Online Concert: Tom Borrow @ Wigmore Hall – J.S. Bach, Franck & Rachmaninoff

Tom Borrow (piano)

J.S. Bach Italian Concerto in F major BWV971 (pub. 1735)
Franck Prélude, choral et fugue (1884)
Rachmaninoff Variations on a theme of Corelli Op.42 (1931)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 1 May 2023 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

This BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert featured the New Generation pianist Tom Borrow, making his debut at the Wigmore Hall with a very well-judged trio of works casting their eyes back to the past. The Israeli-born performer was notably comfortable in the environment, responding to the intimate atmosphere of the hall with compelling music-making.

Bach’s Italian Concerto was first, a work that is particularly successful on the piano. Borrow’s articulation in a crisp Allegro was very pleasing to the ear, his enjoyment of the counterpoint evident. The Andante was particularly beautiful, and completely unhurried – the pianist not afraid to give the right hand plenty of room to expand Bach’s melodies, the left hand hushed but responsive too. The bustling Presto had plenty of musical activity, the energetic profile maintained throughout but again the shapely melodic phrasing winning through.

Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue is the best known of his works for solo piano. Its form looks back to the organ works of Bach, inserting a ‘chorale’ section in between the more conventional pair of ‘prelude’ and ‘fugue’. Here the Prélude began softly, Borrow’s light touch bringing delicacy to the decorative arpeggios around the theme, while also bringing the parallels with Brahms into focus. The choral started softy but grew in stature, moving from darkness to bright light, Borrow crossing hands to play the theme with apparent ease. The flowing discourse here was notable, maybe not as loud as some pianists but finding the heart of Franck’s expression nonetheless. The fugue was stately but also mysterious to begin with, the pianist bringing forward its chromatic profile, but then taking full command of the intense exchanges and achieving a most impressive performance in the process. The closing peal of bells was brilliantly played.

Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a theme of Corelli completed the trio of retrospective works, this one another remarkably concentrated piece offering plenty of opportunity for virtuosity and interpretative skill. This was again taken up by Borrow, once again setting a reverent atmosphere with the slow exposition of the theme. The lilting second variation in triple time was persuasively delivered, while a commanding fifth variation and sweeping seventh carried all before them. This only heightened the mysterious eighth and ninth variations, lost in thought.

The dynamic contrasts of the twelfth variation were very well observed, then the anxious syncopations of the thirteenth. The following Intermezzo had the requisite elements of fantasy, followed by a yearning chorale for Variation 14. Borrow’s technical command was impressive throughout, notably in the twists and turns of Variation 16 and the jagged edges of the eighteenth variation onwards. The clarity here was notable, in spite of the volume – and the thunderous finish was complemented by a radiant coda.

Borrow’s encore choice was well-suited – a flowing account of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G# minor Op.32/12, with notes that twinkled in the upper right hand at the end.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

In concert – Behzod Abduraimov, CBSO / François Leleux – Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no.2; Brahms: Serenade no.1 & Academic Festival Overture

Behzod Abduraimov (piano, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / François Leleux (below)

Brahms Academic Festival Overture Op. 80 (1880)
Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor Op.18 (1900-1901)
Brahms Serenade no.1 in D major Op.11 (1858-9)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 13 April 2023

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Its first concert since returning from a European tour saw the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in a programme which tellingly placed Rachmaninoff’s most famous composition within the context of less often heard or uncharacteristically (?) humorous pieces by Brahms.

Cinematic and other extra-musical associations often obscure the purely musical qualities of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, so credit to the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov for duly underlining these in a reading full of incident and unfailingly cohesive. Among the former might be mentioned the limpid elegance of the first movement’s second theme and its improvisatory continuation before the coda, bewitching transition from the Adagio’s central scherzo back to the main melody, and those evocative interludes after the finale’s ‘big tune’ – this latter returning to cap the whole work in unforced ardour. Integration between piano and orchestra was unfailing, as too the emotional immediacy of the CBSO’s response, and who could question Abduraimov’s decision not to provide an encore after so fine a performance.

Rachmaninoff and Brahms seldom complement each other in concert, though the Academic Festival Overture provided an ideal curtain-raiser. Typically more than a potpourri of student songs (drinking or otherwise), the cunningly fashioned sonata design was deftly unfolded by François Leleux so that its portentous and uproarious elements were held in perfect accord. The percussion audibly relished its rare outing in a Brahms score, not least at the close when the hymn-like ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ emerges to see this piece through to its exhilarating close.

Following the interval, a relatively infrequent hearing for Brahms’s First Serenade. Originally planned for chamber ensemble and later rescored for late-Classical forces (with four horns), its equivocally symphonic ambitions and proportions were inevitably overshadowed by what Brahms went on to achieve, but its musical attractions are many and Leleux had its measure. Not least during an initial Allegro, its dextrous horn theme setting the tone for a movement whose impetus was engagingly maintained through to the touching insouciance of its coda.

Omitting repeats in this movement’s exposition and the first half of the Scherzo – which latter anticipates Brahms’s intermezzos in its speculative aura and understated progress – ensured a viable balance with the Adagio. A pre-echo of slow movements to come, the observance of its ‘non troppo’ marking prevented any loss of expressive focus across the methodically evolving whole. If the remaining movements are closer conceptually to serenade rather than symphony, Leleux gave them their due – whether the twin Menuettos with their enticing contrast between woodwind and strings, a second and more rhythmic Scherzo with rustic horn writing here and in the trio, then the final Rondo in which Brahms looks back to those comparable movements from early Beethoven and Schubert with a lack of inhibition he was only rarely to recapture.

Such was the effect of an account that received an enthusiastic response from the near-capacity house. The CBSO strings take the stage next Saturday for a coupling of Schubert arranged by Mahler and Vivaldi interspersed with Piazolla, directed by their leader Eugene Tzikindelean.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Behzod Abduraimov and François Leleux

In concert – Oliver Janes, CBSO / Ryan Bancroft: Adams, Mozart & Rachmaninoff

Adams The Chairman Dances (1985)
Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major K622 (1791)
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances Op.45 (1940)

Oliver Janes (clarinet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ryan Bancroft

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 2 November 2022 [2.15pm]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Back from its successful US tour (the first such in almost a quarter of a century), the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra this afternoon returned to Symphony Hall for what was a programme of contrasts in which an element of dance seldom lurked far beneath the surface.

Although it is often considered emblematic of his opera Nixon in China, John Adams wrote The Chairman Dances well before completing the larger work – this ‘Foxtrot for Orchestra’ encapsulating much of its atmosphere without being intrinsic to its content. Capricious while shot through with a tellingly distanced nostalgia, this remains among Adams’s most effective concert pieces and Ryan Bancroft secured a fine account whose meticulous attention to detail was not without corresponding panache – down to its percussive ‘winding down’ at the close.

It is (nearly) always welcome when an orchestra’s section leader takes the platform as soloist, as was proven with Oliver Janes in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto – easily the most popular such piece in its repertoire yet one that can easily seem bland or even characterless in performance. There was little chance of that here – not least with a swift and purposeful take on the opening Allegro that left relatively little room for lingering over incidental detail, even if something of its underlying elegance was sacrificed with Janes’s powers of articulation pressed to the limit.

This approach paid dividends in the remaining movements, not least an Adagio whose limpid eloquence was conveyed without trace of indulgence or wanton sentiment. The final Allegro, too, had a winning buoyancy – Janes evincing a deftness and spontaneity to which the CBSO responded in kind, and with a surge of energy towards the closing chords. It set the seal on an appealing rendition which, perhaps surprisingly, Janes will not repeat at tomorrow evening’s concert from Warwick Arts Centre – when that by Gerald Finzi will be the concerto on offer.

Soon to take the reins at the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Bancroft is evidently a conductor on a roll as was confirmed by his take on Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. A triptych that abounds in felicitous detail (as is often belied, if not actually concealed, by the score’s lack of expression markings), it needs flexible direction for each movement to cohere, and Bancroft had their measure. The first exuded a suspenseful energy that, in its central section, took on a winsome pathos embodied by its alto saxophone melody (affectingly played by Kyle Horch).

Even more persuasive was the sardonic central dance, its waltz motion underpinning some of the composer’s most astringent harmonies as were pointedly emphasized here. If the charged outer sections of the final dance lacked the ultimate in exhilaration, the quality of the CBSO’s response was never in doubt. In the slower middle episode, moreover, Bancroft’s deliberation ideally clarified those frequently dense textures whose expressive poise is achieved, uniquely for Rachmaninoff, without recourse to an actual melody. A sign of things to come, perhaps?

Bancroft will hopefully be returning next season, but the present one continues with events to mark the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth – including two of his symphonies and the film Scott of the Antarctic, for which the CBSO is contributing live accompaniment.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Ryan Bancroft and Oliver Janes

BBC Proms #26 – The Labèques, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov: Julian Anderson premiere, Martinů & Rachmaninoff

Prom 26 – Katia and Marielle Labèque (pianos), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (above)

Anderson Symphony No. 2 ‘Prague Panoramas’ (2020-22) (BBC co-commission: World premiere of complete work)
Martinů Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra H292 (1943)
Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances Op.45 (1940)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Friday 5 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

An unusually well-assembled concert this evening with what might be termed a programme of ‘three-by-threes’ – each of these three works having three movements which, in each case, results in a broadly symmetrical design, not least the Second Symphony by Julian Anderson (with the conductor, below).

Inspired by Josef Sudek’s photographs of Prague while utilizing two medieval Czech hymns, Prague Panoramas (might Prague Pictures be even more apposite?) is typical in its fusing evocativeness with precision. Not least the preludial opening movement, its stark alternation of quick-fire chords and silence evolving into aspiring melodic lines as build to a tumultuous if quickly curtailed climax, though this linear aspect comes to dominate the nocturnal central movement with its expressive intensifications then fades against a backdrop of bell resonance and luminously modal polyphony. The finale is a deftly organized rondo – its energetic main material, inspired by Josef Lada’s almost Rabelaisian depictions of pub brawls, interspersed with more lyrical ideas through to the heady peroration later subsiding into a calm postlude.

Although its first two movements had been heard in Munich and Prague, this was the work’s first complete performance and found the BBC Symphony at its collective best – not least the lambently interweaving woodwind and strings, the visceral impact of brass and a substantial array of percussion whose contribution was pervasive. Semyon Bychkov (under-appreciated as an exponent of contemporary music) duly brought out that unity-within-diversity such as gave this work an underlying focus across the 32 minutes of its eventful yet cohesive course.

From Prague-inspired music by a British composer to that by a Czech composer in America – Martinů’s Concerto for Two Pianos may never have gained the plaudits of his earlier Double Concerto but it typifies this composer’s exile in a tried-and-tested interplay of folk-inflected melodicism with a harmonic acerbity recalling Prokofiev and rhythmic dexterity redolent of Stravinsky. Its undoubted highlight is a central Adagio whose almost ‘harmonie’ woodwind writing and circling piano figuration (had the composer come across the gamelan-influenced music of Colin McPhee?) feels mesmeric and affecting. Neither outer movement comes close in their audibly contrived amalgam of the rumbustious and lyrical, but this is music in which Katia and Marielle Labèque excel and tonight’s performance could rarely have been equalled.

Nor was there any doubting Bychkov’s authority in Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances that followed the interval. Admittedly this now regularly played while technically exacting piece needed more rehearsal than the BBCSO was able to give it on this occasion, though the outer sections of the first dance had just the right ominous incisiveness and its middle part featured winsome alto saxophone from Martin Robertson. The second dance had irony and angularity aplenty, as was slightly offset by the strings’ less than unanimous response towards the close.

Its sombre ambivalence and intricate textures give the central span of the final dance a quality unique in this composer: if Bychkov might have endowed it with even greater intensity, there was no doubting his identity with this music here or on the way to its resplendent apotheosis.

For more information, click on the names of composer Julian Anderson – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Katia and Marielle Labèque, Semyon Bychkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. For more on this year’s BBC Proms as it continues, head to the Proms website

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

In concert – Elena Urioste, Ben Goldscheider, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada: Glinka, Ethel Smyth & Rachmaninoff

Glinka Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842) – Overture
Smyth Concerto for Violin and Horn (1926-7)
Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 (1906-7)

Elena Urioste (violin), Ben Goldscheider (horn), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 24 July 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It might have been a ‘warm up’ for tomorrow night’s Proms appearance, but this afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with its Chief Conductor designate Kazuki Yamada gave ample indication of what to expect of this partnership during 2022/23.

On one level, this was an appealingly old-fashioned programme in consisting of an overture, concerto and symphony. The former was that to Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, always an effervescent curtain-raiser which here unfolded at a lively but never headlong tempo that brought out the formal precision of this piece with its deft sonata design. Neither did Yamada under-characterize the amiable second theme, while the strangely ominous atmosphere of the development was made more so through a telling contribution by timpanist Matthew Hardy.

Ethel Smyth is a notable presence at this year’s Proms, the CBSO tackling her Concerto for Violin and Horn. Among her last major works (encroaching deafness saw her write little over the next 18 years), its nominally Classical trajectory belies a formal freedom as extends to an orchestration evoking her French contemporaries as much as her German forebears. Not least the initial Allegro with its trenchant and stealthily imitative writing for the soloists against an orchestral texture at once intricate and luminous. Yamada marshalled his forces accordingly, before giving Elena Urioste and Ben Goldscheider the stage for the ensuing Elegy whose ‘In memoriam’ marking encouraged a response of real eloquence. Robust yet never unyielding, the final Allegro took in a combative cadenza before striding forth to its decisive peroration.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony has moved to the very centre of the repertoire in the four decades since Simon Rattle made it a signature piece with this orchestra. Yamada holds it in equally high esteem – witness the finesse with which he built the first movement introduction to its impassioned apex, before subsiding into an Allegro which drew anxiety and grace into a purposeful accord heightened by the development’s surging inevitability then a coda of terse finality. Unfolding at an animated while not unduly hectic tempo, the scherzo was marginally over-indulged in its lilting second theme, but this did not pre-empt an incisive response in the central fugato – the CBSO strings at their collective best – nor a transition back into the main theme of irresistible verve. The coda exuded a fugitive inwardness that was no less arresting.

Ubiquitous these days as a radio staple, the Adagio needs astute handling if its rapture is not to become cloying and Yamada responded accordingly – not least in his attentive pacing of the main theme with a contribution from clarinettist Oliver Janes of melting poignancy, then a climax whose emotional intensity never became hectoring. The slightly too flaccid tempo for its easeful central span meant that the finale lacked the ultimate in cohesion, but Yamada balanced this elsewhere with an energy which carried through into a scintillating apotheosis.

So, an eminently worthwhile concert beyond merely enabling those who are unable to attend that Royal Albert Hall performance to hear Yamada with the CBSO in a programme such as played to both their strengths. Much to look forward to, then, over the course of next season.

For more information on the CBSO Prom, click on the link on their website. Meanwhile click on the artist names for more on Elena Urioste, Ben Goldscheider and Kazuki Yamada – and for a website dedicated to Dame Ethel Smyth