Live review – Hannah Hipp, CBSO / François Leleux: Mendelssohn & Berlioz

Hannah Hipp (mezzo-soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / François Leleux (conductor/oboe)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 December 2019

Mendelssohn Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Berlioz Les Nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1840/1, orch. 1856)
Mendelssohn arr. Tarkmann Five Songs Without Words (arr. 2009)
Mendelssohn Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.56 ‘Scottish’ (1829-31, 1841/2)

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits François Leleux: © HR/Thomas Kost; Hannah Hipp: Matthew Plummer

No doubt about it – Mendelssohn is still a prime attraction in Birmingham, the near-capacity audience for last month’s Elijah at Symphony Hall matched by that at Town Hall for tonight’s programme in which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by François Leleux.

Oboists turned conductors have a formidable precedent in Heinz Holliger, but even he cannot often have directed from his instrument as did Leleux when, commencing the second half, he presided over a selection of Mendelssohn Songs Without Words in an appealing arrangement by Andreas Tarkmann. Lauded in their day only to be patronized by subsequent generations, the pieces retain a melodic appeal exemplified by Venetian Goldola Song as its centrepiece. Switching adeptly between playing and directing, Leleux certainly relished them to the full.

Prior to the interval, he had partnered mezzo Hannah Hipp (above) in Berlioz‘s Les nuits d’été. Often considered the first orchestral song-cycle, these six songs to texts by Theophile Gautier were only belatedly orchestrated and are linked more by shared expression then any overt thematic links. Nor are they easily encompassed by one singer, but Hipp tackled their highly distinct tessitura with some confidence – moving seamlessly from the whimsy of Villanelle, via the distanced eloquence of La Spectre de la rose to the enfolding inertia of Sur les lagunes; then from the stark anguish of Absence, via the poetic fatalism of Au cimetière, to the impulsive anticipation of L’ile inconnue. For his part, Leleux ensured that those diaphanous and subtly differentiated orchestral textures audibly underpinned the often heady emotional sentiments.

Pieces from Mendelssohn’s earlier and later maturity framed this concert. The overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains a teenage masterpiece by any standards, not least for its evocation of the spirit-world to whose quicksilver elegance the CBSO did ample justice. If the more demonstrative passages sounded a little too generalized in expression, there was no lack of projection overall or doubt as to Leleux’s welding of these elements into an integrated whole. Only the forward ambience of the refurbished Town Hall prevented a true pianissimo.

Dynamic niceties are less of an issue with the Scottish Symphony, its lengthy gestation likely indicating a summative intention on the part of the composer. The first movement’s resigned introduction was superbly rendered, though the ensuing Allegro lacked focus in its trenchant development and surging coda. Not over-driven as often can be, the Scherzo exuded humour alongside its incisiveness, while the Adagio had both grace and suppleness to offset any risk of earnestness or stolidity. Nor did the finale want for energy or purpose, and if Leleux was more insightful during its hesitant transition than the triumphal apotheosis that follows, there was no doubting the underlying conclusiveness with which it rounded off this most inclusive and ambitious of Mendelssohn’s orchestral works – to the evident delight of those present.

A well balanced and immensely enjoyable concert, then, which further attests to the rapport that Leleux enjoys with these musicians. The CBSO is back in Symphony Hall next Thursday for another of the orchestra’s Centenary Commissions alongside music by Elgar and Brahms.

Further listening

With the exception of the Songs Without Words arrangements, the music in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. This includes recent recordings of the Mendelssohn pieces by the CBSO themselves, conducted by Edward Gardner:

For further information on the orchestra’s next concert, under their chief conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, click here

On record – Tabea Zimmermann, Stéphane Degout, Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth: Berlioz: Harold en Italie & Les Nuits d’été

Berlioz
Harold en Italie (1834)
Les Nuits d’été (1840-1841, orch. 1843 & 1856)

Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Stéphane Degout (baritone), Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth

Harmonia Mundi HMM 902634 [70’28”]

Recorded 2-3 March 2018 at Philharmonie de Paris

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Released earlier this year, this disc from Les Siècles and François-Xavier Roth marks the 150th anniversary of the death of composer Hector Berlioz by looking at two of the composer’s biggest innovations. The ensemble use instruments of the period to create a sound similar to that which the composer might have heard.

What’s the music like?

Described as a ‘symphony in four parts with viola obbligato’, Harold In Italie is one of the first obvious ‘tone poems’. In it Berlioz uses the viola soloist to represent a traveller, but one who travels with others – in this case the orchestra, for the instrument operates alongside rather than in front of them. Harold is tuneful and fun, a spirited affair full of incident, enjoying the companionship between orchestra and solo viola, played here by Tabea Zimmermann.

Alongside it is one of the very first song cycles with orchestra, Les Nuits d’été. This collection sets five poems by Berlioz’s close friend Théophile Gautier, and was originally intended for more than one voice. Now they are more commonly heard with a mezzo-soprano soloist, but on this occasion Les Siècles are joined by baritone soloist, Stéphane Degout who sings the composer’s own adaptation.

Does it all work?

Yes. Despite quite a reverberant recording, Harold In Italie benefits from the brilliant playing and lean orchestral sound of Les Siècles, whose sharp edges are a real asset in dramatizing this work. The violin tremolos are sharp, the wind and brass sounds clear but with an appealing grit to them.

Zimmermann gets the balance just right, her virtuosity beyond reproach but her phrasing totally in keeping with the orchestra. Her first thoughts, just over three minutes in to the first movement (Harold aux montagnes), are the theme that will dominate the piece, and are ideally weighted against the harp, responding really well as the music becomes more energetic. As the travelling picks up speed, Les Siècles and Roth sound terrific in full flow.

When Zimmermann accompanies the Marche de pèlerins chantant la prière du soir (March of the Pilgrims) there is a too and fro between the jovial theme and the horns’ distant chime, which sounds like a warning. Zimmermann’s spidery string crossing half way through is particularly good, before the music disappears evocatively into the distance at the end.

The third movement Sérénade has an airy start before slowing for a theme initially heard on mellow cor anglais. The thrumming of the harp half way through lulls the listener into a lovely reverie, after which the sudden loud note to start the finale, Orgie de brigands, will make you jump! Roth’s relatively broad approach is capped here with music that really blooms under his direction, and as the finale veers out of control, Harold under the influence in a tavern, the swaggering discords are brilliantly achieved by Roth before the story rights itself, the sense of homecoming heightened.

Les nuits d’été (Summer nights) is enjoyable albeit with a slightly cooler temperature. The ear adjusts easily to the less common male protagonist, which in several songs means the music is sung lower than in the mezzo-soprano versions.

Stéphane Degout has an attractively rich, slightly nasal tone and a very clear diction, bringing a relatively carefree approach to Villanelle, with intimate strings. The voice really comes into its own in a warm account of Le Spectre de la rose, with shadowy figurations from the strings. Their lean tone adds an edge to the beginning of Sur les Lagunes, whose sombre beginning leads to a passionate outburst from the soloist. Absence and Au cimetière, Clair de lune are richly atmospheric, while the final L’Île inconnue is a cheery and optimistic affair.

The tempi are on the nippy side – second song Le Spectre de la rose, for instance, is more than a minute quicker than Dame Janet Baker’s celebrated account – but the phrasing still feels natural.

Is it recommended?

It is. Roth and his charges always bring a fresh approach to the music they play, and in Zimmermann and Degout they have two soloists ideally suited to the task. Zimmermann leads Harold en Italie with style and panache, while Degout’s rounded tones offer a new shade for Berlioz’s song cycle.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple file formats visit the Presto website