Live review – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Stravinsky: The Firebird

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 2 May 2019

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1878)
Stravinsky The Firebird – complete ballet (1910)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

With a European tour imminent and details of next season just out, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was evidently on a high when tackling this afternoon’s programme of contrasted works by Russian and Soviet composers.

His centenary may not fall until December, but Mieczysław Weinberg has been a mainstay of the CBSO’s current season (with the Third Symphony to follow at this year’s Proms), and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes was a welcome addition. At a time when Soviet composers were under intense pressure to write music of an inherently populist nature, its deployment of melodies from the territory of Bessarabia (from where his parents hailed, but not the Warsaw-born composer) draws unashamedly on a lineage from Liszt to Bartók – Weinberg’s handling of these, in what is a subtle take on the slow-fast archetype, being a stylish and personal one. Gražinytė-Tyla duly had its measure, whether in the ruminative opening with its plangent solo woodwind or the boisterous later stages when brass comes vividly and irresistibly to the fore.

An evergreen such as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto should have presented no surprises, but that was to bargain without Patricia Kopatchinskaja (above) as soloist. Incapable of giving a routine performance, her sometimes reckless while always compulsive account of the first movement left little doubt as to her ringing of the changes – above all, in a spontaneous rendering of the cadenza such as convincingly brought out its improvisatory nature. Not was there any lack of inwardness in the Canzonetta, its chamber-like textures delectably drawn, and though tempi in the finale were almost self-consciously extreme, the frisson as generated by its ever-faster refrain seemed all but tangible. Gražinytė-Tyla drew an alert and attentive response from the CBSO, consistently making the most of Tchaikovsky’s delicate yet also incisive orchestration.

Only Kopatchinskaja could have come up with an encore where she, the conductor, violinist Kate Suthers and cellist Eduardo Vassallo engaged in something between a Ligeti madrigal and a Cathy Berberian improv. Something about the planet being round? It hardly mattered.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird is a piece of which all recent CBSO chief conductors have made a virtue, with Gražinytė-Tyla no exception. Perhaps surprisingly, this was an interpretation that emphasized the score’s formal unity and motivic ingenuity rather than any overly illustrative aspect; not least in the lengthy sequence between the Khorovod and Infernal Dance as can often seem to mark time judged purely as music.

Conversely, there was on occasion a lack of theatrical immediacy or evocative poise needed if the full ballet is to convince away from the stage. Highlights were a Supplication with the Firebird’s entreaties were alternately soulful and alluring, then a Berceuse whose rapt response from muted strings held the periodically restive audience in its thrall prior to an energetic while slightly matter-of-fact Apotheosis.

Any imprecisions will doubtless be ironed-out during the repeat performance on Saturday. A reminder, too, that Gražinytė-Tyla’s memorable reading of Weinberg’s 21st Symphony with the CBSO has just been released as the first fruit of her contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

Further information on this concert can be found at the CBSO website, and on the Weinberg release over at Deutsche Grammophon

Further listening

You can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s recording of the Tchaikovsky and the CBSO in The Firebird under Sir Simon Rattle:

Live review – CBSO & Ilan Volkov: Mahler Symphony no.9, Krása & Klein

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 April 2019

Krása Overture for small orchestra (1944)
Klein arr. Saudek Partita for strings (1944)
Mahler Symphony no.9 (1909)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Ilan Volkov (c) Astrid Ackermann

Pursuing one of the more eventful conducting careers of his generation, Ilan Volkov returned to Birmingham for this pertinent juxtaposition of music by composers who numbered among countless Nazi atrocities next to what is arguably Mahler’s greatest symphonic achievement.

Mahler has long been central Volkov’s programming (performances of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies when principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra resonate in the memory), and this evening’s account of the Symphony no.9 exuded conviction borne of long familiarity.

Even now, it is uncommon to hear a reading of the expansive first movement which unfolded with such unforced inevitability; those extremes of anguish and introspection finding seamless accord within the composer’s most elaborate formal design. Nor was there any lack of contrast with what follows – the ‘fantasia’ on ländler rhythms whose symmetrical elegance is constantly undercut by that glancing irony at its most acute during the final pages, when the texture appears to disintegrate out of weariness then from any more rational intent.

Excellent as was the City of Birmingham Symphony’s playing thus far, it raised its game for the third movement – the Rondo-Burleske whose contrapuntal intricacy can become turgid at too stolid a tempo and lose definition at too rapid a pace. Not that this fazed Volkov, who duly steered a secure course across what is tonally and emotionally Mahler’s most fractious statement – the soulful strains of its trio section allowing for precious little repose before the initial music returns in an explosive denouement. After this, the closing Adagio emerged as long-breathed yet never flaccid as it accumulated gravitas through to a fervent climax, then subsided into a coda shorn of false emoting or affectation – the CBSO strings all the while maintaining focus as Mahler’s silence-riven gestures seemingly attained the desired closure.

The brief though worthwhile first half had featured a brace of works by Czech composer who both flourished in the Nazi transit camp at Terezin before being murdered at Auschwitz. Not that there is any sense of encroaching dread in the Overture by Hans Krása – its purposeful elision of traits drawn from Stravinsky and Hindemith abetted by scoring as economical as it is characterful. Volkov secured an incisive rendering, only easing up for the final bars whose sense of suddenly opening-out onto new and unforeseen vistas was palpably conveyed here.

Even more engaging was the Partita by Gideon Klein. An arrangement – by Vojtěch Saudek (1951-2003) – of the String Trio that proved to be Klein’s last completed work, it features at its centre a sequence of variations on a Moravian folksong in which elements derived from Janáček take on a distinctive and undeniably personal guise at the hands of one who would have surely found a defining role in post-war Czech music. If the vigorous outer movements seem less individual, they are none the less effective within the context of this piece overall.

In both these works, Volkov secured a spirited response from the CBSO strings (perhaps a little too dogged in the Klein). Hopefully he will return to this orchestra during the 2019/20 season, and hopefully include further pieces by the ‘Terezin generation’ in his programmes.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

This concert will be broadcast as part of ‘Radio 3 in Concert’ on Friday 3rd May. To access that concert click on this link

Ilan Volkov is yet to record a Mahler symphony, but for a leading version of the Symphony no.9 from the Berliner Philharmoniker and Herbert von Karajan you can listen on Spotify below:

Live review – Christopher Maltman & CBSO / Michael Seal perform Mahler, Sibelius & Nielsen

Christopher Maltman (baritone), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 10 April 2019

Sibelius Symphony no.3 in C major Op.52 (1907)
Mahler Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Nielsen Symphony no.5 FS97 (1922)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Christopher Maltman (c) Pia Clodi

Michael Seal’s concerts as Associate Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony are seldom without interest and tonight’s programme featured a typically bold juxtaposition of Nordic symphonies from the early twentieth century, alongside orchestral songs by Mahler.

Time was when Sibelius’s Symphony no.3 was overlooked even by his keenest advocates, but it has long since become a regular fixture and this account doubtless benefited from the CBSO’s lengthy association with the piece under Sir Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo. That said, Seal had ideas of his own to impart – most evident with the gradually intensifying curve of momentum over the first movement’s development into the reprise, then close alignment of tempo between its successor’s diverse episodes and the lilting main theme so it elided deftly between slow movement and intermezzo. The finale was a slight disappointment – lacking that ominous mystery in its initial ‘scherzo’ phase, with the closing pages a little provisional in their affirmation – though there was no mistaking the unanimity of response on the way.

After the interval, Seal set a notably swift tempo for the first phase in the opening movement of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, though this was never at the expense of ongoing incident or the music’s questing ambivalence. The ensuing Adagio was eloquently projected, building to an apotheosis more powerful for Adrian Spillett’s bravura rendering of its side-drum cadenza – subsiding into a rapt though never somnolent coda where the receding presence of offstage side-drum was ideally offset by Oliver Janes’s limpid clarinet solo at the rear of the platform.

There was nothing anticlimactic about the second movement, its four-sections-in-one design itself amounting to a cohesive entity such as Seal recognized in his taut yet flexible handling of the initial Allegro – tapering away seamlessly into a Presto whose surging energy poses a challenge to ensemble that was confidently met here. The yearning polyphony of the Adagio was finely sustained by strings and woodwind, and if the notoriously tricky final pages felt a shade reined-in, their clinching of the tonal and emotional argument could hardly be gainsaid.

Between these imposing symphonies, a selection from Mahler’s song-sequence Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Christopher Maltman was the persuasive guide through their evocations of life in all its manifestations – beginning with the guileless exchanges of soldier and lover in Der Schwildwache Nachtlied (1892), before bringing a suave nonchalance to the ruminations of Rheinlegendchen (1893) then an ominous sense of dread from amid the sombre fanfares of Wo die schönen Trompeten bläsen (1898). A brief though pertinent interlude was provided by the droll moralizing of Lob des hohen Verstandes (1896), then the selection was rounded off by the stark processional of Der Tamboursg’sell (1901) with its anticipations of the Fifth Symphony then in progress. Maltman once again proved a sensitive and insightful exponent.

Throughout the selection, Seal drew playing of refinement and finesse from the CBSO which seems never to have given this sequence as an integral whole. The orchestra will, however, be returning to Mahler with Ilan Volkov when they perform the Ninth Symphony on April 23rd.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here You can read about the forthcoming Mahler Ninth Symphony concert here

Further listening

Unfortunately the concert was not recorded for broadcast, but you can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below on leading versions:

Live review – Anna Vinnitskaya & CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla perform Shostakovich

Anna Vinnitskaya (piano, above), Jonathan Holland (trumpet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 16 March 2019

Shostakovich
The Limpid Stream: Suite Op.39a (1935)
Piano Concerto no.1 in C minor Op.35 (1933)
Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Anna Vinnitskaya (c) Gela Megrelidze

With Birmingham Opera Company’s staging of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk having finished its run, an all-Shostakovich concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony was not just apposite but underlined the rapport between the orchestra and its music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

The programme centred on Shostakovich’s music before and after an infamous Pravda article irrevocably altered the composer’s evolution. Attacks on The Limpid Stream were admittedly gratuitous; this last of his ballets finds Shostakovich at his most accessible – as witnessed by the suite devised several years later. Starting with a suave Waltz (which found fame as title-music for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), this continues with a vigorous Russian Dance then breezy Galop. The highlight is an Adagio whose soulful cello melody was eloquently rendered by Eduardo Vassallo. A deft pizzicato Polka was a rather inconclusive ending: the uproarious final dance (which follows-on almost continuously) would have made for a more decisive conclusion. No matter, this was still an engaging sequence and captivatingly played.

Shostakovich conceived his First Piano Concerto for his own pianism. Influences derive more from stage and screen than any earlier concertos, but its formal ingenuity is undeniable. Anna Vinnitskaya gauged ideally the first movement’s volatile tempo changes, while the Lento had poignancy and no mean vehemence at its climax; the ensuing intermezzo an upbeat to a finale whose high-jinx were teasingly held in check. Jonathan Holland was engaging in the obligato trumpet part, and the CBSO strings retained their articulation even in the hectic closing pages.

Whether or not an explicit response to that condemnatory Pravda article of January 1936, the Fifth Symphony is crucially important for moving the emphasis within Shostakovich’s output away from the theatrical. Nothing reinforces this more than the opening Moderato, with its individual take on sonata design that Gražinytė-Tyla handled with real assurance – keeping the exposition in motion with a fleeter than usual second subject, before eliding seamlessly into a purposeful development then an anguished reprise and desolate coda. The Scherzo had ironic wit without heaviness, whereas the slow movement impressed through its inevitability of progress towards a central episode of rapt inwardness; after which, the searing climax did not pre-empt the coda with its musing interplay of harp and celesta against suspended strings.

The finale offers the greatest challenges but Gražinytė-Tyla had its measure too, her fast yet never inflexible tempo for the surging initial stages segueing into the central episode with its heartfelt recall of earlier ideas then ethereal searching towards a crowning peroration. Neither wantonly triumphal nor turgidly defeatist, this was a thoughtful yet decisive conclusion to the overall emotional trajectory; maybe those searching trumpet dissonances could have sounded even more baleful, though a sense of coming through against the odds was never in doubt.

This was an impressive account of a symphony which has been much harder to interpret once its ultimate ‘message’ became a matter for debate. Gražinytė-Tyla provided no easy answers; instead, her presenting the work as a cohesive and integral whole was its own justification.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here

Further listening

Unfortunately the concert was not recorded for broadcast, but you can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Anna Vinnitskaya‘s recording of the Shostakovich with Kremerata Baltica:

Live review – CBSO Youth Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru: Copland Symphony 3, Clyne & Szymanowski with Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little (violin) CBSO Youth Orchestra / Cristian Măcelaru (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 24 February 2019, 3pm

Clyne This Midnight Hour (2015)
Szymanowski Violin Concerto no.1 Op.35 (1916)
Copland Symphony no.3 (1946)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Concerts from the CBSO Youth Orchestra have long been a regular and welcome fixture on the Symphony Hall calendar, with this afternoon’s programme offering a judicious selection such as ranged across almost a century of music by British, Polish and American composers.

Many CBSO Youth Orchestra concerts feature a world or local premiere, and today started with a first Birmingham outing for Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour. Drawing inspiration (albeit obliquely) from poems by Juan Ramon Jiménez and Charles Baudelaire, this compact piece initially alternates between energy and rumination with steadily accumulating impetus. A pity, then, that the second half rather loses focus through an uneasy amalgam of waltz-like flaccidness and folk-inflected juvenilia; the whole seeming rather less than the sum of its parts.

Tasmin Little (above) then joined the orchestra for Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, now firmly established as a repertoire item after many years on the periphery. Not the least fascinating aspect is its formal ambiguity – the continuous span interpretable both as a three-movement form as well as an extended sonata design.

It was a measure of Little’s insight that she elided between these possibilities in a performance which stressed the music’s organic inevitability as much as its heady sensuousness, abetted by Cristian Măcelaru’s attentive handling of an orchestration as by no means ‘plays itself’ in terms of overall balance. This was evident not least in the rapturous main climax – after which, Little vividly despatched the brief cadenza prior to the coda’s poignant recollection then the disarming evaporation of those final bars.

Copland’s Third Symphony is another piece to have garnered regular hearings in recent years – consideration of its being an anomaly in the composer’s output, by dint of its monumental aspirations, having become secondary to the sheer impact invested into its relatively modest (Brahmsian rather than Mahlerian) dimensions. A quality Măcelaru kept in mind throughout what was a cohesive and convincing account – whether in the steadily arching accumulation of tension then release across the first movement, tensile interplay of energy and nonchalance in the scherzo, or the calmly unfolding sequence of variants on a wistful opening theme that is the slow movement. Not the least significant aspect is the degree to which Copland secures thematic consistency across the broader span in the interests of formal and expressive unity.

The CBSO Youth Orchestra responded admirably, not least when being tested to the limit by the music’s polyphonic intricacy and textural density. Gratifying, too, that the best was saved until last – the finale powerfully launched by a paraphrase on Fanfare for the Common Man, before it heads into intensive discussion of the various thematic strands then builds inevitably to a majestic peroration. In Măcelaru’s hands, the latter conveyed affirmation without bathos – as though to confirm that emotional oneness no doubt at the heart of Copland’s conception.

The performance assuredly left its mark on the Symphony Hall audience, which responded with a well-deserved ovation. Next up is a concert by the CBSO Youth Orchestra Academy – for a programme of Weber, Shostakovich and Dvořák – at Town Hall on Sunday 28th July. You can find out more on the orchestra’s website

Further listening

Unfortunately there are no recording of Anna Clyne‘s This Midnight Hour online currently, but you can hear a recording of her orchestral piece Night Ferry on Spotify below:

Meanwhile Tasmin Little‘s recording of both violin concertos by Szymanowski for Chandos Records can be heard here, coupled with a scarcely recorded concerto by Mieczysław Karłowicz:

Finally Copland‘s Symphony no.3 can be heard below in a famous recording where the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Leonard Bernstein: