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:

Centenary post – Elgar: Cello Concerto

Today is the centenary of one of Sir Edward Elgar‘s best-loved works, first performed on this day in 1919. It was not always that way for the Cello Concerto in E minor, however, as an under-rehearsed premiere may well have contributed to a gap in London performances of more than a year.

The first performance took place with soloist Felix Salmond, Albert Coates conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. The first cellist to really further the concerto’s cause was Beatrice Harrison, seen above with Elgar in an early recording from 1920. Her official recording with the composer from 1928 can be heard on the playlist below.

Again the work fell into disregard, possibly on account of its darker autumnal hues. The melodies came to Elgar in the aftermath of a painful operation on his tonsils, and while he could hear the sound of fighting in the First World War across the English channel.

It was not really until 1965 that the work reached regular public consumption, thanks to a searing recording by the young Jacqueline du Pre, with the London Symphony Orchestra this time under Sir John Barbirolli’s direction (also on the playlist). This recording preserved du Pré’s reputation as a cellist of great passion and technique, with the considerable help of a seasoned Elgarian in Barbirolli behind the orchestral ‘wheel’. It also apparently convinced a certain Mstislav Rostropovich not to become better acquainted with the piece.

More recently the Cello Concerto has become widespread, most recently with a first night performance at the Proms from Sol Gabetta and an appearance at this year’s season from Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

Gabetta’s recorded version is also on the playlist, with Mario Venzago conducting the Royal Danish National Orchestra. It appears along with two very fine accounts from Julian Lloyd Webber – with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Yehudi Menuhin – and Steven Isserlis, his first recording of the work made with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Richard Hickox:

More recently Isserlis has revisited the work with Paavo Jarvi conducting the Philharmonia, a fine account about which he talked to Arcana here.

The Cello Concerto was Elgar’s last major work, completing an intriguing late set of compositions including the Violin Sonata and String Quartet, which share the concerto’s key of E minor, and the wonderful Piano Quintet in A minor. Those four works can be heard on the playlist below:

For a visual treat, though, you can enjoy Jacqueline du Pré’s playing here – not with Sir John Barbirolli but with her husband Daniel Barenboim, conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 25: Sol Gabetta, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska – Tchaikovsky, Weinberg & Sibelius

Prom 25: Sol Gabetta (cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska (above)

Sibelius Karelia Suite Op.11 (1893)
Weinberg Cello Concerto in D minor Op.43 (1948, rev 1956) [Proms premiere]
Tchaikovsky Symphony no.6 in B minor, Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 6 August 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

This Prom was notable for its being the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s first public concert with principal guest conductor Dalia Stasevska and the first appearance in this (or any previous) season of music by Polish-born Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg, whose centenary is later this year.

Conceived as a Concertino then expanded eight year later, the Cello Concerto is not untypical of Weinberg’s earlier works in its discrepancy between completion and premiere (by Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow during 1957). Even more striking is its absence from the repertoire, given its formal clarity and direct melodic appeal. Myaskovsky’s own concerto is an indirect model, notably in the ruminative opening Adagio with a folk-tinged main theme that returns to heightened effect at the close, but Weinberg’s approach is more oblique and eventful. The first movement leads to a wistful intermezzo with Jewish and even Spanish inflections, then an animated scherzo capped by an extensive cadenza. This segues into a finale whose lively main theme is revealed as a variant of the initial melody during an increasingly inward coda.

The piece clearly has a devoted advocate in Sol Gabetta, whose perceptive account can only enhance its popularity. The BBCSO evinced passing technical fallibilities, likely caused by a slightly amorphous balance between soloist and orchestra in this acoustic; though that did not affect Gabetta as she drew evident soulfulness and intensity from the music. No-one hearing this concerto for the first time was likely to have been left unmoved – nor by Pablo Casals’s arrangement of the Catalan folk-song Song of the Birds, which made for a winsome encore.

Framing the Weinberg were two repertoire items composed during the same year. Sibelius’s Karelia Suite was never less then enjoyable, though Stasevska slightly misjudged the balance between reflection and animation in the Intermezzo, while the speculative modal contrasts of the inward Ballade might have been more firmly integrated. Best was the closing Alla marcia’ – its bracingly populist overtones allowed free rein without ever becoming blatant, though quite what determined that cymbal clash on the very final note is anybody’s guess.

After the interval came Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony – tonight receiving its 124th hearing at these concerts (so equating to one performance per season), and a reading which gained in stature as it unfolded. Stasevska had the measure of the opening movement, though a certain impassiveness was only banished in the development’s driving fugato as it carried over into the fateful denouement. The ensuing Intermezzo was deftly paced with no hint of stolidity in its trio, then the Scherzo had a propulsion as fairly erupted in its latter stages – the premature applause for once sounding spontaneous. There was no undue emoting in the finale as this conductor heard it, with the music’s fraught eloquence maintained through two impassioned climaxes and on to a coda whose enveloping darkness did not preclude fatalistic acceptance.

If not an overly memorable performance, this was certainly an assured one that suggested the rapport between conductor and orchestra is already taking shape. Stasevska has two concerts with the BBCSO in the coming season which, on tonight’s evidence, will be worth attending.

The 2016 BBC Proms are go! Here’s what happened in Prom 1…

proms-2016

The national flag of Argentina waves in response to Sol Gabetta‘s account of the Elgar Cello Concerto

(c) Ben Hogwood

The BBC Proms are go!

The 2016 season is underway, and in a packed Royal Albert Hall this evening we were treated to the first of 75 Proms. As is traditional Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave us a flavour of the season, but also a substantial second half in the form of Prokofiev‘s cantata and film score, Alexander Nevsky.

To begin, a sad reflection of the world’s troubles could be keenly felt in La Marseillaise, the Proms showing solidarity with France after the horrors in Nice. After such an event music can feel inconsequential but it can also bring people together and provide some sort of comfort – and in the big, swooning tunes of Tchaikovsky‘s Romeo and Juliet Oramo provided just that. The woodwind chorale on the approach to the end was particularly moving.

Sol Gabetta then stamped her own personality on Elgar‘s Cello Concerto, taking a few liberties with the tempo – but none of these were for personal gain, rather reflecting her own interpretation of the music. The pauses at the end of some of Elgar’s phrases were unexpected but profound, while the silvery accompaniment of the BBC SO spoke of Autumn rather than our supposed high summer. Gabetta’s encore, Dolcissimo by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks, found her singing as well as playing cello, reducing the Royal Albert Hall to reverent silence.

Things got even colder for Prokofiev‘s film score Alexander Nevsky, though there were thrilling moments when the massed choir of the BBC National Chorus of Wales – just over 200 in all – let rip. The basses reached their lowest notes with commendable accuracy, while the Battle On The Ice, where Nevsky faces his German and Estonian foes, was thrilling and immediate.

Yet the show was stolen by Olga Borodina, the Russian mezzo-soprano ghosting onto the stage for a keenly felt account of The Field of the Dead near the end. Her emotion was first hand, and Oramo’s sensitive hand on the tiller encouraged a similarly heartfelt response from the orchestra.

It was a concert that bodes well for the season – and this year Arcana is planning two different approaches to its coverage of the BBC Proms. There will be a few straight ‘reviewed’ concerts, but the focus of our coverage will be on taking people to the Proms who have not been before. To that end our reviews of Proms will not be by experts, rather by first-time punters chosen from a pool of friends and contacts. Further to that, all reviews will be from the Arena, which is the ultimate Proms experience – and which to my knowledge is the best place for sound quality, let alone atmosphere.

No other source reviews from here as far as I am aware…so stick with Arcana in the weeks ahead, particularly through August. I can assure you we will be bringing classical music to new audiences on a weekly basis!

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Sol Gabetta and Polina Leschenko play Rachmaninov

sol-gabetta

Sol Gabetta (cello), Polina Leschenko (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 October 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06gqgpr

on the iPlayer until 11 November

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. Sol Gabetta has recorded all of these pieces, with the pianists Bertrand Chamayou (Chopin) and Olga Kern (Rachmaninov), and, in the case of the Tchaikovsky, in an orchestral version with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Olivieri-Monroe.

What’s the music?

Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op.3 (1829) (8 minutes)

Tchaikovsky: Lensky’s Aria (1879) (6 minutes)

Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata, Op.19 (1901) (34 minutes)

What about the music?

There is something about music for cello and piano from Eastern Europe that communicates directly with lovers of classical music, and in particular smaller scale chamber music. This may be because the cello’s range is like that of a vocalist, which becomes very clear in the arrangement of Lensky’s Aria that Sol Gabetta and Polina Leschenko play here. The cello has a way of portraying the solemn contemplation that Lensky goes through before his duel and inevitable death at the hands of Eugene Onegin.

On a far more cheerful note are the works by Chopin and Rachmaninov. Chopin wrote very little music where the piano was not the starring instrument, and even in this Introduction and Polonaise brillante the piano part is challenging to say the least! Chopin did love writing for the cello though, and showed in this late student piece how his melodic style became very well suited to the instrument. Later in his life he completed a substantial sonata for cello and piano.

The Rachmaninov Sonata is one of the big Romantic works for cello and piano, with a piano part whose difficulty is comparable to that of the piano concertos – and interestingly the composer had only just completed his famous Second Piano Concerto when he got to work on this piece. It is full of big tunes and bold musical statements but has a tender heart too, which we get to see in the third movement Andante. The finale is one of sheer jubilation, the composer moving from the earlier, stormy music of the minor key to bask in the full sunshine of the major key – with a good melody never far from the cello throughout.

Performance verdict

This was a technically spectacular concert from two performers clearly at the top of their game, and thoroughly enjoying their music making.

The Chopin was a delight, all the youthful vigour captured in Polina Leschenko’s grand introduction, with its impressive pyrotechnics in the right hand. Meanwhile Gabetta’s tone was particularly beautiful, an aspect common to the pair’s performance of Lensky’s Aria, the arrangement – apparently completed by cellist Werner Thomas-Mifune – making a seamless transition to the instrument.

The Rachmaninov Sonata was a tour de force, the piano if anything dominating a performance rich in romantic feeling but also keen to impose itself through challenging and fast speeds. This did on occasion become too much and some of the phrases were constricted, especially in the second movement Scherzo, which hurried forward as though late for an urgent appointment, and some of the detail was lost – a shame, as despite its big statements, this piece does have some lovely detail.

The slow movement Andante was lovely, Gabetta’s tone and phrasing ideal, her knack of holding back on some of the phrases just right. The finale resembled pealing bells at times, its sheer exuberance proving irresistible, and here the performance had what felt like exactly the right tempo, pausing for breath half way through.

Even allowing for those slight gripes though, this was an extremely impressive, high voltage performance from two musicians clearly enjoying their craft.

What should I listen out for?

Chopin

1:35 – a grand introduction from the piano, showing off the youthful composer’s impetuosity. The cello, however, is perhaps closer to his heart with a songful and broadly phrased melody above.

4:12 – the Polonaise itself begins, with a distinctive rhythm that speeds up as the three beats in the bar go on (from 1 crotchet to 2 quavers to 4 semi-quavers, for the musos amongst us!). It takes the profile of a florid march, and is passionate and extrovert. The piano leads the rhythm, with power and a little charm, while the cello provides the songful melody. The end, when it comes, is vigorous and like a drink fizzing over.

Tchaikovsky

11:27 – a solemn mood is immediately evident from the pensive piano introduction, with Lensky awaiting his duel with Onegin. The cello picks up on this, reproducing the tenor line with a feeling of imminent dread, especially when the end approaches at 16:58.

Rachmaninov

17:56 – the sonata begins with a tentative slow introduction (marked Lento), as though testing the water, but feels on much firmer ground when the faster Allegro moderato begins at 18:55.

19:58 – the second theme of the first movement, first heard on the piano. This is classic Rachmaninov, combining Romantic thoughts with a melancholic undertone. Then from 21:23 the pair repeat the faster section before an intense development of the main material, the cello now playing lower in its register and the piano taking a hard hitting approach

26:53 – the piano now brings out the second theme in the ‘home’ key, where it retains its original melancholic quality, before the music gathers itself for a final big statement, finishing at 29:21.

29:34 – the Scherzo second movement begins at quite a fearsome tempo, led by the piano. Here the emphasis is much more rhythmic, though there is a distinctive six-note figure that dominates the movement. At 30:16 we hear a second theme, more songlike in nature.

31:29 – the contrasting ‘Trio’ section of the second movement, much smoother in nature. Then at 33:19 the stormy clouds of the Scherzo approach once again, with even greater force this time. The end, at 35:34, is beautifully done – quiet but atmospheric.

35:46 – the slow movement begins, marked Andante (at a walking pace). The piano introduces the tune, which is once again a deeply felt melody of contemplation. The cello takes it up at 36:34, and the theme proceeds to dominate the whole movement.

41:30 – the fourth and final movement bursts out the blocks. The key has switched from G minor, the sonata’s overall key, to G major – and the mood is completely contrary to the previous movement, full of jubilation. The music gets particularly stormy around 44:30, with cello and piano making particularly passionate statements.

A slower, quieter episode gives brief pause for reflection before a restatement of the last movement’s main theme at 46:59. At 49:44 the slower music returns, beautifully shaded by the performers, before the helter-skelter closing pages wrap up the piece from 50:52.

Encore

53:33 – the fourth and last movement of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata. The composer’s spiky approach to this music is stressed in an interpretation that almost spills over into violence at times!

Further listening

The combination of cello and piano was one that 19th century composers loved to use – fuelled no doubt by Beethoven’s success in bringing the instruments forward as equal partners.

One of the most successful composers writing for cello and piano was Brahms – so here is a link to the powerhouse combination of Mstislav Rostropovich and Rudolf Serkin playing his two sonatas for the combination, both of which are known as repertoire staples:

Perhaps less well known but equally glorious are the two cello sonatas by Mendelssohn, also rich in melody and deep feeling. Here they are played by Jan Vögler and Louis Lortie:

Finally Chopin went on to write a Sonata for cello and piano, one that is perhaps best heard in a recording by Johannes Moser and Ewa Kupiec. The companion piece on the disc is the Piano Trio: