In concert – April Fredrick, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mozart, Richard Strauss, Doolittle & Dvořák

Mozart Adagio and Fugue in C minor K546 (1783, rev 1788)
Richard Strauss (arr. Burke) Morgen! Op.27 no.4 (1894)
Doolittle A Short, Slow Life (2011)
Dvořák (arr. Burke) Rusalka B203 – Song to the Moon (1900)
Mozart Symphony no.39 in E flat major K543 (1788)

April Fredrick (soprano), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Great Malvern Priory, Malvern
Wednesday 15 June 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This latest concert in its current season found the English Symphony Orchestra back at the Priory in Great Malvern in a programme with, at its centre, a contrasting triptych of vocal items from April Fredrick which continued her Affiliate Artist role in impressive fashion.

At its centre was a performance (the UK premiere?) of A Short, Slow Life, Emily Doolittle’s setting of a poem which finds Elizabeth Bishop at her most Dickinson-like with its reflection on growing up in a seeming Arcady latterly undone as much by existential as environmental factors. Enfolding and intricate, its scoring for nine instruments offers an evocative context for the vocal line to emerge from and with which to interact – Fredrick making the most of their dialogue in this winsome and, thanks to Kenneth Woods, finely co-ordinated reading.

Either side came chamber reductions from Tony Burke. In Morgen!, Strauss’s setting of John Henry Mackay, it was the understatement of Fredrick’s approach that compelled by drawing this relatively early song into the emotional orbit of those from half-a-century later. In ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka, her unaffected eloquence arguably came through more directly in an arrangement that (rightly) predicated the soloistic nature of the orchestral writing. Technically immaculate, Fredrick’s artistry was itself never less than life-affirming.

Framing this programme came two not unrelated works by Mozart. Written in 1783 when the composer was extending the formal and expressive weight of his music by intensive study of Bach and Handel, this C minor Fugue’s two-piano austerity took on a greater richness when arranged for strings and prefaced by a brief if searching Adagio which throws its successor’s contrapuntal density into greater relief. The ESO duly responded with playing of sustained trenchancy that incidentally reminded one no less than Beethoven took its example to heart.

Having given perceptive accounts of Mozart’s 40th and 41st symphonies earlier this season, it made sense that Woods and the ESO to include the 39th as opens what increasingly seems a symphonic triptych in design and intent. This performance was no less idiomatic – the first movement’s introductory Adagio imposing yet flexible so that its ‘heroic’ quality with those wrenching harmonies was never in doubt, the main Allegro building up tangible momentum through a tensile development then an even briefer coda decisive in its impetus and sweep.

Even more than its successors, the Andante is the heart of the work – among the most striking instances of that ineffable pathos Mozart made his own. Inward while with no lack of forward motion, it made a telling foil to the Menuetto with its bracing outer sections and a trio which featured a delectable expressive pause prior to a last hearing of the clarinet’s amiable melody. Nor was there any lack of wit in the scintillating finale, the repeat of its second half necessary for one of Mozart’s rare incursions into the ‘false ending’ beloved of Haydn to leave its mark. A fine conclusion, then, to another worthwhile concert by the ESO which returns early next month for a very different, all-American programme that includes a rare outing for the full-length version (including the ‘hurricane’ episode) of Copland’s ballet Appalachian Spring.

For further information on April Fredrick, click here, and for more on Emily Doolittle click here. To find out more about the artists, click on the names for more Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra.

Playlist – Spring Serenades

To celebrate the month of May, and what should in theory be a passage of warmer weather (!), Arcana is celebrating the art of the Serenade in a playlist.

Serenades have been a form in classical music for a good 250 years now, elevated to a higher form by Mozart but also perfected by 19th century composers such as Tchaikovksy, Dvorak and Brahms.

This playlist chooses selections from some of the best, venturing into the 20th century for examples by Elgar, Britten and Swedish composer Dag Wirén, while drawing on wonderful ‘drawing room’ music from the 18th century by composers including Mozart, Beethoven and Hummel.

Find a quiet hour if you can, and enjoy…

In concert – Paul Lewis, CBSO / Christoph König: Mozart & Mahler

Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Christoph König

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K595 (1788-91)

Mahler Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor (1901-02)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 21 April 2022, 2.15pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Back from a first European tour since the pandemic and following the Easter break, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra hit the ground running with a programme of contrasts featuring Mozart’s last piano concerto and what is likely Mahler’s most popular symphony.

It may have been finished early during his final year, but Mozart’s 27th Piano Concerto was drafted several years earlier, while its relative inwardness as compared to those from 1785-6 need not be read as fatalistic; still less be taken for valediction. This was certainly how Paul Lewis approached it with a poised but never flaccid opening Allegro – its subtle contrasts of themes and dynamics creating their own, discreet momentum with an eloquent rendering of the development then a lucid cadenza such as brought the whole movement deftly full circle.

Might it be that this concerto is only as good as the best performances? Thanks to Lewis the central Larghetto never risked seeming plain spun or uniform, piano dovetailing into strings and woodwind to ingratiating effect. In the closing Allegro, Christoph König pointed up the dance-like robustness of its rondo theme with a lilting impetus as never faltered. This is one of Mozart’s few concertos where his own cadenzas survive; Lewis’s probing manner in the finale setting the seal on a reading as thoughtfully conceived as it was insightfully realized.

His recent recordings of Louise Farrenc having gained widespread praise, König is evidently a conductor in demand and his account of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony provided a decisive, no-nonsense take on this much-played piece. Not least an initial Funeral March whose bracing objectivity did not preclude a more visceral response to its frenzied climax or ominous close. Its successor’s competing strands of violence and resignation were purposefully juxtaposed, through to the as-yet provisional emergence of the chorale then a tellingly speculative coda.

Time and again the central Scherzo fails to fulfil its role as this work’s formal or expressive crux, and if König’s approach fell short of the ultimate conviction, it was more than usually cohesive – whether in the discursive unfolding of its ländler-informed sections or the central trio with its rustically evocative overtones. Equally persuasive were those transitions either side, thereby endowing the movement with a cohesive follow-through which paid dividends during a coda whose unalloyed ebullience more than usually indicated what was to follow.

Most conductors now make the famous Adagietto a soulful interlude rather than full-blown slow movement, König going further by making it an extended introduction to the closing Rondo. This evolved almost seamlessly through the gradual intensification of ideas already heard towards the re-emergence of that chorale, here blazing forth with an affirmation that did not pre-empt those final bars in their almost nonchalant affirmation. Mahler might have written deeper finales, but not one whose triumph over adversity was so potently achieved.

An impressive demonstration, too, of the CBSO’s collective prowess (while not neglecting that of trumpeter Matthew Williams) for what is well worth catching in Saturday’s repeat performance; before this orchestra offers ‘something completely different’ next Thursday.

For more information on the CBSO’s 2021-22 season, click here

Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Paul Lewis and Christoph König

In concert – Daniel Rowland, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Poulenc, Philip Sawyers & Mozart

daniel-rowland

Poulenc Sinfonietta FP141 (1947)
Sawyers Viola Concerto (2020) [World Premiere]
Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor K550 (1788)

Daniel Rowland (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

The Priory, Great Malvern
Saturday 5 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Having relocated from Hereford to Great Malvern, the English Symphony Orchestra’s second concert this weekend followed a broadly similar format with, once again, a first public hearing for a recent concerto by its former Composer-in-Association and now its Composer Laureate.

First, though, a welcome revival for the Sinfonietta that Poulenc wrote for the founding of the BBC’s Third Programme (later Radio Three). The composer wrote little music for orchestra outside a concertante or theatrical context, making this piece from his maturity more valuable. Poulenc’s aesthetic may have been avowedly non-symphonic, but there is no lack of formal focus in an opening Allegro as was suitably impetuous here; nor of capering wit in a scherzo that only marginally outstays its welcome. Not so the Andante, whose fusion of ingratiating charm and restive pathos is almost a character portrait. A showcase, too, for woodwind such as the players seized upon gratefully – the orchestra entering into the spirit of the final Rondo with an abandon neatly offset by the introspective closing pages with their equivocal pay-off.

Not wishing to invoke the joke about buses, but Philip Sawyers had directly followed up the Double Concerto heard yesterday with a Viola Concerto for Daniel Rowland. The outward three-movement trajectory is retained, but the musical content is appreciably different – not least in the moderately paced Allegro whose substantial initial tutti outlines numerous ideas explored extensively if understatedly over what follows. Nor does the absence of a cadenza sell short a viola part whose plangent tones are enhanced with the translucent orchestration.

Almost inevitably less immediate than the corresponding movement of its predecessor, the central Andante is absorbing in its meditative soliloquy for the soloist – often in the company of solo wind and whose haunting demeanour is countered though never quite dispelled by the final Allegro. Here the lively refrain provides an outlet such as Rowlands, clearly as adept a violist as he is a violinist, despatched with no mean virtuosity. Once again, it was a sense of the whole work brought formally and expressively full circle as gave the coda its conviction.

Continuing their reverse traversal of Mozart’s final three symphonies, the ESO and Kenneth Woods (above) tonight gave the 40th – most dramatic of the trilogy and whose innovations are easy to take for granted, but whose opening Allegro is never less than compulsive when the trade-off between its indelible main theme and tensile accompaniment was so intently maintained through to the fatalistic coda. The Andante can often feel flaccid but not when directed with such attention to its lilting gait and expressive intensity, while the Menuetto had a rhythmic trenchancy and harmonic acerbity offset by its trio’s repose. The final Allegro unfolded at an ideal tempo – its second-half repeat vindicated by an altered emphasis on the development’s visceral opening sequence, with a heady ratcheting-up of emotion in those very closing bars.

Impressive music-making, and just what was needed in what are suddenly dangerous times. Reason enough, therefore, for having begun this concert (as on the previous night) with the Ukrainian national anthem: an opportunity, however brief, for some much-needed reflection.

For further information on the ESO’s 2021/22 season click here, and for more on composer Philip Sawyers click here Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Daniel Rowland and Kenneth Woods. Meanwhile for more on musical events at Great Malvern Priory, click here

In concert – Daniel Rowland, Maja Bogdanović, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Philip Sawyers Double Concerto, Haydn & Mozart

rowland-bogdanovic

Haydn Symphony No. 96 in D major Hob.1/96 ‘The Miracle’ (1791)
Sawyers Concerto for Violin and Cello (2020) [World Premiere]
Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)

Daniel Rowland (violin), Maja Bogdanović (cello), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

St Peter’s Church, Hereford
Friday 4 March 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra continued its season with this first in a pair of concerts that featured two recent concertos from its current Composer Laureate, heard alongside symphonic works which have long been – or, in one instance, should be – a part of the standard repertoire.

If not the most often heard of his ‘London Symphonies’, Haydn’s 96th is typical in its formal precision and expressive richness. Not least the opening movement, its ominous introduction the perfect foil to an energetic and often impetuous Allegro, then an Andante whose variations deftly alternate wit with pathos. The ESO’s playing was at its most felicitous both here and in a robust Menuetto, the piquant oboe melody of whose trio was elegantly rendered by Rebecca Wood. Nor was there any lack of incisiveness in the finale’s good-humoured dash to its finish.

Concertos for violin and cello have hardly been numerous, composers doubtless inhibited by Brahms’s example, so credit to Philip Sawyers for rising to the challenge in this piece for the compelling partnership of Daniel Rowland and Maja Bogdanović. As in Sawyers’s previous concertos (for cello, trumpet, and violin), there are three compact movements – the opening Allegro moderato conveying something of a preludial feel through its speculative progress and blurring of formal boundaries such that the music tails away uncertainly toward its close.

It is in the central Andante that this work came into its own, Sawyers’s own experience as a string player evident in the emotional raptness of the soloists’ dialogue and underpinned by eddying orchestral textures which did much to sustain the ongoing eloquence. If the Allegro Vivo, its main idea redolent of Poulenc (or, perhaps, Malcolm Arnold at his wittiest) risked seeming lightweight, the tensile interplay of the soloists along with a sense of the thematic elements coming audibly full circle made for an effervescent and ultimately decisive finale.

An impressive debut, then, for a piece which ought to find favour in this still limited medium. The soloists duly returned for Castillo Interior (2013) by Pēteris Vasks, inspired by the mystic St Teresa of Avila and creating a suitably fervent impression even when abbreviated as here.

Mozart’s final three symphonies will all be heard, in reverse order, over the remainder of the ESO’s current season. This evening brought the 41st whose Jupiter subtitle may have been a posthumous addition, but aptly evokes the work’s essence – not least with an initial Allegro both forthright and impulse as Kenneth Woods heard it. The ensuing Andante felt a little too swift for its ‘cantabile’ fully to register, but its confiding intimacy was fully in evidence – as was the lilting swing then pert elegance of the Menuetto. Woods favoured a rapid tempo for the final Allegro, and it was a tribute to these players that this music’s textural intricacy and underlying momentum were maintained across a lengthy traversal (with all repeats observed) through to a coda whose contrapuntal ingenuity and rhythmic elan were tangibly in evidence. Overall, a persuasive reading of a masterpiece which, as with its predecessor, is all too easily taken for granted. So, too, the assumption that peace will prevail in Europe – reason enough for this evening’s concert to have started with a rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem.

For further information on the ESO’s 2021/22 season click here, and for more on composer Philip Sawyers click here Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Maja Bogdanović, Daniel Rowland and Kenneth Woods. Meanwhile for more on musical events at St. Peter’s, Hereford, click here