In concert – Jonathan Martindale, CBSO / Michael Seal: Summer Classics

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Jonathan Martindale (violin, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Dvořák Carnival Op.92 (1891)
Vaughan Williams
The Lark Ascending (1914/20)
Elgar
Chanson de matin Op.15/2 (1889)
Grieg
Peer Gynt Suite no.1 Op.46 (1875/88) – no.1, Morning; no.4, In the Hall of the Mountain King
Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Vivaldi
The Four Seasons Op.8 (1718/20) – no.2 in G minor RV315 ‘Summer’
Price
Symphony no.1 in E minor (1931-2) – Juba Dance
Tchaikovsky
The Nutcracker Op.71 (1892) – Waltz of the Flowers

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Friday 2 July 2021 (2pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse Photo of Jonathan Martindale courtesy of Upstream Photography

The penultimate event in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season, this afternoon’s Summer Classics featured a wide-ranging selection of pieces that between them spanned over two centuries, and whose ‘feel good’ factor at no time precluded stylish or committed playing.

With longstanding associate director Michael Seal at the helm, the orchestra made the most of Dvořák’s effervescent Carnival overture; the alluring pathos of its central interlude accorded due emphasis, and with some eloquent woodwind solos. Its popularity during recent years has made Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending a regular inclusion in such programmes, and Jonathan Martindale (below, who also led the concert) gave a thoughtful while never flaccid reading – most perceptive in the middle section with its folk-like whimsy and fanciful evocations of birdsong. The CBSO responded with limpid dexterity, the whole performance a reminder that this work is best tackled as a concertante piece and by a player (recalling such as Hugh Bean, Iona Brown and, more recently, Richard Tognetti) who knows the orchestra from the inside.

Next came an ingratiating take on Elgar evergreen Chanson de matin, then excerpts from the First Suite of Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt – a rapturous Morning and stealthy In the Hall of the Mountain King skirting headlong terror at the close. Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream made for an unlikely but effective centrepiece – the highlight being those fugitive imaginings towards its centre, along with the disarming eloquence of its final bars where the teenage composer conjures a fulfilment he was only rarely to recapture.

The Summer concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons again saw Martindale as soloist in an account that lacked little of that rhythmic vitality his contemporaries (notably Bach) seized on with alacrity; nor was there any absence of poise in its atmospheric second movement. One who has come in from the cold partly through the recovery of her manuscripts, Chicago-based Florence Price broke with convention by introducing the Juba Dance into her symphonies in lieu of a scherzo; the CBSO responding in full measure to its rhythmic verve. A winning harp solo from Katherine Thomas launched Waltz of the Flowers from Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker and ended the main programme in fine style – Seal and the CBSO acknowledging the applause with the final ‘galop’ from Rossini’s William Tell overture as a dashing encore.

Throughout the concert, film expert Andrew Collins interspersed proceedings with his remarks and recollections (not least on that seminal 1970s supergroup The Wombles). The music itself was accompanied by varying shades and colours of lighting, but these rarely seemed intrusive – not least compared to the garish ‘Moulin Rouge’ effects routinely encountered nowadays at the Proms. Certainly, anyone in the process of getting the know just what classical music was all about, and those merely in search of a pleasurable afternoon’s listening, were well served.

Next Wednesday brings the last in this current series of concerts, the CBSO being conducted by Joshua Weilerstein (who is replacing an ‘unable to travel’ Edward Gardner) in an enticing programme of Judith Weir, Prokofiev (with the violinist Alina Ibragimova) and Beethoven.

You can find information on the final concert in the CBSO’s season at their website. For more information on composer Florence Price, click here

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Reimagined Part 2

ElgarStringQuartet-Screenshot

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Elgar, arr. David Matthews String Quartet in E minor Op.83 (1918)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded September 22 2020 for online broadcast from Friday 14 May 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Following its programme of miniatures – original and arrangements – for cello and strings in March, this latest online concert by the English Symphony Orchestra returned to Elgar for a reading of his String Quartet arranged by David Matthews for a full complement of strings.

This was the second in a triptych of chamber works composed in rural seclusion at Brinkwells in Sussex, Elgar having escaped the wartime disillusion of London for what was to be his last sustained period of creativity. Less introspective than the Violin Sonata that preceded it while less emotionally charged than the Piano Quintet that came after, the String Quartet is the most finely proportioned of the three – unfolding as a sustained sweep whose subtle transformation of thematic elements across and between its three movements make it among the finest of his later compositions. Heard in this guise, it follows on from the Serenade then Introduction and Allegro as the hitherto missing large-scale work for string orchestra of Elgar’s high maturity – which should hopefully commend it to an audience beyond that of the composer’s devotees.

Matthews has numerous arrangements to his credit (not least Schumann’s Piano Concerto as recast for marimba), and he has been mindful to balance the soloistic and ensemble potential of this music, so the result is neither straightforward transcription nor radical re-conception. The opening Allegro moderato discreetly emphasises an autumnal musing that sets the tone for much of what follows; even finer is the second movement – marked Piacevole – whose equability yields a main theme suffused with intensity, the extent of which is only revealed towards the close. If the emotional acuity of the final Allegro is marginally diffused when rendered for larger forces, there is no lack of rhythmic definition as the music proceeds to a coda whose terse decisiveness is far removed from the opulence of just a few years before.

Its idiomatic nature was enhanced by the ESO’s attentive playing under Kenneth Woods, a natural follow-on to their take on the Piano Quintet in Donald Fraser’s arrangement (Avie). Heard together, these two parts of Elgar Reimagined should make for a desirable recording.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

Live review – Raphael Wallfisch, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Reimagined Part 1

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Raphael Wallfisch (cello), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Elgar, arr. Fraser Miniatures for cello and strings
Chanson de Matin, Op.15 No.2 (1899)
Chanson de Nuit, Op.15 No.1 (1899)
The Wild Bears, Op, 1b No. 6 (1908)
Nimrod, Op.36 No. 9 (1899)
Romance in D minor, Op.62 (1910)
Sospiri, Op.70 (1914)
Mazurka, Op.10 No.1 (1899)
Pleading, Op.48 (1908)
In Moonlight (1904)
Salut d’Amour, Op.12 (1888)
Adieu (1933)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Recorded October 9 2020 for online broadcast from Wednesday 19 March 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This latest in the English Symphony Orchestra’s online concerts focussed on Elgar – namely a series of miniatures for cello and strings arranged by Donald Fraser and played by Raphael Wallfisch, whose commitment to and conviction in this music hardly needs reiterating here.

Chanson de Matin launched proceedings in mellifluous fashion, and if the cello’s assuming of the melodic line was slightly to the detriment of the original scoring, that could hardly be said of Chanson de Nuit whose more sombre contours and ruminative character were ideally realized. Nor did The Wild Bears lose out on vivacity, and if this arrangement brought it into the orbit of Saint-Saëns, that served to underline the significance of ‘Second Empire’ French music on Elgar’s own thinking. In Nimrod, the cello’s dominance rather detracted from the subtlety of the original instrumentation; conversely, Fraser’s take on the Romance brought soloist and strings into even closer accord than the composer’s own version with orchestra.

Nevertheless, the undoubted highlight here was Sospiri – the cello’s subsuming of the harp’s crucial contribution just one aspect of an arrangement which presented one of Elgar’s finest inspirations (miniature or otherwise) in a striking new light. Lighter fare next with the robust tread of the Mazurka, proceeded by a rendering of the song Pleading of unforced eloquence. The evergreen In Moonlight (adapted from the overture In the South) responded well to this suitably limpid treatment, as did Salut d’Amour to one that underlined its wholly un-cloying essence. A wistful take on the piano piece Adieu saw this programme to an affecting close.

Throughout, the idiomatic feel of Wallfisch’s playing was complemented by that of the ESO under Kenneth Woods, as discreet or understated as the music requited. Forty minutes came and went effortlessly – the ‘Part 1’ designation happily meaning there will be more to come.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

Live review – Raphael Wallfisch, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Meditations for Armistice Day

Raphael Wallfisch (cello, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Sunday 8 November 2020 (online)

Adrian Williams Russells’ Elegy (2009/11)
Elgar arr. Fraser Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (1899) – Variation IX, ‘Nimrod’ (1899)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Remembering the Armistice – and just what it represents in human terms – is a regular fixture on the English Symphony Orchestra’s schedule. This year featured two pieces for strings that complemented each other well, whether in terms of their overall mood or underlying aesthetic.

Adrian Williams is contributing several works as the ESO’s current John McCabe Composer-in-Association, with Russells’ Elegy apposite in its ‘remembrance’ context as well as being a commemoration of pianist-conductor John Russell and director Ken Russell (hence the plural of the title). Audibly in a long lineage of British works for strings, the 10-minute piece moves between passages for ensemble and those where solo strings dominate with no mean subtlety and finesse, culminating in a sustained tutti that fades thoughtfully yet inevitably into silence.

Those encountering Williams’s music for the first time will hopefully have been encouraged to investigate further, and they will doubtless have responded to Elgar’s Nimrod as arranged for cello and strings by Donald Fraser (who has previously orchestrated the composer’s Piano Quintet and Sea Pictures). The result is comparable to the version of Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile from his String Quartet no.1 in the cellist’s discreet elaboration of a melodic line without detriment to the existing instrumental texture, and it would certainly make for an ideal encore.

This arrangement was eloquently rendered by Raphael Wallfisch, whose advocacy of British music over the years cannot be gainsaid, and the performances given added resonance by the photographs of soldiers and images from the Great War as accompanied this touching tribute.

You can watch the concert on YouTube here:

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

Playlist – Sound of Mind 7: Strings and things

Here is another playlist for your delectation, in the new age of ‘staying in’.

This one features works for strings of very different character, from the energetic works by John Adams and Tchaikovsky to a more reflective, serene approach from Philip Glass and Sir Edward Elgar. You get an idea here of the versatility of the string orchestra, which can be by turns sombre and bracing.

Enjoy the music!

Ben Hogwood