Playlist: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at 50

by Ben Hogwood

Last week Arcana published an interview with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra violist Dov Scheindlin, in recognition of his time with the orchestra and their significant birthday. 50 years is a long time for a chamber orchestra, let alone a conductor-less one! Joining the celebrations, Deutsche Grammophon have released a 55-CD box set of all the orchestra’s recordings for the label.

Arcana have drawn on personal experience to select a playlist of recordings from the orchestra too, mostly from the DG archive. They range from a perky Haydn symphony to sparky Stravinsky pieces, from the wonderful open-air freshness of Grieg‘s Holberg Suite to the instinctive genius of Brad Mehldau‘s recently-released variations.

If I had to pick a favourite it would be a quite wonderful disc of Respighi orchestral works, crowned by an account of Trittico Botticelliano, a set of three orchestral responses to Botticelli pictures that is both colourful and intensely moving. Listen to the third picture, The Birth of Venus, and you will see what I mean:

BBC Proms – Sayaka Shoji, RPO / Petrenko: Vaughan Williams, Respighi & Mendelssohn

vasily-petrenko

Sayaka Shoji (violin, below), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko (above)

Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910)
Respighi
Concerto gregoriano (1921)
Mendelssohn
Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.107 (1830)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 4 August 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert, notable on several counts. It marked the first Prom for Vasily Petrenko, recently transferred from Liverpool, in his new role as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director. It featured three works paying tribute to a distant musical past – Vaughan Williams, Respighi and Mendelssohn expressing their admiration in very different ways. By way of an aside, it was your correspondent’s first live music in 17 months. A happy experience indeed!

In a sense my ears were in alignment with those who would have been at Gloucester Cathedral on 6 September 1910, for the world premiere of Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. The Royal Albert Hall, in its current reduced capacity, offered a similar acoustic, suitable for a performance where the quietest statements could be clearly heard. In the wake of a pandemic, this was wholly appropriate music to be listening to.

The Fantasia is written for two string orchestras, the second of which, nine players strong, might normally be distributed high in the gallery. Here they were positioned on stage, upper left from the conductor’s viewpoint, and projected beautifully to the back of the arena. Petrenko did not linger over the serenity of the opening, but allowed Vaughan Williams’ invention plenty of space to breathe as the Fantasia formed. A sensitive audience ensured every little nuance could be heard, and the RPO strings – in particular the solo quartet within the main orchestra – played beautifully. Petrenko has recorded a good deal of Elgar with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, so it will be interesting to see if he decides to look at Vaughan Williams in equivalent detail.

There followed a Proms premiere of a work written 100 years ago. As David Gutman’s excellent programme footnotes pointed out, Respighi has not enjoyed good representation at the festival over the years, and in general his music still languishes in the repertoire. This first account of the Concerto gregoriano could hardly have been more persuasive, with a passionate advocate in violin soloist Sayaka Shoji, who quarantined on her arrival in the UK prior to this performance. Respighi was a violinist, writing with skill for the instrument, but chose not to use this concerto as a display piece. Rather he paid homage to the Gregorian chants with which he had had been preoccupied in recent years, and he used these as the basis for a piece containing some particularly lush harmonies and idiosyncratic rhythms.

This was a compelling performance, Shoji soon into her groove and leading with faultless intonation in the high passages of the slow movement, carrying beautifully into the wide open spaces of the hall. She was aided by the horns and trombones of the RPO, positioned along the back of the orchestra, the punctuation of harp and celesta adding glitter to the edge of the sound.

The first movement found nicely judged contributions from oboe (John Roberts) and cor anglais (Patrick Flanaghan), with a sheen from the strings not unlike that of the Vaughan Williams. The third movement presented faster music and a greater sense of drama from its main theme, the brass again involved. This pulled back to peaceful climes, and a recap of the second movement material. Concerto gregoriano was certainly a work benefiting from a live performance, deserving of a higher profile.

Shoji was a sensitive performer, allowing Respighi’s music star billing, a sign of her maturity as a soloist. She also chose a wholly appropriate encore, the soft pizzicato beginning the Sarabande from Ysaÿe’s Sonata for solo violin no.4 (À Fritz Kreisler) the only audible noise in a rapt hall.

Mendelssohn wrote his Reformation symphony in 1830, making it the second in his output chronologically, but it was not published until long after his death. He appears not to have been wholly satisfied with it, leaving it unperformed. It carries a powerful impact, anticipating Schumann’s own D minor symphony (no.4) while including the Lutheran chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A mighty fortress is our God). In this the composer, perhaps inevitably, was including Bach in his homage.

Petrenko had the work’s measure, leading us straight into the ‘sturm und drang’ of the first movement with its grim, D minor struggles. They were captivating, especially at the end of the introduction when rapt strings introduced the ‘Dresden Amen’, a striking alternative to the flurry of activity around them. The second movement had an attractive lilt, the third a nicely poised subject, before flautist Emer McDonough gave an impeccable solo to lead us into the finale. It fell to her to present the chorale theme, taken up with greater number and power by the rest of the orchestra. The mood turned from struggle to victory. Petrenko’s pacing was ideal, as was the phrasing, while the final reverberations of the chorale were more than sufficient in lieu of an encore.

This was a very fine if slightly understated first Prom for the RPO conductor in his new role, bringing the ideal combination of new and familiar. The orchestra appear to be in very good hands.

You can listen to a playlist of the works featured in this concert, including the violin encore, on Spotify below:

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

Live review – Vilde Frang, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Shostakovich Violin Concerto no.1 & Respighi’s Roman Trilogy

Vilde Frang (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 February 2020

Shostakovich Violin Concerto no.1 in A minor Op.77 (1947-8)
Respighi Feste romane (1928); Fontane di Roma (1916); Pini di Roma (1924)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Spending parts of their careers under two of the most potent dictatorships this past century, Shostakovich and Respighi might not appear to have much else in common – so all credit to Kazuki Yamada for making the juxtaposition work so effectively for this evening’s concert.

Never planned as a symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is the most symphonic of his six concertante works and responded accordingly to Vilde Frang’s long-breathed while highly involving approach – whether in the introspective probing of the Nocturne (Graham Sibley deftly lucid in the obligato tuba part) or folk-infused fervency of the Scherzo, then a Passacaglia of wrenching eloquence; its speculative postlude giving rise to a cadenza whose cumulative impetus was carried over into the final Burlesque with its irresistible high-jinx then sprint towards the end where soloist and orchestra very nearly finished in sync. Typical, moreover, of this most self-effacing among present-day virtuosi that Frang evidently had no intention of providing an encore – so completely was her performance its own justification.

Hard to imagine the mature Shostakovich setting much store by the orchestral pyrotechnics of Respighi’s Roman Triptych – yet these heady evocations of time and place in the Eternal City remain audience pleasers of a high order, especially when scheduled as this ‘triple whammy’.

Beginning with Roman Festivals might risk premature overkill, but Yamada brought out the ceremonial fervour of Il Giubileo as surely as the teasing playfulness of L’Ottobrata with its journeying forth and amorous encounters. Yamada’s unbridled enthusiasm rather got the better of him in the imposing if unruly climax of Circences, while the CBSO sounded just slightly inhibited during the all-out celebrations of La Befana – its melee of colliding tunes and textures lacking the subtlety that Respighi instils into even his most uproarious passages.

As the late Gerald Larner pointed out, Fountains of Rome pre-dates the incipient era of Italian grandiloquence. Yamada allowed full rein to the effervescent joy of Triton at Morning, then dazzling majesty of Trevi at Midday – its prolonged evanescence hanging as if suspended in Symphony Hall’s ambience. The outer evocations felt less successful, Valle Giulia at Dawn too passive to be alluring and Villa Medici at Sunset lacking pathos (an offstage bell might have helped), yet the delicacy and suppleness of their melodic lines could hardly be gainsaid.

On to Pines of Rome and Yamada was again at his most perceptive in those central episodes – Near a Catacomb yielding a baleful anguish (offstage trumpet judged to perfection), then At the Janiculum bringing rapture without coyness and a closing string tremolo hardly less exquisite than the nightingale above it. Of the Villa Borghese seemed almost too fractious to be exhilarating, but while Yamada set slightly too rapid a tempo for On the Appian Way, the final peroration (organ and additional brass right on cue) was nothing if not resplendent.

Not a triptych for all occasions but a feast of scintillating sonority and one to which the CBSO responded with panache. Principal guest Yamada returns on Sunday afternoon at the helm of the CBSO Youth Orchestra for a varied programme that closes with Elgar’s First Symphony.

Further listening

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

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37OgPsGcfpJR1qGTmFWdDw?si=KiceQpncQIW_GVwDskulFw

Further information on the next CBSO concert with Kazuki Yamada as described by Richard can be found at the CBSO website

Wigmore Mondays – Novus String Quartet play Respighi & Berg

Novus String Quartet [Jaeyoung Kim, Young-Uk Kim (violins), Kyuhyun Kim (viola), Woongwhee Moon (Violoncello)]

Respighi Quartetto dorico (1924) (2:00 – 23:53 on the broadcast link below)

Berg Lyric Suite (1926) (27:15 – 59:23)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Listening to the Quartetto dorico is like taking a big step back in time. The opening salvo of Ottorino Respighi’s quartet from the mid-1920s is certainly arresting for its volume and scoring – only four instruments but a massive sound! – and its musical language feels imported from another age.

The young Korean ensemble capture these qualities, establishing a dream state that is maintained throughout the performance. Respighi’s quartets are rarely performed, so the BBC and Wigmore Hall should be commended for bringing this one in from the cold, adding another dimension to the 20th century string quartet.

There is an otherworldly quality to the high violin writing later on in this single-movement span, lasting over 20 minutes – and the concentration of feeling provides an intense listening experience. From 4:30 on the broadcast link the music retreats to a quieter passage led by the viola, who essentially intones another chart to the soft, restful comments of the other three. A distinctive section starts at 9:27, with an irregular pulse but a strong rhythmic profile established by the plucked cello string, which gives a dance-like feel to the melody.

At 14:15 an important section starts, the Passacaglia – which has six beats in the bar. The music here is slow moving and deeply contemplative, the first violin taking the lead with a lot of the thoughts as the harmonies stay relatively still. Gradually the higher reaches of the instruments come into play, before a dramatic series of unison sweeps bring down the curtain.

If you’re able to read music I would highly recommend following the score with the performance, as it helps you appreciate Respighi’s unique approach to writing for string quartet. The link is here

From the sacred to the profane – and affter heady music to lift us away from earth, Alban Berg’s six-movement Lyric Suite brings us right back to earthly experiences. Though publically dedicated to the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, as it quotes from his Lyric Symphony, it is in fact a not-so-private account of his doomed affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, who he met on a visit to Prague in the 1920s.

The tempo markings of the six movements are descriptive and tell the story. The first provides a good introduction to Berg’s unique way of using serial (or ‘non tonal’) music in a way that is still highly melodic and richly layered with harmonies. Marked Allegretto gioviale (from 27:15 on the broadcast), it uses all four instruments for thick textures and intense dialogue, telling the story of the start of the couple’s affair.

The second movement, marked Andante amoroso (30:43), is lighter, with more of a spring in its step as Berg profiles Hanna and her two children, with distinct musical motifs for each. The third (Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico (37:24)) gives a musically vivid account of the affair’s consummation, with feather light textures, the instruments’ bows used near the bridge to create a feverish atmosphere.

Then, as the doomed nature of the relationship makes itself evident, the music turns sourer. The fourth movement is a slow one, Adagio appassionato (40:36) – and is passionate and pretty heavy, turning to depths of desolation at the end. The second violin (44:20) quotes from the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony, but this is eerie and displaced, with the ending at 46:38 still more remote.

The last pair of movements is devastating for Berg. It starts with a febrile affair marked Presto delirando – Tenebroso (47:13) and has crisp, jagged phrases until, as the music slows, the thoughts become more remote and despair-laden, leading to the relatively sudden end at 51:45.

Finally the Largo desolato, which really is the end of everything () These are melodies that speak of despair and desolation, the end of the tether. A brief show of spirit and resolve is made at 56:56 but this is soon overcome by the viola and second violin, before some sweeping, downwards facing melodies on the cello. The music, fully spent, peters out at 59:23, as though Berg can no longer say any more.

Like the Respighi above, there is so much going on in Berg’s Lyric Suite that it may be an advantage to follow the music itself while listening. It can be found here

The Novus String Quartet gave incredibly impressive accounts of both works, taking the physical and mental demands in their stride and keeping a consistently high standard of ensemble. They have a refreshing approach to programming, and these elements should ensure they are a top level string quartet to keep an eye on.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, with the Novus Quartet’s recently released recording of the Berg Lyric Suite an added draw:

https://open.spotify.com/user/arcana.fm/playlist/0Oqnt2uLE6E7L09TVxPU4Q?si=hD6X6m3RTTS9_jXU_bav_w

The Quartetto dorico is one of two string quartets completed by Respighi, but he also wrote the celebrated Il tramonto (Sunset) for soprano and string quartet. All three works fit very nicely onto one album, recorded by the Brodsky Quartet and the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter:

Meanwhile Berg’s music for string quartet works extremely well in company with his colleague and fellow ‘serial’ composer Anton Webern. Berg’s rich romanticism and Webern’s incredibly concentrated approach complement each other on this Juilliard Quartet album:

One more playlist to end with – a selection of string quartets from the mid-1920s, illustrating the range of styles applied to the idiom at that time. There are some very different responses here from Janáček, Bartók, Martinů and Frank Bridge – very interesting to compare and contrast!

Live review – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: John Wilson’s Roman Festivals

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

City Halls, London
Thursday 29 November 2018

Donizetti Overture: Don Pasquale (1843)
Puccini Capriccio sinfonico (1883)
Respighi Feste romane (Roman Festivals) (1928); Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (1915-16); Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) (1923-4)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If ever an antidote was needed for a blustery November evening, this was it. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their Associate Guest Conductor John Wilson began with a sprightly overture – that written by Donizetti for his opera Don Pasquale, complete with romantic solo from cellist Rudi de Groote.

We then heard Puccini’s impressive student piece Capriccio sinfonico, where the orchestra dug in to its substantial outlines and memorable triple-time dance theme.

These two pieces served as effective preludes to the main action in this all-Italian concert – Respighi’s triptych of symphonic poems inspired by the centre of his life, Rome. All too often Respighi is held up as a brilliant orchestrator lacking in musical craft, but these performances under John Wilson utterly refuted those claims. This is music of wonderful colour and texture, certainly, but there are great melodies too, scored in such a way that future composers – among them surely John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith – would surely have fallen under the Italian’s spell.

Respighi himself knew how to use his influences for good. Stravinsky looms large, as do Debussy and Ravel – but nobody else could have written the gladiatorial opening to Roman Festivals, its fire and brimstone blowing the cobwebs away from all corners of City Halls.

The BBC Scottish brass were brilliant here, with Simon Johnson’s blowsy trombone solo in Epiphany and the off-stage trumpets in Circuses both highlights. Jubilee, the second movement of the four, painted vividly the downtrodden pilgrims on the highway, rising up as they glimpsed the Holy City in a shower of glistening colour.

The duet between lead violin and cello in The October Festival (Laura Samuel and de Groote again) was a beauty, while the finale built on its influences from Stravinsky’s Petrushka with music of athleticism and raw power, where pianists Lynda Cochrane and Julia Lynch also deserve a mention, their virtuosity underpinning the sound.

Fountains Of Rome was next, sensibly placed to provide a more restrained complement to the bombastic first poem. Here the wonder lay in four beautiful depictions of water, first heard undulating through The Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn. The Triton Fountain at mid-morning was a thrilling scherzo in this performance, while the organ (Michael Bawtree) added extra colour and splendour to The Trevi Fountain at midday. Finally the magical, twinkling image of The Fountain of the Villa Medici showed off the slightly smaller orchestra in all its glory, the strings on top form with the notably tricky figures.

Pines of Rome is the most celebrated of the triptych, and though well known its emotional impact here was considerable. The busy, blustery Pines of the Villa Borghese set a colourful scene, but Wilson paced the Pines near a catacomb to perfection, shaping the apex of the Gregorian chant to spine-tingling effect, helped once again by the brilliant BBC Scottish brass section.

Clarinetist Yann Ghiro provided a solo of exceptional control during The Pines of the Janiculum Hill, where we heard the nightingale from afar – an innovative and controversial role for the gramophone in 1924, and even now making unsuspecting audience members sit up in surprise. Yet the whole evening was still to reach its apex, The Pines of the Via Appia, with what was quite simply the loudest orchestral playing I have ever heard. This was Respighi turned up to eleven, and when it shouldn’t have been possible for the music to get any louder or bigger it just kept going.

John Wilson ensured this was always a controlled ascent and never vulgar, so as the hairs stood up on the neck once again his orchestra reached a tumultuous finish, capping a wonderful evening of music. Now that’s what I call a concert!

Further listening

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3. John Wilson has not recorded any of the music in this concert, but you can hear a playlist of ‘Roman Festivals’: