Live review – CBSO / Riccardo Minasi: Haydn & Mozart

Oliver Janes (clarinet), Nikolaj Henriques (bassoon), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Minasi (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 27 November 2019

Haydn Symphony no.88 in G major (1787)
Richard Strauss Duet-Concertino (1946)
Beethoven Coriolan Overture (1806)
Mozart Symphony no.39 in E flat major K543 (1788)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing concert for a dank November evening. This was a slightly stripped back version of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with their guest conductor Riccardo Minasi overseeing energetic accounts of Haydn and Mozart, a high octane Beethoven overture and a youthful take on the music of an elderly Richard Strauss.

The Haydn first, in the form of a strongly characterised account of his Symphony no.88, premiered in Paris in 1787. We still take Haydn’s astonishing output of 104 published symphonies for granted, for while they make effective concert openers they are full of invention, wit, and – especially in this case – drama.

After a poised first movement, Minasi lovingly shaping the phrases with tasteful rubato, the second movement Largo was laid bare as a strongly emotive utterance with dark twists and turns, interventions from brass and timpani sounding powerful warning notes. By contrast the Minuet was a light hearted dance, its trio section employing bagpipe-like drone effects that anticipate the Brahms Serenades. Minasi and the players clearly love this music, and their effervescence carried over into the finale, the conductor dancing on the podium as upper and lower strings egged each other on.

Richard Strauss was looking intently at the Classical period when he wrote his penultimate orchestral work at the age of 83. The Duett-Concertino is an unusual piece, bringing forward clarinet and bassoon soloists to shine in front of a decorative chamber orchestra. This is recognisably late music in its assured and economical treatment of form, and in some unexpectedly spicy harmonic twists, but the soloists captured its ‘Indian summer’ profile.

Oliver Janes and Nikolaj Henriques were superb, plucked from the orchestra and fully enjoying their moment in the spotlight in front of their colleagues, who responded with rustic string accompaniment and beautifully rendered harp (Katherine Thomas). Janes’ clarinet tone was delightful, with Henriques’ bassoon cajoling and prompting in response. Both came into their own with some dazzling acrobatics in the finale. The light hearted approach spilled over into a brilliantly designed encore, a selection of Mozart themes arranged for the two solo instruments to often comic effect.

The second half began with high theatre, an account of Beethoven‘s Coriolan overture that crackled with atmosphere and descriptive content. The opening chords bore the effect of powerful slamming doors, such was the crisp ensemble, and as the overture gradually opened up so did a vivid response to Heinrich von Collin’s tale. As the story unfolded there was no doubt on its tragic ending, and here Minasi’s management of the quiet string dynamics looked forward to equivalent drama in the first movement of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony.

Even in the context of this concert the best was saved for last in an account of Mozart‘s Symphony no.39 that positively fizzed with good spirits. When he composed the piece in 1788 Mozart was writing without commission, a relative rarity for him, and this was the first of three symphonic works that were to redefine the form, effectively preparing the way for Beethoven and Schubert.

The atmosphere crackled in a fulsome introduction to the first movement, which took on a waltz-like form, Minasi’s prowess as an opera conductor clear for all to see through his dramatic instincts and more tasteful rubato. The slow movement was perfectly judged, initially and deceptively straightforward but with stern interventions from the woodwind. These highlighted the lyricism of the main subject, once again beautifully phrased. A warmly coloured Minuet followed before the finale sprang out of the traps, violins easily handling the considerable demands placed on them in rushing scales and rapid string crossing. Minasi was if anything even more energetic than he had been at the start of the concert, prompting the wonderful syncopations and interplay of Mozart’s inspiration which were brought right to the front.

So good was this concert it was a shame when we entered the closing bars of the symphony, but we did so with great positivity, Mozart – and Minasi – inspiring us through their wonderful craft.

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, made up of some leading recordings of the works played.

Live review – Jeremy Denk, CBSO / Gustavo Gimeno: Beethoven & Stravinsky

Jeremy Denk (piano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gustavo Gimeno (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 20 November 2019 (2.15pm)

Beethoven
Egmont Op.84 – Overture (1810)
Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37 (1800, rev. 1803)
Stravinsky
Petrushka (1911, rev. 1947)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Beethoven and Stravinsky might not be felt natural bedfellows (whatever the latter claimed in later life), but this afternoon’s concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and fast-rising conductor Gustavo Gimeno was evidently intent on demonstrating otherwise. The overture from Beethoven‘s music for Goethe’s play Egmont duly launched the programme in imposing fashion, Gimeno securing a trenchant while slightly inflexible response across the main Allegro, with no lack of rhythmic definition as held good during an incisive peroration.

If his Third Piano Concerto finds Beethoven more overtly indebted to Classical precedent, its palpable emotional breadth is a clear pointer to what lay ahead. As soloist, Jeremy Denk had the measure of the opening movement’s often abrupt alternation between imperiousness and intimacy – not least a probing take on the development with those eloquent woodwind contributions. If the cadenza was a shade too volatile in its later stages, the fateful emergence of the coda (timpani and strings) was suitably rapt in its intensity. Raptness was equally the watchword of the central Largo, Denk pointing up the stark contrast of his E flat entry then duetting blissfully with bassoon and flute in its transition to the main theme, but as the coda (seemingly) evanesces into silence a greater dynamic subtlety would have been welcome.

Interestingly, Denk supplied this in abundance at that mesmeric point in the finale when the rondo theme ventures into the major as if to goad the music back to the prevailing C minor. Elsewhere, this was an impetuous and assured account which reached its culmination with a heady solo transition into a coda that dispersed preceding tensions through its unchecked ebullience. Denk returned for an unlikely yet appealing encore – a paraphrase (his own?) on the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner‘s Tannhauser as rapidly evolved into a full-blown rag.

Few British orchestras can have performed Stravinsky‘s early ballets with the frequency and consistency of the CBSO, which is not to suggest Gimeno was other than his own man in this reading of Petrushka – heard in its streamlined 1947 revision rather than the texturally more imaginative 1911 original (which this past nine decades the orchestra has only played under Pierre Boulez). Certainly the revision’s tendency to encourage a headlong and even ruthless approach was evident in an overly regimented take on the Russian Dance, the scene-setting that precedes it audibly lacking atmosphere, but thankfully not the central tableaux depicting Petrushka and the Blackamoor – the former as nervous and agitated as the latter was moody and, not least following the arrival of the Ballerina, ominous in its smouldering sexuality.

No less impressive were the surrounding evocations of the Shrovetide Fair – the latter with its various set-pieces vividly and tellingly characterized, on route to the sudden reappearance of the main protagonists then Petrushka’s death and ghostly apparition for what remain some of the composer’s most affecting pages. The stentorian trumpet writing was fearlessly delivered, and if those concluding pizzicato chords might have been more unanimous, it only marginally detracted from the conviction of what was a well conceived and finely executed performance.

This performance will be repeated at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Saturday 23 November at 7pm. For more details head to the CBSO website

Live review – Clara Mouriz, CBSO / Jaume Santonja Espinos: Rimsky-Korsakov, Montsalvatge, Falla & Prokofiev

Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Jaume Santonja Espinos (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 13 November 2019

Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio Espagnol Op.34 (1887)
Montsalvatge Cinco canciones negras (1945, orch. 1949)
De Falla El sombrero de tres picos (Suites 1 & 2) (1919)
Prokofiev Symphony no.7 in C sharp minor Op.131 (1952)

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (Clara Mouriz) JM Bielsa

Now into his second season as assistant conductor with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Jaume Santonja Espinos has already made his mark so that tonight’s programme of his own choosing saw a juxtaposition of Russian and Spanish music equally to the orchestra’s liking. Certainly they pitched head first into Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Capriccio Espagnol, its ‘Alborada’ sections accordingly boisterous with the ‘Variazioni’ not lacking eloquence, then the bracing contrasts of the final ‘Fandango’ building gradually while inexorably to an effervescent close.

A pity Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is not more widely known, his stylistic amalgam of French impressionist with Spanish-cum-Latinate qualities appealing without being anodyne. Provocation is hardly lacking in his Canciones negras – its resourceful orchestral garb duly pointing up the fraught nostalgia of Cuba in a piano and smouldering sexuality as underpins Habanera rhythm, which aspect takes a more sinister turn in The Dandy as itself contrasts with the plaintiveness of Lullaby for a little black boy, before the verbal onomatopoeia of ‘Negro Song’ brings a visceral close. Clara Mouriz was in her element throughout one of the few Spanish song-cycles to have entered the repertoire, making one hope she and Santonja Espinos might tackle Roberto Gerhard‘s bewitching Cancionero de Pedrell before too long.

A swift return to the platform enabled Mouriz to add vocal enticements to the opening of de Falla‘s The Three Cornered Hat, both suites from which were heard this evening. The rather piecemeal first of these is dominated by the Dance of the Miller’s Wife, suitably suave and sensuous, while the three pieces that comprise the Second Suite (a CBSO staple in decades past) were judiciously characterized; the langour of the Neighbour’s Dance followed by the propulsion of the Miller’s Dance; then the heady denouement of the Final Dance enabling Santonja Espinos to secure playing both stylish and subtle on route to a scintillating close. Programming de Falla’s Love the Magician would have given the estimable Mouriz rather more to do, yet no-one hearing the present selection was likely to have felt short-changed.

The decidedly un-Spanish restraint of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony risked seeming anti-climactic after the interval, though this performance more than had its measure. The opening Moderato exemplified that ambiguity between wistfulness and resignation lying at the heart of this composer’s last major work, with the ensuing Allegretto a waltz-sequence of teasing understatement prior to its uproarious coda. Even better was the Andante, its variations on a theme of disarming simplicity affectingly rendered – after which, the final Vivace lacked that last degree of irony for its playfulness to feel more than dutiful. The return of the first movement’s big tune was powerfully despatched but, even with the original quiet ending, the closing bars were too matter-of-fact for their inherent pathos to come through unabated.

Even so, a thoughtful account of a piece as yields its depths but gradually. Santonja Espinos’s concerts with the CBSO are worth the anticipation: should he wish to include more Spanish music, the fiftieth anniversary of Gerhard’s death next year would be worth commemorating.

Listen

You can listen to a playlist of the music featured in this concert on Spotify below, including the recording made by Clara Mouriz herself with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena:

Live review – Soloists, CBSO and Chorus / Kazuki Yamada – Mendelssohn’s Elijah

Keri Fuge (soprano), Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor), Matthew Brook (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 7 November 2019

Mendelssohn
Elijah Op.70 (1846)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Although 173 years have passed since it first echoed around the Town Hall, Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah remains synonymous with Birmingham’s cultural tradition. Performances may be fewer than in its 19th-century heyday but there have been memorable ones – not least that in 1989 with Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, for whom this piece was a speciality – and tonight saw a memorable account by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra‘s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada, who duly banished any notions of this being a mid-Victorian period piece.

Whatever his failings on a broader aesthetic level, Mendelssohn was nothing if not creatively pragmatic when it came to a big occasion, and Elijah accordingly fulfilled its remit. Whereas the composer’s earlier oratorio St Paul had given notice of his abiding interest in the Passions of Bach, here he drew on the exemplar of those biblical epics through which Handel shaped English musical taste over the ensuing 150 years; enhanced by the rhythmic poise of Mozart and the harmonic subtleties of Beethoven to result in music wholly representative of its era.

Structured in two parts of almost equal duration, Elijah charts the trials of its eponymous hero as he draws the Israelites away from the pagan enticements of Baal and back to the true faith before himself ascending on a fiery chariot to Heaven. Julius Schubring‘s text (as sung in the idiomatic translation by William Bartholomew) fashions out of Kings and associated biblical sources a framework whose emotional rhetoric is balanced by a keen underlying momentum and unfailing sense of when to open-out the narrative to allow for more intimate expression.

The score implies eight soloists, but the four on hand (the brief role of ‘The Boy’ affectingly taken by chorus soprano Ella McNamee) proved more than able. As Elijah, Matthew Brook conveyed the anguish and the ecstasy of his part with unwavering assurance, while Robert Murray overcame initial strain to give commanding portrayals of his advocate Obadiah and detractor Ahab. Keri Fuge brought due pathos to the Widow, with Karen Cargill eloquent as the Angel – having stolen the show as the Queen who vents her wrath in unequivocal terms.

As with most of its forerunners, of course, Elijah is defined by a choral contribution in which the CBSO Chorus was not found wanting. Having recently sung the work with Yamada (and these soloists) in Monte Carlo, it conveyed the anger and supplication of the forsaken People with audible conviction, while being no less assured in those intricate choral items by which Mendelssohn frames and punctuates the drama. If choral numbers were appreciably less than the composer might have expected, then this was undoubtedly a case of less equalling more.

Neither should there have been any surprise as to the degree of Yamada’s identity with this music. Japan has produced notable exponents of Mendelssohn’s oratorios, with the present conductor evidently following in their wake. If those choruses ending each half summoned not quite the intensity evinced by Frühbeck all those years ago, the clarity and incisiveness he drew from both chorus and orchestra was hardly to be gainsaid – so setting the seal on a memorable reading of a work sure to wear its Birmingham credentials well into the future.

Listen

(Ben Hogwood writes…) Among the many available versions of Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, sadly none of these appear to yet include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – though one wonders if an extension to their Mendelssohn in Birmingham series will be forthcoming under Edward Gardner.

Spotify does however have a recent recording of Elijah from the Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh, with Robert Murray once again in the roles of Obadiah and Ahab. The organ itself was recorded in Birmingham Town Hall:

Live review – Renaud Capuçon, CBSO / Anja Bihlmaier: Dvořák, Ravel, Chausson & Bizet

Renaud Capuçon (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Anja Bihlmaier

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 30 October 2019 (2.15pm)

Bizet arr. Hoffman Carmen Suite no.2 (1887)
Chausson Poeme Op.25 (1896)
Ravel Tzigane (1924)
Dvořák Symphony no.7 in D minor Op.70 (1885)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brought a welcome appearance from German conductor Anja Bihlmaier, presiding over an unlikely yet appealing programme as juxtaposed French and Russian music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Bizet‘s Carmen has maintained its hold on the operatic repertoire such that individual items are seldom encountered in concert other than as encores. As arranged by Fritz Hoffmann, this Second Suite astutely alternates entr’actes with vocal numbers. Thus the purposeful Marche des contrebandiers (akin to an offcut from Elgar’s Wand of Youth) precedes the smouldering Habanera, then a Nocturne which is Micaela’s third act aria with its vocal line transferred to violin and soulfully rendered by guest leader Tamas Kocsis. That of the evergreen Chanson du toreador is similarly heard on trumpet, which instrument is duly partnered by flutes in the infectious La garde montante, before wind instruments variously come to the fore during the Danse boheme which rounded off the present selection in appropriately exhilarating fashion.

Renaud Capuçon then joined the orchestra for an unlikely coupling of concertante pieces that is highly effective in concert. It may have been inspired by a Turgenev story, but Chausson‘s Poème is an autonomous entity whose rhapsodic impulses are balanced by formal rigour and an organic evolution as elides between the introspective and ecstatic – a trajectory conveyed with due eloquence by Capuçon, his fastidious tonal shading deftly reinforced by Bihlmaier’s nuanced direction. What is so often an elusive work left a powerful and enduring impression.

As, albeit in its rather more demonstrative way, did Ravel‘s Tzigane. Effectively the result of a bet with violinist Jelly d’Aranyi that this composer could come up with a rhapsody inspired by Hungarian gypsy music, the piece wears its Lisztian antecedents lightly while pointing the way toward the similarly conceived rhapsodies of Bartók. Capuçon teased out the high-drama of its unaccompanied initial section, then – with harpist Alma Klemm – made a breath-taking transition into its heady medley of gypsy-inflected themes prior to the rousing final flourish.

After the interval, Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony came almost as a corrective in its seriousness of purpose and powerful formal logic. Bihlmaier directed a performance as left no doubt as to such qualities, at its best in a thoughtful while never staid account of the slow movement – its brief yet elated climax ideally judged – then a scherzo whose underlying furiant rhythm was suffused with Brahmsian trenchancy (one reason this piece displeased the anti-Dvořák faction decades hence). Not that there was much lacking with the outer movements, though the coda of the initial Allegro was a little too deadpan for its ominousness fully to register, and that of the finale felt too reined-in emotionally; those granitic cadential chords marginally failing to clinch what is surely the most fatalistic of any major-key ending in the symphonic repertoire.

Even so, this was a finely realized account of a work as can all too often misfire. Bihlmaier will hopefully return before long: next week, the CBSO’s principal guest conductor Kazuki Yamada directs a performance of Mendelssohn‘s Elijah, premiered in this city 173 years ago.