In concert – Leonidas Kavakos, Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson: Elgar Symphony no.3; Barber & Korngold

Leonidas Kavakos (cello), Philharmonia Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 27 February 2020

Barber First Essay Op.12 (1937)
Korngold Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1945)
Elgar, realized Anthony Payne Symphony no.3 in C minor Op.88 (1933; 1993-4)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (John Wilson) Sim Canetty-Clarke

It is good to see John Wilson taking up more concert engagements, so putting his talent at the service of symphonic repertoire. Tonight, he directed the Philharmonia in a programme that culminated with quite possibly the finest reading Elgar’s Third Symphony has yet received.

The relatively brief first half commenced with Barber’s First Essay, written in the wake of his soon-to-be ubiquitous Adagio and given a high-profile launch by Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic. Succinct to a fault, the sombre rumination of its initial section soon makes way for music of brittle aggression (such as Britten surely had in mind writing the Dies irae section of his Sinfonia da Requiem two years later), and reaches a short-lived climax with the return of the piece’s opening which itself subsides into musing expectation.

A timely revival, whereas Korngold’s Violin Concerto now seems almost too familiar since coming in from the cold some quarter-century ago. Leonidas Kavakos has become one of his staunchest advocates, but while his recent Proms account often verged towards the soporific, this evening saw much greater focus; not least an initial Moderato whose yearning melodies were rendered with real incisiveness, then a Romanze whose lush textures and diaphanous harmonies never risked becoming cloying. If the final Allegro was even more impressive, this was because what is ostensibly the weakest movement emerged on a par with those before – Kavakos pointing up its effervescence while keeping any indulgence in check on route to the heady return of its opening theme, in what is a coup de théâtre even by Korngold’s standards.

Wilson has already demonstrated his Vaughan Williams credentials, and is evidently no less at home in Elgar. Some 22 years on from its premiere and the Third Symphony, as realized by Anthony Payne, continues to fascinate and exasperate in equal measure – yet, while there can be no denying its conjectural status, what came over here was Wilson’s conviction as he steered a purposeful course through the opening movement – pulling together what can feel a prolix development then evincing similar grip and determination in the coda. What follows was ideally poised between scherzo and intermezzo, its balletic and song-like strains eliding seamlessly, while the Adagio has seldom sounded more potent in its wrenching dissonances and wan consolation as lead to a coda whose fragmented texture only emphasized its pathos.

On to the finale (Wilson rightly ensured minimal pause between movements) and while there was no lack of finesse in the shaping of its themes, Wilson made relative light of there being no concrete development section by bringing its nominally tentative variants into tensile and, above all, cumulative accord. This carried through into the coda – undoubtedly the best Payne which Elgar never wrote and whose spirit of reaching out towards whatever might lie beyond was palpably conveyed as the music receded, slowly but never disconsolately, toward silence.

At some 50 minutes this was as taut and incisive a reading as the piece can yet have received, but the essential rightness of Wilson’s approach could not be doubted. Payne himself looked mightily impressed, and one can only hope a recording with the Philharmonia is in the offing.

In concert – Sol Gabetta, NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi: Takemitsu, Schumann & Rachmaninov

Sol Gabetta (cello), NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Monday 24 February 2020

Takemitsu How slow the wind (1991)
Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)
Rachmaninov Symphony no.2 in E minor Op.27 (1906-07)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This Royal Festival Hall concert offered the relatively rare chance to catch the NHK Symphony Orchestra, on a mini-tour from Tokyo in the company of their chief conductor, Paavo Järvi.

As he told Arcana in an interview the previous week, Järvi has been acquainting himself with the music of Toru Takemitsu in recent years, culminating in a recording of his orchestral works with the NHK. One of them, How slow the wind, was a descriptive and colourful way in which to open the concert, presenting a picture of relative calm.

One of Takemitsu’s best qualities is the descriptive power of his music, which is able to capture the elements in a subtle but meaningful way. Rain, earth and air are three you can expect to encounter with particularly vivid results, and the latter was to the fore in this intriguing symphonic poem. As the title suggests, it really was the slowed down movement of air, and was played with attention to detail and affection, painting a picture far away from the Southbank. The influence of Debussy, as outlined by Järvi, was clear, but so too were elements of Ravel and Messiaen, though the percussive colours in which Takemitsu dressed the piece were wholly his own.

Sol Gabetta then took charge of the Schumann Cello Concerto. Clearly this is a piece she loves, and it is gratifying in recent years to see the concerto come into the centre of the instrument’s repertoire. The first movement, dominated by a nagging theme that stays in your head for long after, was a dramatic affair, the cellist seizing the initiative but ensuring Järvi and the relatively small orchestral forces were with her every step of the way. Gabetta’s high register tone was probing, with unerring accuracy in her tuning.

When Schumann moves seamlessly into the slow movement it is like walking into a different, calmer room of the same house, but Gabetta ensured the links throughout were clearly signposted, and her duet with leader of the NHK cellos Ryoichi Fujimori was both sensitive and ideally balanced.

The finale found a bold approach from Gabetta capitalizing on Schumann’s innovative writing, with the written-out cadenza particularly strongly executed before a thoroughly affirmative end. Gabetta capped this with the inclusion of the first movement of VasksGramata cellam as an encore. Gabetta gave this at the first night of the BBC Proms in 2016 and it is no less startling heard once again with its vocalisation.

For the second half it was slow burning Rachmaninov, the NHK smoothly into their stride for the first movement of the Symphony no.2 in E minor. If the moody bass strings at the opening were slightly withdrawn, that gave Järvi plenty to work with as the music unfolded. With the faster tempo came an airy texture as though the sun was shining through outdoors. Once we had glimpsed the brightness it was hard not to let go of it, and the Scherzo, taken at a fastish tempo, glinted at the edges.

Järvi judged the famous Andante just right, indulging in the gorgeous textures but never overdoing it, so that Kei Ito’s clarinet was given the best possible platform to deliver a heartstopping solo. Yet it was in the excited whoops of the finale where this interpretation really delivered, the orchestra stepping up another gear as the music excitedly passed between the instrument groups, percussion adding a sheen to the wonderful wall of sound.

It being Estonian Independence Day, Järvi – while noting the amusement of celebrating the day in London with a Japanese orchestra – gave us a glimpse of summer through Heino Eller’s sunkissed Homeland Tune, from the 5 Pieces for Strings. It was a fitting end to a concert that helpfully reminded us of the approach of spring – and in the process told of classical music’s potential reach. A Japanese orchestra conducted by an Estonian with an Argentinian cellist. What’s not to like about that?!

Further listening

You can listen to a playlist of the programme performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi. It includes Gabetta’s recording of the Schumann, and leading recordings of the other repertoire (including encores):

For a very fine disc of Heino Eller’s music for string orchestra, this collection from the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Tonu Kaljuste on ECM is just the ticket:

In concert – Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Iván Fischer: Mozart’s Final Flourish

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Iván Fischer

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Friday 7 February 2020

Mozart
Symphonies: no.39 in E flat major K543; no.40 in G minor K550; no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (all composed in 1788)

This concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 12 February. You can listen to it here

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Few orchestras inspire their audience as consistently as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Tonight was no exception, presenting ‘Mozart’s Final Flourish’ – his three final symphonies, nos. 39-41, written unusually in a short space of time, without commission, in 1788. The three works represent Mozart’s mastery of the symphonic form, and as conductor Iván Fischer explained to us before the performances began, there is an argument for the three works being viewed as one.

Fischer structured the concert to support his point, the trinity performed in order but with the interval positioned between the second and third movements of the Symphony no.40. This did not prove as much of a hindrance as expected, for the ‘one giant stucture’ – seen as such by no less than Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Fischer’s teacher – was merely paused half way through. Fischer encouraged applause between movements, a tactic which fragmented the performance a little but added to the relaxed atmosphere and will have encouraged first-time attendees.

The performances were very fine indeed. Symphony no.39 in E flat major, no.543 in Köchel’s catalogue of Mozart compositions, does not always get the appreciation it deserves. This is a shame as it is a wonderfully affirmative work, packed full of good tunes that responded well to the orchestra’s lean sound and fresh phrasing. The slow movement Andante was really nicely characterised, its middle section appropriately stern, while the busy finale chattered excitedly, Fischer leading the conversation.

The Symphony no.40 in G minor came as something of a shock to audiences with its ‘Sturm und drang’ approach, in keeping with Haydn and other artistic movements of the day but clearly plumbing emotional depths for the composer. The first movement was tautly argued, relenting a little for the Andante which was perhaps too relaxed in tone. When we returned after the interval the Menuetto disappeared rather quickly, with Fischer’s brisk tempo and an absence of repeats, while the fourth movement brought more abstract qualities to the fore before its final flourish.

And so to the Symphony no.41 in C major, nicknamed the ‘Jupiter’ 40 years or so after its publication. What a remarkable achievement this is, its surface simplicity masking complex inner workings with the serenity of a swan. Fischer, who smiled throughout, revelled in another fine performance, typified by the extra spring given to the exuberant second theme of the first movement. The tender heart of the Andante cantabile was aided by a lovely muted string sound, while the floated delivery from the violins helped the deceptively straightforward themes in the Menuetto. All this was headed for the finale, however, and its masterful fugue. This conversation between parts is the closest thing to perfection in Mozart’s symphonic writing, and the OAE relished both their individual parts and the ensemble workings resulting from them, building enough kinetic energy to sweep us home.

This was a thought provoking and ultimately uplifting evening, and the ideal setting of the scene for anyone moving on to Beethoven next!

Further listening and viewing

A reminder that this concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 12 February. You can listen here

You can find out more about the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on their website, and you can get an introduction to them in a minute through the video below:

The orchestra appear not to have recorded Mozart’s last three symphonies, but their one-time guest conductor Frans Brüggen made these excellent live recordings with the Orchestra of the 18th Century. They sit relatively closely to the sound heard at this concert:

In concert – Peter Donohoe, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Foulds ‘Dynamic Triptych’ & Shostakovich Symphony no.11

Peter Donohoe (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Wednesday 11 December 2019

Foulds Dynamic Triptych (1929)
Shostakovich Symphony no.11 in G minor Op.103 The Year 1905 (1957)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here, though you may wish to skip the interval of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no.8 for continuity.

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Isle of Noises series has attracted – for me at least – some unfair criticism in recent days of the works included in its remit. Granted, the choices are all English, but the composers look beyond these shores with a willingness seemingly out of kilter with the current political climate.

John Foulds is a case in point; a composer who spent the final five years of his life in India before a tragic early death to cholera. Not only did he live in India but he actively explored its musical systems, looking to see how he could incorporate his discoveries and influences into the framework of classical music.

The Dynamic Triptych is a striking example of successful integration. Completed in 1929, its musical language is well beyond its years. In the first movement Foulds becomes obsessed with a modal scale, repeating it over and over rather like Scriabin would do with towers of chords based on intervals of a fourth. The task of playing the modal scales often fell in this performance to the muscular piano part, played with great authority by Peter Donohoe (above). The pianist has spent a great deal of time with this work, recording it with Sakari Oramo and the CBSO in 2006. He led a highly spirited performance, yet despite his brilliant passagework and percussive interventions in the fast music the soul of the work lay in the slow movement.

Here the strings’ quarter tones, beautifully played, brought added mystery to the picture when dressed with evocative percussion, adding to music already in the grip of a poignant sense of loss. Piano and orchestra regrouped for a finale that galloped ahead, Foulds letting the music off the leash to explore more far-flung tonal areas, before a silvery waltz theme was introduced to complement the quickstep. Both fused for a bold and dramatic finale, capping a well-received performance. This was forward looking music of English origin, and not in a 12-tone style either! The LPO should be praised for its inclusion and Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted with characteristic sensitivity, will hopefully explore more of Foulds’ colourful scores in the future.

The colours vanished dramatically after the interval for the opening pages of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11. This performance took on added poignancy with a dedication from Jurowski to Mariss Jansons, sadly departed the previous weekend at the age of 76. Jansons was guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1992 to 1997, and he grew up in St Petersburg, on close personal terms with Shostakovich. The Eleventh Symphony, depicting the slaughter of protestors in the city as part of the Russian Revolution in January 1905, could not have been closer to home.

What a performance it was. For an hour we barely moved as Shostakovich’s first-hand account of the action took hold in vivid, cinematic detail. The icy Palace Square of the city could not have been colder in Jurowski’s hands, with ominous timpani rolls signalling tragedy all too early on. When it came, in the second movement, the massacre was delivered by music of uncompromising and stunning power, the proud brass chorale ultimately shut down by deafening percussion before the door slammed shut. Suddenly the square was silent, save for the strings’ icy tendrils which extended once again towards the audience, noticeably holding its collective breath.

The London Philharmonic were absolutely superb. With 22 cellos and basses playing as one, digging in to the ice as though their lives depended on it, the performance was on sure foundations, above which we had special woodwind contributions, with cor anglais (Sue Bohling) and bass clarinet (Paul Richards) just two of several exceptional solos. The percussionists, a vital cog in the Shostakovich machine, judged their contributions ideally too, with sharp snare drum retorts complemented by rolling bass drum and gong.

Still the tension remained, through an elegiac slow movement where the violas’ melody could not have been more poignantly played by David Quiggle and his section. The dedication to Jansons felt most intense here, and the players were given due acknowledgement by Jurowski in their well-deserved curtain call. Yet despite the deeply personal aspect of the performance there were even sharper parallels with the political climate of today, reminding listeners of the protests in Hong Kong and the forthcoming UK election, not to mention the disinformation, code and discrimination that permeate today’s society at every turn.

This account lived and breathed all of those dreadful things, and as the performance reached its shattering climax with tolling bells, Shostakovich was communicating with ever more piercing clarity. It may not be his most accomplished symphony but the Eleventh is one of his most descriptive and emotive. As Jurowski held the score aloft afterwards it was clear he felt the same – and I for one left reeling at the impact of a memorable performance.

Further listening

This Spotify playlist gives recordings of the Eleventh Symphony from Mariss Jansons himself, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Peter Donohoe with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo in the John Foulds Dynamic Triptych:

You can read a tribute to Mariss Jansons on the London Philharmonic Orchestra website

In concert – Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen: Weimar Berlin – Angels and Demons

Christian Tetzlaff, Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Thursday 26 September 2019

Hindemith Rag Time (well-tempered) (1921)
J.S. Bach arr. Schoenberg Two Chorale Preludes: Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele BWV654; Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geist BWV667 (1925)
Berg Violin Concerto (1935)
Hindemith Mathis der Maler Symphony (1934)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This year the Philharmonia Orchestra have been exploring the music of Weimar Berlin as it was in the 1920s and 1930s, with fascinating results. Their most recent concert, subtitled Dreams and Demons, may have been relatively short, but it gave plenty of food for thought and the musical rewards were considerable.

A rather older composer who worked in Weimar made himself known throughout the concert, for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was quoted, refracted and alluded to in each of the four pieces on the programme. Firstly we heard the opening notes of the Prelude in C minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, part of an affectionate and brilliantly ‘worded’ joke by Hindemith, whose Ragtime started the concert with a swagger. Esa-Pekka Salonen clearly enjoyed its gruff humour, but found the touches of elegance beneath the surface too.

The Ragtime’s surge to the close in E flat minor blossomed with a cleverly executed join into the first of two Bach chorale prelude arrangements by Schoenberg. Here we wondered at his audacious orchestration, taking on what he saw as ‘the first twelve tone music’ and sharing it around the orchestra with typically inventive pointing towards the melodies. Timothy Walden’s cello probed elegantly at the inner melodic lines of Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, while the exuberant close of Komm, Gott Schöpfer, heiliger Geistdrew heralded the Hindemith work we were about to hear.

Berg’s Violin Concerto quotes from a Bach chorale, Es ist genug (It is enough) at the height of its remembrance of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler. Subtitled To the Memory of An Angel, the work traverses a wide range of emotions in its thought processes, from brief oases of calm to fraught periods of activity. The clarinets of the Philharmonia, in all ranges, were superb, whether in the lighter Ländler theme of the first movement or the solemn chorale itself, their imitation of a pipe organ ghostly and – when the solo violinist’s harmonics were in play – ethereal. This was because soloist Christian Tetzlaff (above) also brought a wide range of sounds to the piece, from the fragility of the opening strings of the start to the surging faster music where he took the music by the scruff of the neck. His was a technically brilliant yet musically sensitive performance, closely joined to Salonen’s deft work with the orchestra.

All the while this wonderful piece was heading for the final bars and the ultimate rest, the sort of chord you would want to go on forever as Berg’s orchestral colours mingle with the highest note the violin reaches in the whole piece. Together Teztlaff and Salonen ensured the pacing was ideal, helped considerably by the light and shade of the Philharmonia’s contribution.

After the interval came a regrettably rare chance to hear some Hindemith in the concert hall in the shape of the Mathis der Maler Symphony, a three-movement work drawn from the opera of the same name. This oft-maligned composer exerts a good deal of influence on the tonal music of the second half of the 20th century, more than he is credited for, and his own works are instantly recognisable. Nor, as Salonen and the Philharmonia illustrated, is there a lack of colour or personality in his orchestral writing.

This was a superb performance of a piece Salonen clearly holds close to his heart, having conducted it at the Proms and recorded it for Sony in 2004. The expectant hush from the strings at the start was magical, the effect like walking into a sacred building, and this was reinforced by a solemn intonation of a chorale from the trombones, those Bach influences coming quickly to the surface. Salonen’s slower tempo here worked well.

The silvery strings enjoyed the moments of confluence in Hindemith’s writing, with the added note chords allowed to breathe, but Salonen was not above letting the grittier parts of the music off the leash, pushing forward through the faster phrases. The Philharmonia woodwind and brass were superb, the bell-like clarity of their playing bolstered by deeper shades. With all these qualities noted, Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert) unfolded beautifully, with a grand sense of ceremony at the end, while in response Grablegung (Entombment) was initially thoughtful, its ruminative woodwind then replaced by a brass-dominated climax which Salonen controlled immaculately.

Most dramatic of all was Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), with a ravishing tone from the Philharmonia strings at the outset. As it progressed the movement had a terrific cut and thrust, its tension released with impressive stature in the closing pages. Mathis der Maler is a wonderful score, one of Hindemith’s finest achievements – and by no means the only peak of his orchestral output. Here it put the seal on a fascinating and immensely rewarding concert, with superb musicianship throughout.

Further listening

You can hear the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Salonen’s account of the Mathis der Maler symphony:

This playlist offers a broader view of Hindemith’s orchestral output, with the ballet suite Nobilissima Visione, the Concert Music for Strings and Brass and the vastly underrated piece for piano and orchestra The Four Temperaments: