on an initial hearing.

Inspired by the mathematical theory of the ‘spiral curve’ or growth spiral’ with the potential for biological, indeed musical growth this entails, SPIRA emerges as a sequence of formally expanding and expressively intensifying curves which involve the various orchestral sections (individually and collectively) on the way to an apotheosis of visceral immediacy; the music then withdrawing into those ethereal realms whence it came. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla directed an assured and engaging performance of this likely highlight among Centenary Commissions.

It certainly made a telling foil to the Beethoven which followed. With authentic trumpets and what sounded like leather-capped timpani sticks to the fore, the first movement of the Second Symphony was nothing if not dynamic, for all MG-T rather breezed through the quixotics of its imposing introduction then drove the ensuing Allegro such that string articulation faltered. Exciting if a shade glib, whereas the ingratiation of the Larghetto was ideally judged and the glancing humour of the Scherzo more appealing for not being rushed. Nor was there any lack of character in the finale, at its most perceptive during a trenchant development then a coda whose teasing hesitancy made its eventual arrival the more potent. Interesting, too, whether MG-T’s omitting of exposition repeats in the outer movements becomes an interpretive trait.

Likewise, those of the Fourth Symphony – the probing nature of whose introduction seemed rather matter of fact, though impetus during the main Allegro was rarely at the expense of its Haydnesque humour. Once again the Adagio proved most impressive in its sustained poise, the many dynamic nuances unobtrusively observed (not least towards its still-startling close), while the capricious interplay of the scherzo was nothing if not invigorating; a tailing-off of phrases going each time into the trio being an especial pleasure. Perhaps because lacking its exposition repeat, the closing movement emerged as a little short-winded, but MG-T had the measure of its capering humour – Beethoven playing fast and loose with the classical finale, on the way to a conclusion in which formal cohesion and expressive nonchalance are as one.

The concert ended with the first of 20 commissions by composers under 30 for the CBSO’s centenary. Turning Points found Liam Taylor-West (above) making resourceful use of sizable forces in music whose bracing if never brazen display ought to make for an effective curtain-raiser.

For more on Unsuk Chin you can visit her page on the Boosey & Hawkes website., while further information on the music of Liam Taylor-West can be found here Meanwhile Arcana’s Beethoven odyssey begins soon! Head here for more details.