Live review – CBSO with Nicholas Collon: Savitri & The Planets

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Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano, Sāvitri), Robert Murray (tenor, Satyavān), James Rutherford (baritone, Death), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Wednesday 8th February, 2017

Holst Sāvitri, H96 (1909); The Planets, H125 (1916)

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Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Cheltenham-born Gustav Holst enjoyed a close relationship with the City of Birmingham Symphony right from its inception, so it was good to see a concert being devoted to his music as part of The Spirit of England series running through to the orchestra’s centenary in 2020.

The elapsing of 108 years has not dulled the innovative qualities of Sāvitri, Holst’s one-act opera with which he made a decisive move from the Wagnerian opulence of his earlier music (not least the three-act opera Sita, still awaiting complete performance), towards the lean and often introspective expression of his maturity. Just over half-an-hour in length, it explores the time-honoured operatic themes of love and redemption as a means of transcending death – all rendered from a curious amalgam of Vedic teaching and Socialist thinking wholly of its time yet no less influential for being so. In addition, the scoring for just three woodwinds and nine strings, along with (wordless) offstage female voices, blazed the trail for later generations of British opera. No Sāvitri = no Britten chamber-operas and no Maxwell Davies music-theatre.

First heard in Birmingham 63 years ago, Sāvitri was given by the CBSO in 2004 and 2008. Then, as now, James Rutherford took the role of Death – his forceful yet ultimately humane assumption complementing the title-role, in which Yvonne Howard (replacing an indisposed Sarah Connolly) responded with fearlessness but also compassion; Robert Murray likewise conveying the heroic vulnerability of Satyavān as he succumbs to then escapes death via the intercession of Sāvitri. Choral and instrumental forces responded ably to Nicholas Collon’s direction, using the spatial possibilities of Symphony Hall’s acoustic to telling effect, but it was a pity that dimmed house-lights made it impossible to follow the succinct yet detailed libretto which was otherwise not always audible. Maybe surtitles could have been provided?

It would be an unlikely all-Holst concert as did not feature The Planets, which duly followed the interval. Collon presided over a performance which, while it offered few revelations, still did justice to the power and originality of this music. Mars evinced a brooding implacability through to those seismic closing bars, then Venus brought eloquence without sentimentality and a solace that was never cloying. Mercury was nimble and quick-witted, not least in the hectic approach to its close, and the only partial disappointment (as so often in this work) was Jupiter, whose outer sections were a shade unsubtle rhythmically, the indelible melody at its centre haltingly paced.

Saturn went much better – Collon alive to the gaunt solemnity of its opening pages and the monumental climax, the final section effortlessly combining radiance and resignation. Nor was there any lack of impetuousity in the goings-on of Uranus, the martial episode reaching a heady culmination (its organ glissando finely integrated into the texture) and wrathful final climax not pre-empting the stillness around it.

Following-on without pause, Neptune rounded-off this reading with a fitting evocation of the ethereal – the CBSO Youth Chorus now placed high in the Symphony Hall auditorium so its role was wholly audible yet, in keeping with Holst’s conception, poised on the intangible.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Under the surface – Introit: The Music of Gerald Finzi (Decca)

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Composer: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Nationality: English

What did he write? Finzi’s output is slender but there are reasons behind that – not least the fact he lost his father, teacher and three brothers all at the age of eighteen. This compilation reinforces his reputation as a miniaturist, capable of producing some exquisite pieces of around five or ten minutes in length. This is rather unfair, as his vocal writing and works for soloist and orchestra reveal a composer of much greater substance.

Dies natalis and Intimations of Immortality are the vocal works of choice, while there are concertos for cello and clarinet that are worth exploring. On a smaller scale Finzi loved setting the words of Thomas Hardy, with A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain two fine song cycles for voice and piano.

What are the works on this new recording? This is an anthology of Finzi’s shorter works from the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon. It concentrates on the string orchestra, his principal means of expression. A Severn Rhapsody, Prelude and Romance are all originals, as is the Eclogue for piano and orchestra, while Mike Sheppard, Paul Mealor and Patrick Hawes contribute specially commissioned arrangements that give extra prominence to saxophone (Amy Dickson) and horn (Nicolas Fleury).

The disc, headed by the beautiful artwork How bravely autumn paints upon the sky by Edward McKnight, celebrates the composer’s 60th anniversary in collaboration with The Finzi Trust.

What is the music like? Finzi’s music is like a late summer evening – often beautiful to the ear, but with creeping shadows in the background that make their presence felt in a subtle but meaningful way. These shadows are found especially in the yearning Romance and Prelude, and the consoling but darkly shaded Eclogue.

There is a lot of slow music here, perhaps reflecting the fact that Finzi’s shorter works are often at a slower tempo. As a result they do not give us every aspect of the composer’s output. It does however show how his writing for string orchestra is almost without equal in 20th century English music – fans include Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy – and it also shows how, in works like the Romance and the livelier Rollicum-Rorum especially, he could pen a memorable tune.

The Introit for violin and orchestra also has a good tune, and is sweetly performed by soloist Thomas Gould, while Rollicum-Rorum is sensitively played by Dickson, who shows impressive agility too.

What’s the verdict? This is a compilation that has clearly been put together with love, care and attention, but there is not as much variety as there could be. Finzi comes across here as relatively one-dimensional, and well-played though the performances are, it feels like an opportunity only partially taken.

Give this a try if you like… the lighter side of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius

Listen

Watch the album trailer below:

You can also listen to an excerpt from the disc on Spotify:

Proms premieres – Birds with new plumage

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The Tui Bird from New Zealand. Photo (c) Sid Mosdell

Messiaen, orch Christopher Dingle – Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (1987-1991, orch 2015)

Ravel, arr. Colin Matthews – Oiseaux tristes from Miroirs (1905, orch 2015)

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (Prom 29)

Duration: 4 minutes each

BBC iPlayer link

http://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ef3zc8#b0640p40

The Messiaen can be heard from 1:55; the Ravel from 35:02

What’s the story behind the pieces?

Messiaen’s Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (A bird from the tree of life) is music that is ‘incredibly technically difficult to conduct’, in the words of Nicholas Collon, given the job of overseeing its first performance in this guise, arranged by scholar Christopher Dingle.

The relatively short piece originally intended to be part of his massive, multi-movement orchestral piece Éclairs sur l’Au-Delà…, but was removed before the first performance. It is mostly scored for percussion but changes tempo and time signature more or less every bar. In the piece Messiaen profiles the New Zealand tui bird through a written-out melody of its song.

Meanwhile Ravel’s Oiseaux tristes (Sorrowful birds) is the latest French piano piece to be orchestrated by Colin Matthews. The composer has tried his hand at a number of Debussy Préludes, imagining how Ravel might have undertaken the task, but here he looks at one of the six parts of Miroirs, the suite written by the composer for piano. Ravel himself orchestrated two of the other movements, Une barque sur l’océan (A boat on the ocean) and Alborada del gracioso (Morning song of the jester).

The piece is intended to portray the sorrowful birds in the depths of a very hot summer forest. They are lost.

Did you know?

Ravel’s orchestration of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of many versions of the Russian composer’s suite for piano – but is the most performed.

Initial verdict

The Messiaen is bright and strongly rhythmic, but not in a conventional sense. It is very treble based, and is punctuated by crisp chords that have an unusual colour, with the wood block and tuned percussion heavily in evidence.

Colin Matthews’ orchestration is evocatively coloured, ideal for a humid evening at the Royal Albert Hall. The mood is oppressive, the brass lending weight to the lower end of the sound. It is clear from this that Matthews has listened closely to Ravel’s own methods of orchestration, because his way with the colours available is surely near to what the composer might have imagined.

Second hearing

tbc!

Where can I hear more?

Colin Matthews’ orchestrations of Debussy Préludes can be heard in a release made by the Hallé record label, found on Spotify here

Road Trip

Featured recording: Aurora Orchestra – Road Trip (Warner Classics)
road-trip

In which London’s Aurora Orchestra head for the open prairies of America, sampling folk and pop song in between modern classical music from John Adams, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. The folk and pop arrangements are done by Nico Muhly.

What’s the music like?

Very accessible. There are folk tunes arranged by Nico Muhly, who has worked with US bands like Grizzly Bear in the past, as well as establishing himself as a talented composer blending a love of old church music with a tuneful modern style, and the orchestra’s viola player Max Baillie,

The classical pieces are nicely contrasted – from the hectic Chamber Symphony by Adams to the luminous Appalachian Spring, Copland’s ballet. This features American folk tunes in fresh, open-air orchestral scoring, peaking with an arrangement of the song Simple Gifts.

Added to these we have a piece by Ives, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, taken from his Three Places In New England. Ives is incredibly difficult to describe, as he operates with so many different orchestral styles, but there are always tunes – and the slow beginning to this piece brings a tear to the eye.

Does it all work?

By and large, yes. The performances are excellent, expertly marshalled by Nicholas Collon, and are closely recorded to get the intimacy of the Copland in particular. The Adams is brisk and punchy – a good listen while running, no doubt! – and has bags of rhythmic interest. The Ives is unlike anything else, though, packing into its short duration a lifetime’s worth of feeling.

Sam Amidon and Dawn Landes sings the folksongs well but I found Nico Muhly’s orchestrations had too much going on – in part a deliberate tactic from the composer – but the ear was often distracted from the tunes themselves. The subjects are a bit macabre, too – especially The Brown Girl, with its dark tales of death and divorce.

Is it recommended?

Yes, overall. The Aurora Orchestra do these sort of themed presentations very well, and as a starting point for modern American music this can be either self-contained or open out into further exploration of the composers on the disc.

Listen on Spotify