Live review – CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Beethoven Symphonies 2 & 4; Unsuk Chin & Liam Taylor-West

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 30 January 2020

Chin SPIRA – Concerto for Orchestra (2019) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere]
Beethoven Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36 (1802); Symphony no.4 in B flat major Op.60 (1806)
Taylor-West Turning Points (2019) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World Premiere]

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra laid an early marker for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth this December and, also, continued the notable series of commissions that themselves are centred around the orchestra’s centenary in September.

The new work was SPIRA – a Concerto for Orchestra by Seoul-born and Paris-based Unsuk Chin (above). Her more recent music may have tempered the incisive modernism of those works that established her reputation, though Chin has thus far avoided the race towards the mainstream evident in numerous of her contemporaries, and the present piece secured a engaging balance between the intricate complexity of its textures and an ingeniously defined formal trajectory such as ensured its long-term continuity was readily perceptible – even on an initial hearing.

Inspired by the mathematical theory of the ‘spiral curve’ or growth spiral’ with the potential for biological, indeed musical growth this entails, SPIRA emerges as a sequence of formally expanding and expressively intensifying curves which involve the various orchestral sections (individually and collectively) on the way to an apotheosis of visceral immediacy; the music then withdrawing into those ethereal realms whence it came. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla directed an assured and engaging performance of this likely highlight among Centenary Commissions.

It certainly made a telling foil to the Beethoven which followed. With authentic trumpets and what sounded like leather-capped timpani sticks to the fore, the first movement of the Second Symphony was nothing if not dynamic, for all MG-T rather breezed through the quixotics of its imposing introduction then drove the ensuing Allegro such that string articulation faltered. Exciting if a shade glib, whereas the ingratiation of the Larghetto was ideally judged and the glancing humour of the Scherzo more appealing for not being rushed. Nor was there any lack of character in the finale, at its most perceptive during a trenchant development then a coda whose teasing hesitancy made its eventual arrival the more potent. Interesting, too, whether MG-T’s omitting of exposition repeats in the outer movements becomes an interpretive trait.

Likewise, those of the Fourth Symphony – the probing nature of whose introduction seemed rather matter of fact, though impetus during the main Allegro was rarely at the expense of its Haydnesque humour. Once again the Adagio proved most impressive in its sustained poise, the many dynamic nuances unobtrusively observed (not least towards its still-startling close), while the capricious interplay of the scherzo was nothing if not invigorating; a tailing-off of phrases going each time into the trio being an especial pleasure. Perhaps because lacking its exposition repeat, the closing movement emerged as a little short-winded, but MG-T had the measure of its capering humour – Beethoven playing fast and loose with the classical finale, on the way to a conclusion in which formal cohesion and expressive nonchalance are as one.

The concert ended with the first of 20 commissions by composers under 30 for the CBSO’s centenary. Turning Points found Liam Taylor-West (above) making resourceful use of sizable forces in music whose bracing if never brazen display ought to make for an effective curtain-raiser.

For more on Unsuk Chin you can visit her page on the Boosey & Hawkes website., while further information on the music of Liam Taylor-West can be found here Meanwhile Arcana’s Beethoven odyssey begins soon! Head here for more details.

In concert – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: Koechlin’s Seven Stars Symphony

ilan-volkov-2Kari Kriiku (clarinet), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov, live from City Halls, Glasgow, Thursday 14 January 2016

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the music?

Dukas – L’apprenti sorcier (1896-7) (11 minutes)

Unsuk Chin – Clarinet Concerto (2014) (24 minutes)

Koechlin – Seven Stars Symphony (1933) (46 minutes)

Broadcast link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06v2667

About the music

koechlin

Anyone who has seen the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow knows how valuable they are to the community, not just in Glasgow but Scotland too. City Halls, the impressive building that has been their home for the last ten years, is the perfect venue for them. In that time they have explored an impressive range of repertoire with principal conductor Ilan Volkov, who has become a versatile conductor capable of turning his hand to any music from the last five centuries.

A typically inventive program here includes a rare performance of the Seven Stars Symphony by Charles Koechlin (above). Long before the likes of Heat magazine fuelled celebrity culture, Koechlin was a star-struck fan in awe of the Hollywood actors and actresses of the day, especially Lilian Harvey, subject of the second movement, who became his muse. Volkov includes this piece as an example of 1930s that is not often heard, with most programmers opting for the ubiquitous works of the period by Schoenberg, Shostakovich and early-period Stravinsky.

Before that we hear a classical music favourite, Dukas‘ L’apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), surely one of the biggest influences on Walt Disney – appearing in the Fantasia film. This is followed by the Clarinet Concerto from Unsuk Chin, the South Korean composer’s sixth work in a form that suits her style.

What should I listen out for?

Dukas L’apprenti Sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice)

2:06 – an enchanted introduction, the clarinet spelling out what the profile of the main theme will sound like. The spell has been cast. The orchestral colouring is vivid but then the music stops – awaiting the bassoon’s big moment at 4:26 with the tune we all know and love. The orchestra develop and play around with this until we hear it again in full technicolour at 6:00.

Throughout the piece has a macabre element and this comes to the fore at 9:07 where we hear the creaking sound of the contrabassoon right at its lower end. Gradually the tune comes out again and the full orchestra play it at …with glittering touches applied to the top end with woodwind and piccolo.

Then the door seemingly slams shut, and at 12:10 we hear the enchanted music of the start again – before a sudden end at 13:00.

Unsuk Chin – Clarinet Concerto

16:30 – we hear the clarinet straight away, with its sonorous low end sounding almost like a bird – a swan maybe, ducking and diving over the orchestra like a bird with a big bill. The influence of Messiaen is clear in some of this writing.The brass are prominent with rich accompaniment, and then the strings are heard, shimmering in accompaniment to the clarinet’s playful notes. There uis a build-up and then the orchestra scatter at 22’53”, and the music is much more agitated. Then at 24’20” the music takes a thoughtful angle, the clarinet with

26:07 – the second movement begins with the clarinet playing multiphonics – as in two notes at once – which is a very difficult skill for the clarinettist! He does so very quietly and alone, and is gradually joined by members of the orchestra. The sound is akin to bottles in the wind, and is quite spooky. Then from 29’18” the clarinet returns to the top of the picture, but with some incredibly difficult passagework exploiting its whole range.

The music subsides but then gradually builds again – before the quiet multiphonics make a brief reappearance.

35:26 – the whirring of the percussion inspires the clarinet to a playful approach. Chin uses much more of the orchestra this time, and we hear the bass end in its fullest voice yet. The two forces then play off each other, the clarinet with short squeaks and pips to the end.

Koechlin – Seven Stars Symphony

You can listen to a BBC feature on the Seven Stars Symphony here

1:04:40 Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. – Immediately we get a taste of Koechlin’s rich orchestral palette through exotic solos for clarinet and violin. A rich harmonic backdrop creates a sultry atmosphere, while also suggesting a night time portrait. Flutes, clarinets, bassoon and oboe are all prominent over soft strings, painting pictures in the manner of an early detective soundtrack – far ahead of its time, given this piece was written in 1933!

1:11:43 – Lilian Harvey – a brief but affectionate portrait of Koechlin’s muse / obsession, assigned initially to the oboe but with high violins taking much of the melodic material.

1:14:27 – Greta Garbo – now we hear the weird but wonderful tones of the electronic ondes martenot, a similar instrument to the theremin. It begins the portrait of Greta Garbo with a highly chromatic melody, and Koechlin is to use the orchestra sparingly, creating an exotic atmosphere.

1:18:42 – Clara Bow Et La Joyeuse California – a lively dance led by high violins, countered by a wary sequence. Koechlin uses a wide range of orchestral colour in this movement. At 1:23:08 we hear a saxophone solo before the orchestral gathers for a big, exaggerated Hollywood finish.

1:25:31 – Marlene Dietrich – a soft clarinet solo cuts to an affectionate passage accompanied by softly rippling piano and harp. This slow movement is richly scored, and takes the profile of a declaration of love, settled by an affectionate viola solo at the end.

1:30:55 – Emil Jannings – more exotic scoring from Koechlin at the start of this movement, as the strings come surging through, before a quieter but no less atmospheric passage of play from the woodwind. The portrait ends with a warm string sound.

1:35:15 – Charlie Chaplin – Koechlin’s final portrait is also the most substantial, and could stand as a piece on its own. A luxurious violin solo is then interrupted by a lively sequence suggesting one of Chaplin’s fast moving black and white films – very expressive! Chaplin then becomes furtive, seemingly peering round corners in a slow section. Again Koechlin uses the whole orchestra in a rich variety of colours and moods, right from double basses and piano at the lower end to sparkling woodwind and brass at the top.

Even the harpsichord makes an appearance at 1:44:37. After this the orchestra begin to suggest a slow Habanera dance – but after hinting at a fast section indulges in a serene passage led by the strings – before a softly voiced march takes the music off into the distance – from which point sumptuous strings lead us home to a grand finish.