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:

Tasmin Little – in praise of Beethoven and Yehudi Menuhin

tasmin-little1

Violinist Tasmin Little is a cherished English violinist, loved for her interpretations of the classics in the repertoire but also for her pioneering work in ensuring less heard British works for the instrument get their due. More recently she has championed the worth of classical music education, and ensuring classical music is promoted to those who do not often hear it.

Her strong relationship with Chandos Records has yielded a number of high quality recordings, among them a recent release of Beethoven’s complete sonatas for violin and piano with Martin Roscoe. She gave generously of her time in this recent interview, talking with characteristic enthusiasm about Beethoven, Yehudi Menuhin, the importance of musical education – and how to stop those aches and pains violinists so often get!

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

The answer is no…because it was probably while I was inside the womb! Neither of my parents is a classical musician, but they love classical music and my father was an actor who sang. There was always music in the house, and they had very broad taste, so I remember Blood, Sweat & Tears and The Beatles in particular. I grew up with the whole range, including the genre of musicals as I grew up. It was the same as talking, listening to music!

How did you develop a love of the violin?

As part of my parents’ record collection they had some violin concertos. I used to listen to them and as I got older, say five or six years old, I began to know what some of the instruments were. I loved the violin especially, and then the piano. My sister began to learn the violin, but it was a disaster and I thought it would be a disaster if I tried too! We begged her to give up, and as a result she is now a visual arts star!

When I was seven I fell ill with chicken pox and I hit on the idea of teaching myself the recorder while I was ill in bed. I did that, and loved it. So when I got better I had piano lessons – and then I thought I would learn the violin.

What experience of playing Beethoven did you have prior to recording the sonatas?

I’ve played Beethoven for years and year, as a student at the Yehudi Menuhin school, where I played it in string quartets and tackled some of the violin sonatas. They are difficult, so I didn’t play them until my early teens – probably the Spring Sonata first. The more complex works such as the C minor sonata I left until later, and then the big mountain, the Kreutzer Sonata, I tackled when I was 21.

tasmin-little-martin-roscoe

Tasmin with her accomplice in the Beethoven sonatas, pianist Martin Roscoe

“Of course when you play these works you need a really good pianist, and it wasn’t until we were at least in our teens that we could cover this music. I’ve been playing some of the sonatas for 30 years, others for 20-25 years, so I’ve known them for a long time. It is really important with works of this nature and complexity, and works that are well recorded to have mature thoughts on them.”

The Violin Concerto I have known since I was 21, and it has been in my repertoire for a long time. More recently I also learned the Triple Concerto, which I recorded with Howard Shelley and Tim Hugh, but it is the Violin Concerto that I completely adore. One of the earliest recordings I had was made by Zino Francescatti, that I have listened to and played into the ground.

Was it daunting recording the sonatas?

I always wanted to record this repertoire, as it is the big mountain of violin and piano repertoire. The violin sonatas by Mozart are a bit more juvenile, whereas with the Beethoven sonatas they are all of such quality you need comparable maturity and sophistication to play them. I took a deep breath before doing the sessions! We did the first five, working fast, in three days – and we felt we were on such a role, Martin and I. Then six months later we finished off the remaining five. It was good to do it like that, otherwise we would have suffered a hit in quality. There was a feeling of momentum.

To begin with in the sonatas they are spring-like, but then that all starts to change. The A minor work, Op.23, is quite a nervy piece but still can’t resist a few jokes. The C minor sonata, Op.30 no.2, is a steely work from start to finish, there is no let up in the drama or intensity. The Kreutzer Sonata is another dimension removed from that, it is an incredibly complex piece. He thinks of it as a concerto for both players, and that’s how it has to be represented. We each represent the orchestra if you like, there are times when he has the fire, and I am in battle against him and his orchestra.

With the ten works covering each period of Beethoven, do you feel like you’re really getting to know him as you progress through each work?

It’s actually misleading, because nine of the sonatas were written in a small space of time, within two years of each other. Then there is a long pause before the last work, Op.96. They are not so representative of the different periods in his output, and that’s why, unlike Mozart, you have this tremendous consistency, within that, he was such a master of so many different styles.

With the equal billing for piano and violin in the Beethoven sonatas, does it help that you have such a good understanding with Martin Roscoe?

Definitely. Beethoven actually puts the piano before the violin in his title pages, it says Sonata Für Pianoforte und Violine – so he considers them piano sonatas with the violin. Because of that I felt strongly that Martin should have lead billing on the cover for this release.

You have got to have someone who is capable of mastering the strength of these pieces, but also the subtlety of colours and the sophistication, mastering the great tunes. You need someone who knows how to play a great tune without being fussy. That’s one of the great strengths of Martin’s playing.

Do you think the sonata recordings are a nice balance to the English music that you’ve recorded?

Absolutely, it is very important to have a balance. I know I’m well known for promoting British music – and there is so much wonderful music that comparatively few people are promoting. I love the standard repertoire too though – Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky – and I enjoy playing them in concerts.

What is lovely about the relationship I have with Chandos is their support of those aspects of my recording, they don’t try to box me in. The recordings have been varied, with British repertoire but also with the works by Schubert, Richard Strauss and Respighi that I have recorded recently – that’s quite a range. It gives me a much more interesting balance.

You were taught by Yehudi Menuhin as part of your education. What would you say he left as a legacy for violinists?

I would say he left us so much. From a practical point of view he commissioned so many works, to think of just a few those by Bartók, Walton and Panufnik. He also was very much interested in bringing to people’s attention other composers such as Delius. He was very good at communicating, and he used his abilities to bring these to the public.

I also think he was one of the first genuine crossover artists, thinking of his work with Stéphane Grappelli, Ravi Shankar and world music. He made it acceptable to work in different genres, it was fine because he was doing it. He was a great teacher – he founded the school I went to – and he also used his position politically to bring people together. In addition to what he left as a violinist he was trying to use his position to unite conflict – and he did this in the House of Lords, through his work as a conservationist and humanitarian.

You’re also judging the Yehudi Menuhin competition. Given all that you’ve done for music education and youth, is it important for you to be putting something back into this level?

I was at a state primary school in the 1970s, and music had a high position in the curriculum. There was a full time violin teacher, and if there hadn’t have been I would not have started. Because there was, and because music was so high on the governmental agenda, all these things were possible.

That is why it is so important to keep lobbying to make sure that gifted people do not fall through the net. I have given two speeches to the House of Commons and the House of Lords about this, and have written letters about it to them as well.

On another tip entirely, do you suffer from aches and pains as a violinist?

The violin is such an unnatural playing position, horrendously so! You have the full weight on one shoulder, and because of that I do work hard keeping shipshape – I have massages and treatments. I have had a few problems so far but I think generally I have been lucky. You have to take care, as it’s a great physical input as well as emotional and intellectual.

Finally, what violin concertos would you suggest to someone who hasn’t heard any before?

There are two that spring to mind. The first is the Mendelssohn, which is a sparkly, light piece. The second is the Bruch Violin Concerto no.1, the one that I get asked to play the most. It is dark, mysterious and very romantic!

For those who have already heard a few violin concertos I would suggest the one by Glazunov, which I absolutely love!

Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe at the Wigmore Hall – A fitting tribute

Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe at the Wigmore Hall – A fitting tribute

tasmin-little-martin-roscoe

Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 1 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05wytj1

on the iPlayer until 30 June

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here

What’s the music?

Brahms: Scherzo from the ‘FAE Sonata’ (1853) (6 minutes)

Dvořák: 4 Romantic Pieces, Op.75 (1887) (13 minutes)

Franck: Violin Sonata (1886) (28 minutes)

What about the music?

A well-chosen program of music for violin and piano, drawn from the period in the late nineteenth century known as ‘Romantic’. Yet as well as being from that period it is Romantic in nature.

Brahms wrote three substantial sonatas for violin and piano, each of them admired, and he also wrote a sonata in collaboration with Robert Schumann and his pupil Albert Dietrich. It was a gift to their friend Joseph Joachim, himself a composer and also a virtuoso violinist who was to inspire many more works from Brahms, Schumann and Dvořák among others.

The 4 Romantic Pieces of Dvořák were not written for Joachim, and are not greatly demanding technically – but are a perfect illustration of just how tuneful the composer’s music can be, and how through great simplicity he could write music of great expression. There is charm and wit in abundance here, music that seems to celebrate the great outdoors.

The Violin Sonata by Belgian-born French citizen César Franck is one of the chamber music masterpieces of the nineteenth century. Treating the two instruments very much as equals, it is memorable firstly for its dreamy first movement theme, which creeps in like a summer breeze, then for the darkly passionate movement that follows it. After the freedom of the third movement Franck plays his trump card, a ‘canon’ – that is, where violin and piano play the same melody but a little distance apart. This one is a beauty.

Peter Cropper. Credit: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Credit: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Performance verdict

This was a particularly moving concert, given a short while after the announcement of the death of Peter Cropper, first violinist with the Lindsay String Quartet and a close personal friend of Martin Roscoe. Not only was Roscoe intent on going ahead with this concert, he and Tasmin Little chose to dedicate their performance of the Franck Sonata to his memory – and in doing so they paid a deeply meaningful tribute.

The Franck is a lovely work and both Little and Roscoe brought out the deep-seated passion of the second and third movements, dovetailing beautifully with the charm of the outer movements. Roscoe was extremely responsive so that the melodies were passed back and forward with ease and enthusiasm.

The Dvořák Romantic Pieces were also extremely appealing, their apparent simplicity still given plenty of depth in this performance, with an especially poignant last piece. Warmth and wistfulness combined irresistibly in the first and third pieces, while for the second country dance it was as though someone had flung open the windows of the hall!

It was like that too for the Brahms Scherzo, which Little began almost before Roscoe had sat down, such was her eagerness to get on with it. The music surged forward as though intent on devouring everything in its path.

What should I listen out for?

Brahms

1:26 A surge of excitement as the piece begins, the violin using its lowest string and the ‘G’ an octave above it. The swaying motion of the theme is typical of Brahms, who often writes in triplet rhythms, and it creates an appealing syncopation, an ebb and flow between violin and piano.

There is a triumphant coda from 6:30, crowning this piece by the young Brahms with a flourish.

Dvořák

8:32 The first piece is warm and a little wistful, affectionately played.

11:48 The second piece is a grander affair, but also takes on the form of a country dance.

14:34 Marked ‘Allegro appassionato’, the third piece at first sounds remarkably similar to the first, being in the same mood and key, but becomes more passionate with Little playing two strings at once

16:43 A shadow falls over the sunshine created by Dvořák in the first three pieces, with music of introspection and contemplation. There is however still a positive ending.

Franck

23:40 A dreamy introduction from the piano, which hovers on an exotic chord until the violin comes in with the tune, also in a dreamy state. The mood becomes more passionate – amorous perhaps – and Franck manages that expression with very little variation to the tune itself.

30:00 The second movement begins with the turbulent rumblings of the piano, which give way to a passionate violin theme. At 33:35 this reaches a natural climax, before the turbulent theme is heard again. The onward flow of the music is impressive here, a torrent of notes – so much so that there is applause at the end of this movement!

38:05 – A ‘recitative’ forms the third movement – that is a passage of freedom for the violin, after the piano has set the scene. This gives it the opportunity to show off in a semi-improvised way, and after this the violin and piano exchange ideas, leading to a natural climax point at 41:10, the music at its most passionate again. There is a strong reference to the sonata’s opening at 43:30 – an example of Franck’s ‘cyclical’ way of writing, where he brings back themes from earlier in the work.

45:07 The canon, as described above, begun by the piano and followed by the violin. Franck writes it rather sweetly, with an innocence that proves touching throughout, but again it grows in stature. The violin and piano spend much of the movement imitating each other’s melodies in this way, with references to the first movement, before returning to the main music at 49:57 and then an uplifting finish.

Encore

53:00 An encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no.5, probably in the arrangement by Joseph Joachim, as described above. Little plays this with great theatricality, Roscoe very sure-footed (or should that be handed?!) by her side.

Further listening

A rather attractive companion piece to both the FAE Scherzo and the Franck Violin Sonata is BrahmsViolin Sonata no.2, a summery piece that finds the composer in relatively relaxed mode. A nice complement to this is the shorter but quite fiery Légende by the Polish composer Henryk

A rather attractive companion piece to both the FAE Scherzo and the Franck Violin Sonata is Brahms’ Violin Sonata no.2, a summery piece that finds the composer in relatively relaxed mode. A nice complement to this is the shorter but quite fiery Légende by the Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski. Meanwhile a piece that joins everything together nicely is another red blooded piece of chamber music by Franck, his Piano Quintet, which in the right performance offers some high voltage music making! The one on this playlist, by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, leaves absolutely nothing to chance.

Meanwhile a piece that joins everything together nicely is another red blooded piece of chamber music by Franck, his Piano Quintet, which in the right performance offers some high voltage music making! The one on this playlist, by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, leaves absolutely nothing to chance.

For more concerts click here