Live review – Clara Mouriz, CBSO / Jaume Santonja Espinos: Rimsky-Korsakov, Montsalvatge, Falla & Prokofiev

Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jaume Santonja Espinos (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 13 November 2019

Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio Espagnol Op.34 (1887)
Montsalvatge Cinco canciones negras (1945, orch. 1949)
De Falla El sombrero de tres picos (Suites 1 & 2) (1919)
Prokofiev Symphony no.7 in C sharp minor Op.131 (1952)

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (Clara Mouriz) JM Bielsa

Now into his second season as assistant conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Jaume Santonja Espinos has already made his mark so that tonight’s programme of his own choosing saw a juxtaposition of Russian and Spanish music equally to the orchestra’s liking. Certainly they pitched head first into Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Capriccio Espagnol, its ‘Alborada’ sections accordingly boisterous with the ‘Variazioni’ not lacking eloquence, then the bracing contrasts of the final ‘Fandango’ building gradually while inexorably to an effervescent close.

A pity Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is not more widely known, his stylistic amalgam of French impressionist with Spanish-cum-Latinate qualities appealing without being anodyne. Provocation is hardly lacking in his Canciones negras – its resourceful orchestral garb duly pointing up the fraught nostalgia of Cuba in a piano and smouldering sexuality as underpins Habanera rhythm, which aspect takes a more sinister turn in The Dandy as itself contrasts with the plaintiveness of Lullaby for a little black boy, before the verbal onomatopoeia of ‘Negro Song’ brings a visceral close. Clara Mouriz was in her element throughout one of the few Spanish song-cycles to have entered the repertoire, making one hope she and Santonja Espinos might tackle Roberto Gerhard‘s bewitching Cancionero de Pedrell before too long.

A swift return to the platform enabled Mouriz to add vocal enticements to the opening of de Falla‘s The Three Cornered Hat, both suites from which were heard this evening. The rather piecemeal first of these is dominated by the Dance of the Miller’s Wife, suitably suave and sensuous, while the three pieces that comprise the Second Suite (a CBSO staple in decades past) were judiciously characterized; the langour of the Neighbour’s Dance followed by the propulsion of the Miller’s Dance; then the heady denouement of the Final Dance enabling Santonja Espinos to secure playing both stylish and subtle on route to a scintillating close. Programming de Falla’s Love the Magician would have given the estimable Mouriz rather more to do, yet no-one hearing the present selection was likely to have felt short-changed.

The decidedly un-Spanish restraint of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony risked seeming anti-climactic after the interval, though this performance more than had its measure. The opening Moderato exemplified that ambiguity between wistfulness and resignation lying at the heart of this composer’s last major work, with the ensuing Allegretto a waltz-sequence of teasing understatement prior to its uproarious coda. Even better was the Andante, its variations on a theme of disarming simplicity affectingly rendered – after which, the final Vivace lacked that last degree of irony for its playfulness to feel more than dutiful. The return of the first movement’s big tune was powerfully despatched but, even with the original quiet ending, the closing bars were too matter-of-fact for their inherent pathos to come through unabated.

Even so, a thoughtful account of a piece as yields its depths but gradually. Santonja Espinos’s concerts with the CBSO are worth the anticipation: should he wish to include more Spanish music, the fiftieth anniversary of Gerhard’s death next year would be worth commemorating.

Listen

You can listen to a playlist of the music featured in this concert on Spotify below, including the recording made by Clara Mouriz herself with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena:

Oxford Lieder Festival – Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles: Tallinn to St Petersburg

Kai Rüütel (soprano, above), Roger Vignoles (piano, below)

Härma Ei saa mitte vaiki olla (I cannot stay silent)
Brahms Wie Melodien Op.105/1, Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer Op.105/2, Klage Op.105/3, Auf dem Kirchhofe Op.105/4
Rachmaninov O, dolgo budu ja, v molchan’i nochi tajnoj (In the silence of the secret night) Op.4/3, Poljubila ja (The Soldier’s Wife) Op.8/4, Zdes’ khorosho (How fair is the spot) Op.21/7
Mägi Kolm laulu Betti Alveri luulele (3 songs on poems by Betti Alver) [(Päike paistis, kaste hiilgas (The sun was shining, the dew gleamed), Kui kajab muusika (When music echoes), Uneaknale, uneaknale kevad koputas (On the window of sleep)]
Tormis Nukrad Viivud (Sorrowful Moments) [Kevadpäike, ära looju veel (Spring sun, do not set yet), Sügislaul (Autumn Song), Ei ole roose õitsenud minule (‘No roses have bloomed for me’), Armastus (‘Love’)
Rimsky-Korsakov Plenivshis rozoj, solovey (The Nightingale) Op.2/2, Na kholmakh Gruzii (On Georgia’s Hills) Op.3/4, Serenade Op.4/4, Drobitsya, i pleshchet, i brizzhet volna (The wave breaks) Op.46/1, Kogda volnuyetsya zhelteyushchaya niva (When the ripening wheat fields gently stir) Op.40/1
Mart Saar nnemuiste (In Days of Yore), Kõrs kahiseb (The Straw Murmurs), Kadunud ingel ‘Lost Angel’, Sügismõtted (Autumn Thoughts), Mis see oli? (What was It?), Üks ainus kord (Only Once More)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018 (evening)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Continuing the Baltic theme of this Wednesday at the Oxford Lieder Festival, Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel and pianist Roger Vignoles gave a fascinating concert introducing their audience to Estonian song from the 20th century, helpfully placed in the context of Romantic Russian and German song. Rüütel had very helpfully provided English translations of the Estonian songs, which was particularly useful for those Festival goers who had attended the earlier ‘Language Lab’ in the Ashmolean museum, where we had an introduction to the language from Kerli Liksor.

Rüütel set the tone with the unaccompanied Estonian folk song Ei saa mitte vaiki olla (I cannot stay silent), before four late Brahms songs showed off the rich tones of her mezzo-soprano. Yet there was a feeling these were merely a prelude to the meat of the concert, which really began with a wonderfully evocative account of the first of three Rachmaninov songs, In the silence of the secret night. The value of Vignoles’ scene setting was incalculable both here and in the Brahms, with some complex piano writing handled with apparent ease and an instinctive sense of melody and expression. Rüütel inhabited the character of The Soldier’s Wife with a powerful sorrow, contrasted with a dream-like finish to How Fair Is The Spot.

There followed 3 Songs on poems by Betti Alver from the 96-year old Estonian composer Ester Mägi. These had a very clear sense of location in their folk-inspired melodies, with distinctive inflections that Rüütel was ideally placed to exploit. These were mirrored in the piano part, which provided a particularly dramatic introduction for the second song, Where Music Echoes. The directness of the text was strangely refreshing and was reflected in the economy of the music, slightly redolent of Janáček in its economy but forging a very distinctive path.

The name of Veljo Tormis will be a more familiar name to students of Baltic music. Known primarily for his choral work, he is a fine song composer too – and the 1958 collection Sorrowful Moments left a lasting impression. Its central pair, Autumn Song and No Roses Have Bloomed For Me, were darkly toned, but the final Love offered much greater hope, Rüütel singing from the heart of ‘the stars that light the traveller’s way’.

Photo credit (c) Ben Ealovega

We returned to Russia for the beginning of the second half, with some rarely heard songs from Rimsky-Korsakov. Given the melodic prowess and dramatic scene setting on show in songs like On Georgia’s Hills and The Wave Breaks it remains a mystery that Rimsky’s songs are not heard more in the concert hall. Rüütel sang them with great fullness of tone but also enjoyed the more tender moments of Serenade and When The Ripening Wheat Fields Gently Stir. Vignoles’ tumultuous evocation of The Wave Breaks was a highlight; so too the pair’s account of The Nightingale.

Finally we heard the music of Mart Saar, an Estonian composer from the first half of the 20th century who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. In one of several helpful introductions Rüütel told of how Saar followed Rimsky’s advice to ‘be himself’ but also to take risks – and those qualities were evident in these deceptive songs. They were deceptive because some of the twists and turns had an individual quirk, Romantic in profile but alighting on unexpected harmonies or melodies. To Rüütel these were second nature, and in Autumn thoughts especially she found a deep, soulful mood. The first song, In days of yore, had more obvious folk music inflections, but perhaps the most dramatic song of all was Lost Angel, where Vignoles’ mastery of the challenging piano part set the way clear for Rüütel’s direct, emotive response.

As an encore Rüütel and Vignoles gave us a timeless account of Richard Strauss’s Morgen which, while brilliantly performed it did not distract from the impact of the Estonian and Russian music we had just heard. Clearly there are many riches to be discovered from the Baltics, and it is to be hoped Rüütel and Vignoles might set these down permanently for a record company such as Hyperion.

This was a memorable concert, and will be broadcast soon on BBC Radio 3. It comes with the strongest possible recommendation!

Further listening

There is relatively little material on streaming services with which to discover Estonian songs – but there is a new series devoted to the songs of Mart Saar that has just begun:

Meanwhile most of the music from the concert can be heard on the below Spotify playlist: