In concert – Sunwook Kim, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO / Mihhail Gerts: Kodály, Rachmaninoff, Debussy & Stravinsky

Mihhail-Gerts

Kodály Dances of Galánta (1933)
Rachmaninoff
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)
Debussy
Nocturnes – Sirènes (1899)
Stravinsky
The Firebird – Suite (1919)

Sunwook Kim (piano, below), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mihhail Gerts

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 17 February 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

As Mihhail Gerts (taking over at short notice from Lionel Bringuier) said in his initial remarks, all four pieces in this concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were written by composers born within 20 years of each other and made for some intriguing interconnections.

Youngest of these composers, Kodály’s piece was on one level the most traditional – Dances of Galánta looking back to the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt with its bringing together folk melodies in a free flowing fantasia whose larger paragraphs were judiciously shaped by Gerts so that a cumulative overall structure was always evident. The CBSO responded with alacrity to Kodály’s vivid if sometimes workaday orchestration, Oliver Janes making the most of the clarinet solo as stealthily sets the course for all that follows through to a teasing final pay-off.

By the time of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninoff’s music had all but shed its earlier opulence for a tensile, even sardonic quality pointing up expressive contrasts between the 24 variations which fall naturally while ingeniously into a three-movement continuity. It helped that Sunwook Kim constantly brought out those subtle changes of emphasis to which the theme is put, not least when combined with the Dies irae plainchant as if to underline the darker ambivalence at work in this music. That said, the 16th and 17th variations might have been probed even more deeply, so making the famous 18th more affecting in its catharsis, but the six variations of the ‘finale’ headed with unfailing panache to the suitably deadpan close – Kim responding to the enthusiastic applause with a limpid take on Brahms’s Intermezzo in A.

Whether or not it was the earliest piece to use wordless voices as a facet of the orchestration, Debussy’s Sirènes provided a template for numerous comparably innovative works across the next quarter-century and beyond. Gerts was scrupulous as to his enfolding of the textural strands into a cohesive and diaphanous whole; one to which the CBSO Youth Chorus made a suitably ethereal contribution. Nor was this too passive a reading as it moved with notably restive intent toward a culmination which brought a necessary measure of emotional repose.

But (and to misquote Ronald Reagan’s immortal words) ‘where was the rest of it’? Debussy’s Nocturnes being as integrated a triptych as his later La Mer or Ibéria, it seemed unfortunate to jettison Nuages and Fêtes – especially as they would have added no more than 15 minutes to a relatively short programme rounded off with Stravinsky’s The Firebird. This was heard in its 1919 suite, currently returning to favour given the over-exposure of the complete ballet over recent decades. Gerts duly encouraged the CBSO to give its all – whether in the sombre Introduction and a dextrous Dance of the Firebird, the affecting poise of The Princesses’ Khorovod or animated virtuosity of Kashchei’s Infernal Dance, then a Berceuse of real pathos as merged seamlessly into a Finale which conveyed the necessary emotional frisson.

A fine showing for Gerts who, as artistic director of the TubIN Festival, ought to be invited to schedule the Estonian’s Sixth Symphony on a future appearance. The CBSO returns next week in a concert featuring a UK premiere for R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses.

For more information on the next CBSO concert, visit their website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on conductor Mihhail Gerts and Sunwook Kim.

Wigmore Mondays – István Várdai & Sunwook Kim play Falla, Schubert & Kodály

István Várdai (cello, above) & Sunwook Kim (piano, below)

Falla Suite populaire espagnole (1914) (2:07 – 16:05 on the broadcast link below)
Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D821 (1824) (18:00 – 44:40)
Kodály Hungarian Rondo (1917) (46:46 – 56:28)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 July 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The cello has always been one of the instruments closest to a pure imitation of the voice. Its range and its ability to phrase are both qualities that make it ideal for arrangements of songs.

Spanish composer Manuel de Falla may have collected and published his Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Folksongs) for voice and piano, but they were soon arranged for violin and piano, then for cello and piano by Maurice Maréchal. The instrumental arrangements removed the second song and changed the order to make an effective concert suite. In this slightly understated but effective beginning from cellist István Várdai and pianist Sunwook Kim the music is laid bare, just as Falla would no doubt have preferred.

The first song, El paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth) (2:07), is quite restless but nicely ornamented in this performance with a subtle swing to the rhythms. The second, Nana (4:43), is bittersweet, falling on the side of sorrow, while the rustic Cancíon (7:17) makes nice use of the cello’s glassy harmonics. Polo evokes a lovely, summery heat haze with its dreamy thrummed chords (8:48) topped by a really powerful melodic line from Várdai. The quieter, yearning thoughts of Asturiana (10:18) make a more subtle impression afterwards, before the lively and uplifting Jota (12:59) completes the set.

The arpeggione was an instrument from Schubert’s time that did not last for long. With six strings and frets like a guitar, it did not catch on as a repertoire instrument, and so the substantial Arpeggione Sonata Schubert wrote for the instrument was threatened with redundancy, before finally being published in 1867. The work transcribes ideally for the cello or viola with piano accompaniment, its melodies lying under the fingers with deceptive ease.

The first movement (from 18:00) is the largest of all, expanding to make the most of what seems like quite a plaintive initial idea (the first section repeated from 21:15). It is an elegant dialogue between cello and piano, where at times the two feel like dancers in and out of hold. Some more vigorous diversions aside, the music returns to the slightly downcast mood of the opening, pensive rather than outgoing. István Várdai really makes his cello sing in the higher register, while Sunwook Kim shows a delicate touch on the piano.

The slow movement (30:32) is short but meaningful, with a floated melody from the cello threatening to make it as substantial a length as the first movement, but then gliding effortlessly into the finale (35:04) Here Schubert’s dance writing reappears, enjoyably so in the more upbeat minor key diversion (36:37) but returning to the slightly troubled air we became aware of earlier, enjoying itself to an extent but never fully throwing off the melancholic shackles apparently dogging him from the rejection of his opera Alfonso und Estrella.

No such issues in the Kodály Hungarian Rondo, like the Falla celebrating its origins with feeling. This piece, written in 1917 not published until 1976, starts with what seems like an innocuous tune on the cello (46:46) but one that goes on to dominate, reappearing for both instruments and in various guises. Complementing it are a host of other folksy melodies, most with a distinctive Hungarian flavour in their rhythm or melodic profile. As the piece progresses so the energy levels rise, to an impressive set of flourishes near the end, played with great panache by the two soloists.

As a generous encore, cooling the temperature after the Kodály, we had Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words Op.107 – the only one he wrote directly for cello and piano (57:50). Várdai was playing a Stradivarius cello dating from 1673 that used to belong to none other than Jacqueline du Pré – and he brought out the instrument’s gorgeous tone, especially in the midrange, and abundantly in the Kodály. With Kim’s sensitive accompaniment, they made it an extremely enjoyable concert with which to close the Wigmore Hall’s 2018-19 lunchtime season. See you for more in September!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard below. István Várdai has recorded the arrangement of the Falla suite, but not the pieces by Schubert or Kodály. The Mendelssohn is played by Jacqueline du Pré – possibly on the cello heard in this very concert! – accompanied by her mother Iris.

Várdai has, however, completed a disc of works for cello by the Hungarian composer that include one of the cellist’s ultimate tests, the Sonata for Solo Cello:

You can watch a video of Várdai playing Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello with violinist Gilles Apap, at the HarrisonParrott website:

Kodály’s music is colourful and passionate, staying very close to the composer’s roots. This selection of orchestral works serves as the ideal introduction to his tuneful music, conducted by conductors and fellow countrymen Ádám and Iván Fischer: