Live review – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Stravinsky: The Firebird

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 2 May 2019

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1878)
Stravinsky The Firebird – complete ballet (1910)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

With a European tour imminent and details of next season just out, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was evidently on a high when tackling this afternoon’s programme of contrasted works by Russian and Soviet composers.

His centenary may not fall until December, but Mieczysław Weinberg has been a mainstay of the CBSO’s current season (with the Third Symphony to follow at this year’s Proms), and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes was a welcome addition. At a time when Soviet composers were under intense pressure to write music of an inherently populist nature, its deployment of melodies from the territory of Bessarabia (from where his parents hailed, but not the Warsaw-born composer) draws unashamedly on a lineage from Liszt to Bartók – Weinberg’s handling of these, in what is a subtle take on the slow-fast archetype, being a stylish and personal one. Gražinytė-Tyla duly had its measure, whether in the ruminative opening with its plangent solo woodwind or the boisterous later stages when brass comes vividly and irresistibly to the fore.

An evergreen such as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto should have presented no surprises, but that was to bargain without Patricia Kopatchinskaja (above) as soloist. Incapable of giving a routine performance, her sometimes reckless while always compulsive account of the first movement left little doubt as to her ringing of the changes – above all, in a spontaneous rendering of the cadenza such as convincingly brought out its improvisatory nature. Not was there any lack of inwardness in the Canzonetta, its chamber-like textures delectably drawn, and though tempi in the finale were almost self-consciously extreme, the frisson as generated by its ever-faster refrain seemed all but tangible. Gražinytė-Tyla drew an alert and attentive response from the CBSO, consistently making the most of Tchaikovsky’s delicate yet also incisive orchestration.

Only Kopatchinskaja could have come up with an encore where she, the conductor, violinist Kate Suthers and cellist Eduardo Vassallo engaged in something between a Ligeti madrigal and a Cathy Berberian improv. Something about the planet being round? It hardly mattered.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird is a piece of which all recent CBSO chief conductors have made a virtue, with Gražinytė-Tyla no exception. Perhaps surprisingly, this was an interpretation that emphasized the score’s formal unity and motivic ingenuity rather than any overly illustrative aspect; not least in the lengthy sequence between the Khorovod and Infernal Dance as can often seem to mark time judged purely as music.

Conversely, there was on occasion a lack of theatrical immediacy or evocative poise needed if the full ballet is to convince away from the stage. Highlights were a Supplication with the Firebird’s entreaties were alternately soulful and alluring, then a Berceuse whose rapt response from muted strings held the periodically restive audience in its thrall prior to an energetic while slightly matter-of-fact Apotheosis.

Any imprecisions will doubtless be ironed-out during the repeat performance on Saturday. A reminder, too, that Gražinytė-Tyla’s memorable reading of Weinberg’s 21st Symphony with the CBSO has just been released as the first fruit of her contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

Further information on this concert can be found at the CBSO website, and on the Weinberg release over at Deutsche Grammophon

Further listening

You can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s recording of the Tchaikovsky and the CBSO in The Firebird under Sir Simon Rattle:

Under the surface – Ustvolskaya Chamber Works on ECM

ustvolskaya-ecm

Composer: Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006)

Nationality: Russian

What did she write? Ustvolskaya wrote little published music, but her output still extends to five symphonies and a number of highly regarded chamber works.

Why isn’t she more popular? In general women classical composers have had an extremely raw deal over the centuries, but there are at least now a few contemporaries who are coming through to more prominent positions – among them Dame Judith Weir, now Master (Mistress!) of the Queen’s Music, Thea Musgrave and Sofia Gubaidulina. Ustvolskaya’s music is not perhaps as immediately as theirs, but she is arguably the most inventive and original.

What are the works on this new recording? Two works for violin and piano – the Sonata (1952) and Duet (1964) given characteristically sparse titles. They sandwich an earlier Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1949), recorded for the second time by ECM.

What is the music like? Challenging. Not in a bad way, you understand!

The Duet is a fascinating piece, because there are some moments where it feels like the violin and piano are in open combat. The piercing high notes from the violin are haunting initially, but at about two and a half minutes in this cuts to some music that I can only describe as bloodthirsty, with violin and piano locked in battle.

There is a greater sense of togetherness between the instruments in the Sonata, where once again Kopatchinskaja and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser play with fearsome intensity. This work is where the influence of teacher Shostakovich is at its keenest, with a five-note motif on the violin that becomes obsessive and disconcerting. There are however some lovely slower moments of deep thought, where the violin makes bird-like calls over the soft piano.

The Trio is another dramatic work, its sonorities reminiscent of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written for the same combination with cello. The music is especially effective when Ustvolskaya works the violin and clarinet together, effectively taking the bottom out of the music, while there is often a stronger sense of forward movement. Reto Bieri’s beautiful tone is notable in this performance.

What’s the verdict? If you’re willing to put the work in with Ustvolskaya’s music there are rewards to be had. She is a composer who seems never to waste a note, and although sometimes her writing is austere, it is packed with a deep-seated emotion.

Give this a try if you like… Shostakovich, Messiaen or Bartók

Spotify Playlist

An Ustvolskaya playlist is available on Spotify below, including the Trio and Violin Sonata detailed above, the highly regarded Octet and the Symphony no.5.

Finding the Romanian soul

Finding the soul of Romania – Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Polina Leschenko play Enescu’s remarkable third sonata with music by Mozart
patricia-kopatchinskaja

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin) and Polina Leschenko (piano) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 January 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04xrsl2

on the iPlayer until 14 February

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

What’s the music?

Mozart – Sonata for Violin and Piano in B flat (1784, 20 minutes)

Georges Enescu – Violin Sonata no.3, ‘dans le caractère populaire roumain’ (‘in Romanian Folk Style’) (1926, 25 minutes)

What about the music?

Mozart wrote a mass of sonatas for piano and violin. The order of instruments is significant, because whereas now we tend to be used to the piano playing second fiddle – as it were! – to the violin, Mozart wrote for them the other way around. For this piece, the tale is that he didn’t even have a piano part ready for the first performance in Vienna, so had to make one up on the spot!

Just a week after our encounter with the remarkable Solo Cello Sonata of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, we experience an equivalent outpouring of national passion from his contemporary, the Romanian composer Georges Enescu. A formidable violinist as well as a conductor, Enescu wrote what is regarded as one of the most difficult pieces for the instrument in 1926, looking to explore the soul of his country’s music. He does so in music of an incredibly direct nature, treating the violin as a voice at times.

Performance verdict

The Mozart proves to be a delicate palette cleanser for the main course, where the two performers feel a lot more at home in a meaty and often stormy account of Enescu’s masterpiece. It may need several listens but this is a forward thinking piece of work that brings out some extraordinary colours from Kopatchinskaya’s violin. Leschenko is no slouch either! A red hot performance.

What should I listen out for?

Listen especially for these bits:

Mozart

01:28 – the start of the piece. A polite musical language, calm and unaffecting. Kopatchinskaja uses very little vibrato here.

02:47 – Mozart moves from the slow section (marked by the Italian term Largo) to the fast (‘Allegro’). The music becomes more nimble

08:02 – The start of quite a lengthy but serene slow movement, with violin and piano imitating each other’s musical phrases.

14:42 – The beginning of the third movement, a sprightly number – where Kopatchinskaja’s outbursts suggest a bit of impatience!

Enescu

22:22 – the mysterious and almost otherworldly start of the Enescu

26:40 – the sort of broad, highly expressive melody in which the Romanian composer specialises, with animated backing on the piano.

31:30 – Enescu employs harmonics on the violin to get a really unusual, glassy sound quality, the start of a passage with a kaleidoscope of colours that reaches its peak at 34:39 with some weird and wonderful squeaks from the instrument – before 35:30 features some incredibly robust double stopping (more than one note at once on the violin) and runs on the piano from Leschenko

40:00 – A strong set of quotations from Romanian sources, with brilliant ensemble from the two players.

43:00 – Vigorous plucking to add a percussive element to the music

47:00 – the lead up to the powerful end

Encores

The duo gave two encores to the performance:

Cage – Etude for Violin and Piano (from 49:23 to 53:03)

Fritz Kreisler – Syncopation for Violin and Piano (from 54:12 to 56:22)

Want to hear more?

Mozart – one of the great master’s five violin concertos, which provides a good number of tunes (K216)

Enescu – further explorations of his country’s heritage in the Romanian Rhapsody no.1