In concert – Nicola Benedetti, CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada: Dvořák, Mendelssohn & Grigorjeva

Dvořák Carnival Overture, Op. 92 (1892)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844)
Grigorjeva In Paradisum (2012)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Nicola Benedetti (violin), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 20 September 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been a largely mainstream programme, but tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra drew a capacity house at the beginning of a season in which Kazuki Yamada takes on the reins for what looks an eventful new era near the start of the orchestra’s second century. The CBSO’s response in Dvořák’s Carnival Overture more than confirmed it was ready for the challenge – Yamada ensuring the nocturnal evocation at its centre worked its evocative spell, then building an irresistible momentum going into the thrilling final bars.

Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto cannot have been absent from many of the CBSO’s previous 102 seasons and made its appearance this evening, Nicola Benedetti tackling a piece she must herself have played on many occasions. Not that there was anything routine about a reading such as abounded in subtle touches – especially the opening Allegro’s cadenza, which more than usually fulfilled its role as this movement’s structural fulcrum. In the Andante, Benedetti pointed up the expressive contrast between its main themes; the second of which was notable for a tonal astringency that brought out its plangency in full measure. If there was nothing so arresting in the finale, the interplay of soloist and orchestra was astutely judged through to the effervescence of the closing bars. Certainly, a performance to make one enjoy the piece anew.

Introducing the second half, Yamada requested the audience remain silent during the pause between pieces – the first a setting of In Paradisum by Ukrainian-born Galina Grigorjeva (b 1962), its lucid harmonies and heady culmination bringing the best out of the CBSO Chorus.

From here to the New World Symphony was no great step. Once again, a work rarely absent from the CBSO’s schedule seemed largely revitalized. Not that all of Yamada’s interpretative decisions came off – after an introduction of no mean gravitas the opening Allegro unfolded a little fitfully, though so interventionist an approach might have gained from the exposition repeat to place these in greater context. There were similar touches in the Largo, yet here the focus of Yamada’s conception and the raptness of the player’s concentration were their own justification – not least towards the close, with the front desks combining to poignant effect. Without being driven as ruthlessly as is often the case, the Scherzo has the requisite impetus and, throughout its trio, a whimsical elegance which proved as engaging as the charged coda.

Heading into the final Allegro with minimal pause, Yamada brought out its inherent force but also the ruminative eloquence of its second theme; the transition to which, in the reprise, was ideally judged. Nor did the apotheosis lack for drama as those closing bars melted into silence.

Prior to the start of this concert, a minute’s silence was observed then (most of) the audience joined in possibly its first rendering of God Save the King. A more localized farewell was paid later in the evening to Colin Twigg, first violinist for over 31 years and whose retirement will hopefully see more of his own compositions as have featured in Centre Stage recitals over the years. A miscellany is featured on a Toccata Classics release and worth anyone’s investment. The CBSO will be back in action on Saturday with a major new commission from Brett Dean.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For further information on the night’s artists, click on the names for composer Galina Grigorjeva, and for artists Nicola Benedetti and Kazuki Yamada

In concert – Nicola Benedetti, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Romantics in Exile – Korngold & Langgaard

BBC SO/Oramo & Benedetti - Romantics in Exile

Korngold Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1945)
Langgaard
Symphony no.1 in B minor BVN32, ‘Mountain Pastorals’ (1908-11)

Nicola Benedetti (violin, below), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Barbican Hall, London
Friday 8 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Concert photos by James Watkins / BBC

Sakari Oramo has certainly blazed a trail for tackling little-known symphonic works during his tenure at the BBC Symphony Orchestra – witness his recent revival of the Symphony by Dora Pejačević and now that of the First Symphony from Danish anti-hero Rued Langgaard.

One who frequently snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, Langgaard (below) could not have had a better start to his career than its premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic and Max Fiedler on 10th April 1913, just before his 20th birthday. Its enthusiastic reception was never repeated in his remaining four decades, the composer traversing various stylistic phases while fighting a psychological battle with the Danish musical establishment. With its inspiration in Sweden’s Kullaberg peninsula, this work remains testament to the vaunting ambition of his younger self.

Steering a cohesive course across this almost hour-long piece whose sizable forces (not least four Wagner tubas) is no easy task, but Oramo succeeded more convincingly than on any of the three commercial recordings. Not least in a first movement, Surf and Glimpses of Sun, whose elongated sonata design and increasingly histrionic climaxes could so easily veer into overkill, rather than yielding a recklessly if purposefully cumulative momentum. Mountain Flowers is a slow movement of no mean eloquence, not least with Oramo encouraging the strings to relish the limelight over its opening and closing stages then towards its expressive apex. The undoubted highlight is Legend, less an intermezzo than a dark-hued formal crux whose ominous atmosphere looks on toward those anguished confessionals which lay ahead.

More conventional is Mountain Ascent, a lively and often playful scherzo whose impetus finds ready contrast with the wistful trio at its centre. Rendered here with suitable deftness, this made an admirable foil to Courage – an expansive finale not without its longueurs yet whose development affords some strikingly evocative orchestration, then an apotheosis for which Oramo not only prepared judiciously, but that the BBCSO kept within focus even as the addition of off-stage brass threatened to send those closing pages spinning out of orbit.

An experience, then, such as only a live performance can provide, and which demonstrably played to the strengths of this partnership. Might one hope that Oramo and the BBCSO give Langgaard’s Sixth, arguably his symphonic masterpiece, at a Proms concert in due course?

A thought occurred that had the Danish film industry maintained its promise prior to the First World War, Langgaard might have found as productive an outlet for his abilities as Korngold had for his during the golden age of Hollywood. The latter’s Violin Concerto was not always the familiar item it has now become, and Nicola Benedetti’s rendering assuredly conveyed its essence. Pointing up the discreet contrast between the themes of its opening Moderato, with a trenchant account of its cadenza, she gave a finely shaped if overly generalized account of its central Romance, then projected the final Allegro’s incisiveness and high-flown melodrama with relish. Nor did she undersell the suavity of Jacob Gade’s tango Jalousie – a piece which, 97 years on, confirms what is possible if a composer does not entirely eschew popular appeal.

For further information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here For more on Erich Korngold and Rued Langgaard, click on the composer names – and click on the artist names for more information on Nicola Benedetti and Sakari Oramo

The 2021 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards – saluting musical heroes

written by Ben Hogwood

If an awards ceremony does its job properly, it should provide those attending and watching with lasting feelings of inspiration, hope and even wonder.

The Royal Philharmonic Society Awards did just that at the Wigmore Hall on Monday, recognising some superhuman musical achievements as we dared to think in more hopeful terms of classical music emerging from the pandemic.

Restrictions such as those imposed in lockdown can often bring out the best in creative minds, and the 13 awards made during the evening showed this time and time again. When such minds are backed into a corner, some of the solutions can be truly mindboggling. You can judge for yourself when the Awards are published online next week, and aired on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 8 November (to open in a new window click here)

Perhaps the most striking and wide reaching initiative on show was ENO Breathe, the program set up for sufferers of long-Covid to help with breathing and anxiety, and now rolled out to 50 NHS Trusts across the UK. All the people involved in its creation were rightly acknowledged here, praising a program which has benefited from the expertise of opera singers and colleagues at Imperial College Healthcare:

It was indeed a night to acknowledge the tireless work of those behind the scenes, who effectively enable their organisations or teams to give the appearance of a swan while they work feverishly beneath the surface. Bassoonist Ashby Mayes is a prime example. He gave a bubbly performance of Weber’s Rondo Ongarese with pianist Kumi Matsuo, but then violinist Nicola Benedetti revealed his ‘other’ vocation as technology inventor and troubleshooter as part of The Benedetti Foundation’s online work.

Benedetti rightly added the Instrumentalist Award to her already impressive armoury, for she is a true modern ambassador for classical music. With the ability to face outwards to politicians but also inwards to those at early or difficult stages in their musical journey hers is a consistently inspiring presence.

As the evening progressed it became ever clearer that each category had three nominations that were effectively winners, and they were recognised as such in the excellent presentations from RPS Chief Executive James Murphy, RPS Chairman and Director of Wigmore Hall John Gilhooly and BBC Radio 3 presenter Katie Derham. They all brought a fresh and enthusiastic approach to the awards, sharing with us the delight of simply being in the same room again.

Further inspiration came from Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, winner of the Storytelling Award for her book House of Music. In revealing just how many publishers had turned down the volume ‘because black people don’t play classical music’ (!) she illustrated just how persistence and endurance can overcome such ridiculous hurdles. Peter Brathwaite, nominated for his Radio 3 program In Their Voices, showed the same thing

Elsewhere there were joyous stories of music making in lockdown, providing solace to everyone. The World How Wide, led by the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia, won the Series and Events Award with a vibrant recasting of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, showing off the region’s natural beauty with a film directed by NOVAK that made you want to be there:

Meanwhile Hilary Campbell and the Bristol Choral Society used online resources in the best possible way to launch a new CD and a Christmas carol competition for new composers. They won the Inspiration award, showing in the process how amateur music making is so important to the mental and physical health of all the country’s musicians. Good CDs can enlighten and inspire us, but first-hand musical experiences can rarely be bettered.

This can be felt throughout the Bold Tendencies initiative in Peckham, Hannah Barry’s transformation of a disused multistorey car park claiming the Gamechanger Award. Dani Howard’s Trombone Concerto, written for Peter Moore and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, confirmed its status as a powerful new vehicle for the instrument, while Jennifer Johnston won the Singer Award for her artistry and services to the same city. Back online, meanwhile, Vopera claimed the Opera and Music Theatre Award for their vibrant and imaginative digital production of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, brilliantly backed by musicians from the London Philharmonic Orchestra:

Other winners – last but certainly not least – included Laura Bowler, who won the Chamber-scale Composition Award for her remarkable work Wicked Problems, the composer performing with bass flautist Ruth Morley at the ‘sound’ festival in Aberdeenshire. Ryan Bancroft won the Conductor Award to supplement his burgeoning reputation with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort capped a year of stellar online music making, including the premiere of Errollyn Wallen’s opera Dido’s Ghost, with the Ensemble Award:

Finally we heard from the Hermes Experiment, winners of the Young Artist Award. This exciting and highly original ensemble comprises soprano (Heloise Werner), clarinet (Oliver Pashley), double bass (Marianne Schofield), harp (Anne Denholm) and co-director Hanna Grzeskiewicz. The group stand for original creation of mostly new music in an open and diverse musical setting. Their contagious love and boundless enthusiasm was at the heart of Pashley’s arrangement of Piazzolla’s Concert d’aujourd’hui, capturing the spirit of a bright and uplifting evening.

Our wholesome congratulations go to all the nominees for the RPS Awards – and indeed to all of those unnamed who did not quite make the shortlist. You are all winners in our eyes!

To learn more about the Royal Philharmonic Society visit their website

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

Wigmore Mondays – Nicola Benedetti & Alexei Grynyuk in late sonatas by Beethoven & Brahms

nicola-benedetti
Nicola Benedetti (violin, above), Alexei Grynyuk (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 29 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b071cl1c

Available until 29 March

alexei-grynyuk

What’s the music?

Beethoven – Violin Sonata in G major, Op.96 (1812) (28 minutes)

Brahms – Violin Sonata no.2 in A major, Op.100 (1886) (23 minutes)

Spotify

Nicola Benedetti and Alexei Grynyuk have not yet recorded this music, but other versions can be accessed via the playlist below, in case you can’t get to the broadcast:

About the music

Beethoven’s tenth and last published violin sonata sits on its own in his output, a decade after than the composer’s previous work in the form. It is dedicated to the same ‘Archduke’ (Rudolph of Austria) for whom Beethoven wrote his famous B flat major piano trio, also published in 1812. Beethoven supposedly wrote it in a slightly easier style, as the violinist Pierre Rode – who was performing the piece with the Archduke playing piano – was not as skilful as he once was. The G major piece makes allowances, then – but not in a way that you would ever know from listening! It is unusually tranquil, and has instances of the timeless music Beethoven was to find in the slower movements of his late works.

There are no such concessions to technical ability from Brahms, who wrote the second of his three violin sonatas while on holiday by Lake Thun, Switzerland. This is however a relatively late work, and although Brahms has found and established his style the piece still carries some of the pressures of writing for Joseph Joachim. Its lyrical and tuneful nature have helped make it one of the composer’s most popular pieces of chamber music – and like the Beethoven it has a largely sunny outlook.

Performance verdict

A nice combination of two violin sonatas that seemed ideally suited to a bright Spring lunchtime – and how refreshing to hear young artists such as Benedetti and Grynyuk take on two later works like this.

The Beethoven was lovely, performed in a spirit of enjoyment where the violin and piano really were equals. Benedetti’s tone, slightly sweet, was ideal, while Grynyuk proved a very sensitive pianist, with some lightly brushed contributions that made sense of Beethoven’s unusual contentment.

The same mood infused the Brahms sonata, though here there was a greater sense of purpose, as the first movement, having begun relatively slowly, surged through to a much more animated development section. The finale was also notable for revealing some of the shadows that became a greater part of Brahms’s late works – but overall the feeling was one of positivity, celebrating the composer’s good spirits and warm lyricism in this work.

What should I listen out for?

Beethoven

1:58 – as the piece begins there is an immediate feeling of contentment, and although the opening idea is quite innocuous it is distinctive, with its use of the trill ornament. The piano introduces an airy second theme at 3:10, which the violin soon takes up. The mood is summery, and even a bit drowsy. The first section is repeated again at 4:40. Beethoven then develops his ideas fluently before we hear the main tune once again at 8:31, shared this time by the violin and piano. The balmy warmth continues until the end.

13:12 – the second movement is slow, marked Adagio espressivo, and has that kind of heavenly timelessness often found in later period Beethoven. It has a spacious introduction from the piano and is if anything even more relaxed than the first movement. It operates at a similar tempo and mood to the slow movement from the Emperor piano concerto. From around 14:35 the violin lines become quiet and bare, Benedetti using little vibrato, but the warmth does not take long to return.

19: 19 – the third movement, a Scherzo, is short, and if you blink you’ll miss it! Its first idea is once again light of touch, and though there is a heavier trio section it is not at all long before the minor key asserts itself again.

21:48 – the final movement also has a light touch, with a Haydn simplicity, and is particularly rich in the lower register and strong in the continuous, lower runs. The slower music is a delight, still airy and relatively carefree. There is then a quicker, invigorating run to the end.

Brahms

32:37 – one of Brahms’s most celebrated tunes opens this piece, a lovely outpouring of good feeling. It is quite slow and quiet to begin with but grows into a full blooded interpretation as the theme is developed further. There is greater affection here than in much of Brahms’s output.

42:07 – this is definitely the lighter side of Brahms, with a tender slow movement that segues into a more jaunty Scherzo section (43:32), marked by tumbling triplets in the piano part. The slow movement music follows again at a safe distance (44:38) – and then once again the scherzo music trips along (46:43), this time with plucking from the violin.

49:28 – in the last movement we get the warmth of the violin’s lower register, taking the ‘grazioso’ marking in to account. There are though some shadows that the listener might sense occasionally, the odd harmonic turn towards the dark side that never lasts too long but is there nonetheless.

Encore

54:35 – a substantial encore from Benedetti and Grynyuk, and a very different mood in the exotic and intense Myth no.3 by Polish composer Szymanowski.

Further listening

At the bottom of the playlist you will find some further suggestions for violin and piano in the form of sonatas by Schumann – Brahms’ friend, of course – with his Violin Sonata no.1 – and César Franck, whose own Violin Sonata shares the same key and mood as Brahms’s Second. Finally some shorter pieces by Schumann for solo instrument and piano – the joyous Adagio and Allegro and the 5 Pieces in Folk Style, arranged here for cello and piano. Each will put you in a good mood!

Meanwhile if the Szymanowski appeals, Nicola Benedetti has recorded his Violin Concerto no.1: