In concert – Elisabeth Brauß @ Wigmore Hall – Domenico Scarlatti, Mozart, Ravel & Prokofiev

Elisabeth Brauß (piano)

Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in C minor Kk56; Sonata in C Kk159 ‘La caccia’; Sonata in B minor Kk27; Sonata in B minor Kk87; Sonata in G Kk427 (exact dates unknown)
Mozart Piano Sonata in A minor K310 (1778)
Ravel Sonatine (1903-05)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor Op.28 (1917)

Wigmore Hall, London, 24 January 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast

Seven sonatas and a sonatine in the space of an hour represents good value for a lunchtime concert – and even more so when the works in question span nearly two centuries. This was down to the clever programming of German pianist Elisabeth Brauß, a member of the BBC New Generations Scheme. She presented a potted history of the development of the sonata, moving as it did to the very centre of the concert platform by the twentieth century.

Brauß began her imaginatively thought-out hour with five sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, just under 1% of the composer’s remarkable output in the form. Within his 550 or so published works there is an inexhaustible variety, and Brauß gave us some fine examples. Her crisp delivery of the C minor work was complemented by the playful ‘Caccia’ sonata, Scarlatti’s writing of parallel thirds tastefully ornamented in the right hand. Slipping into B minor, there was a more obvious Bach influence in an elegant performance of the Kk27 sonata, before a more reflective example in the same key, given plenty of room with ideally weighted inside parts. This thoughtful and emotive account was swept to one side by the showy G major sonata, chasing the clouds away.

Mozart‘s A minor sonata followed, a profound work written in the wake of the sudden illness and death of the composer’s mother Anna Maria in Paris, 1778. The principal phrase of the first movement is conspicuous for a ‘wrong’ note, an E flat played at the same time as an A minor chord, which can throw the listener. Brauß did well to give it the surprise factor, resulting in quite an unnerving and uncertain mood.

The second movement was initially calm, bringing out the singing style of Mozart’s marking of Andante cantabile con espressione rather beautifully. There was a refreshing lack of weight to this performance, the melodies floating on air, in contrast to a heavy-set middle section. The Presto finale, initially serious, brightened as the tonality moved into the major key, Brauß sensing hope in Mozart’s writing.

There was clarity in her Ravel, too, which found the right combination of technical flair and intimacy. Brauß portrayed the questioning nature of the first movement, just before its main theme returns and resolves. A limpid second movement was followed by a finale notable for its virtuosity – following the Animé marking – but which kept its conversational qualities.

Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.3 is a compressed firecracker, a work with plenty to say in its eight minutes. This performance was very impressive if holding back a little in the more raucous moments. Brauß was a more than capable guide to this impetuous piece, however, finding the heart of the adventurous coda, which sounds a lot newer than its 1917 composition date would suggest.

She clearly loves Prokofiev, as the Prelude in C major Op.12/7 made an ideal encore, bringing out the composer’s balletic side. There was less percussiveness in this lyrical account, notable for some lovely melodic phrasing.

Watch and listen

You can listen to the repertoire from this concert in choice recordings on the Spotify playlist below (Elisabeth has not yet recorded any of the pieces):

In concert – Fatma Said, CBSO / Kazuki Yamada – Mozart, Mahler & Richard Strauss

fatma-said

Richard Strauss Don Juan, Op. 20 (1888)
Mozart
Vado, ma dove?, K583 (1789)
Mozart
La Clemenza di Tito, K621 (1791) – Non più di fiori
Mahler
Symphony No. 4 in G major (1899-1900)

Fatma Said (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may still be over a year before Kazuki Yamada becomes chief conductor and artistic advisor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but concerts such as tonight’s afford ample indication of just what can be expected from this already engaged and productive partnership.

If there any ongoing theme to this programme, it was one of transcendence – admittedly, one of negation in Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, though Yamada relished those encounters chivalrous and amorous during its course. The ‘carnival’ episode drew some especially incisive playing from woodwind and brass, and while the climactic restatement of the horns’ aspiring theme lacked nothing in grandiloquence, it did not detract from the starkness of a coda whose fatalism was to be encountered within this composer’s tone poems more regularly than might be supposed.

Strauss’s lifelong devotion to Mozart made two of the latter’s arias an appealing complement. Written as a replacement number for a long-forgotten opera by Vicente Martín y Soler, Vado, me dove? enjoys frequent revival as a standalone aria and, when elegantly rendered by Fatma Said, it was not hard to hear why. One of the (relatively few) highpoints from Mozart’s final opera La Clemenza di Tito, Vitellia’s aria makes greater expressive challenges to which Said rose accordingly – the trajectory of its ‘Ecco il punto’ recitative subsiding from anguish into that resignation from where the aria itself proceeds unerringly to the resolve at its close. All of which was eloquently conveyed, and while a further aria – the mellifluous Nehmt meinen Dank? – would have been welcome, there was more to come from this impressive singer.

Namely the finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony – hardly the rarity it was when Adrian Boult introduced it to Birmingham audiences 95 years ago, but easy to underestimate in the context of this composer’s overall output. As ‘unhurried’ as its heading indicates, the first movement exuded no little ambiguity – Yamada pointing up those myriad timbral and textural shadings that permeate the development and so make possible the heightened equanimity of the reprise. Sardonic but not unduly malevolent, the scherzo was tangibly evocative (Eugene Tzkindelean switching adeptly from his violin to its retuned doppelganger) – with breath-taking change of tonal perspective at the arcadian vision near its end. Visionary was no less apt to describe the slow movement, its variations alternating between fervour and anguish with seamless accord.

Felicitous playing from CBSO woodwind informed its progress on the way to its climax, with ‘heaven’s door’ briefly yet thunderously ajar prior to the transfigured calm of the closing bars. Stealing in just before, Fatma Said was an appealing guide to the setting of ‘Das himmlische Leben’ with its not always blissful recounting of the joys awaiting those who arrive there. Of particular note was the easefulness that spread across the final pages, when the singing ceases and the orchestra withdraws stealthily while raptly to leave just the harp’s pulsing resonance.

A lucid, often captivating performance of a work whose enticements Yamada realized in full measure. Anyone who can make it along to Symphony Hall for tomorrow afternoon’s repeat should certainly do so, while Kazuki Yamada will be back with the CBSO during this spring.

For more information on this concert visit the CBSO website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on the artists Fatma Said and Kazuki Yamada.

On record – Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: The Complete Recordings On Deutsche Grammophon (Deutsche Grammophon

orpheus-chamber-orchestra-complete

Soloists, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra

Various works (see DG link below for full repertoire details)

Deutsche Grammophon 4839948 (55 CDs)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This box set tells the story of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – soon to celebrate their 50th anniversary – and the recordings they have made to date for Deutsche Grammophon. Formed in 1972, the conductor-less ensemble from New York have amassed an impressive body of work, spanning repertoire from Handel and Vivaldi to Schoenberg and William Bolcom, examined here across 55 CDs.

The group have enjoyed a fruitful relationship with DG, undertaking several projects. Among these are the Mozart wind concertos, with principals from the orchestra employed as soloists, and a clutch of hand-picked Haydn symphonies. Jed Distler’s booklet introduction, meanwhile, reveals a remarkable agreement which saw them commit the Schoenberg Chamber Symphonies and Verklarte Nacht to disc in 1989, in return for a version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons four years later.

Also included in this set is a previously unavailable account of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, a live recording from Warsaw in 2018.

What’s the music like?

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra records are known for their crisp ensemble and energetic, engaging performances, but also for their poise. While their approach to Baroque music might not appeal to historical purists, nobody can deny the enthusiasm they bring to the Handel Concerti Grossi Op.6, nor their vibrant collection of Vivaldi Cello Concertos with regular collaborator Mischa Maisky, or the Flute Concertos with Patrick Gallois.

Their Mozart is particularly enjoyable, the wind concertos blossoming under the ‘home’ soloists, who have the advantage of an immediate musical rapport with their accompanists. The Sinfonia Concertante, with soloists Todd Phillips (violin) and Maureen Gallagher (viola), is especially good, while horn players William Purvis and David Jolley, clarinettist Charles Neidich, flautist Susan Palma-Nidel, oboist Randall Wolfgang and bassoonist Frank Morelli also excel. The Flute and Harp Concerto, with harpist Nancy Allen, is sublime, while a generous selection of the wind Serenades and string Divertimenti are delightful.

The Haydn symphonies fare particularly well, too, and often have an irresistible zest. The account of the Symphony no.80 in D minor is notable in this respect, but there is restraint and darker feeling in the Symphony no.49 in F minor, ‘La Passione’, its introduction taken at a daringly slow tempo. Meanwhile the disc of Rossini overtures still defies gravity in the absence of a conductor, a remarkable achievement!

The inclusion of Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony boosts an already excellent account of the two piano concertos, with Jan Lisiecki. It is fresh faced and buoyant in the outer movements, with a balletic poise for the inner two. Meanwhile their account of Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus has plenty of spring in its step, as does a wonderful disc devoted to music for strings by Grieg and Tchaikovksy. The Dvořák Serenades, too, fare particularly well, and there are two thoroughly engaging discs devoted to the music of Copland and Ives.

Best of all are the orchestra’s Stravinsky and Schoenberg recordings. The Stravinsky selection has excellent accounts of the ballets Pulcinella (the suite) and Orpheus, but equally valuable are the shorter pieces, where the composer’s gruff humour is caught to rhythmic perfection. The performance of Dumbarton Oaks could hardly be bettered. The Schoenberg has some eye-watering virtuosity in the Chamber Symphony no.1, an ideal way in for doubters of the composer – as is a translucent Chamber Symphony no.2 and a velvet-textured Verklarte Nacht.

Finally a mention for the orchestra’s Respighi, a colourful and moving trio of pieces comprising The Birds, a selection of the Ancient Airs and Dances and a particularly vivid account of the Trittico Botticelliano, showing off the composer’s colourful orchestration but also his deeply felt treatment of long-treasured melodies.

Does it all work?

Largely. One could argue that the disc of French orchestral music is a touch too glossy, or that the recordings of Bartók, Kodály and Suk do not quite have the authority a central European ensemble might bring to them. Even with those reservations, however, they are so well played that there is so much to enjoy, the slow movement of the Bartók Divertimento a particularly chilly example.

Is it recommended?

Unreservedly. This is a superb collection from an orchestra who are essentially a single instrument themselves, so together are their interpretations and their virtuosity. Their recording legacy for DG is unlike any other, and it is to be hoped it will blossom still further over – who knows? – maybe the next 50 years. This is a remarkably solid platform on which to build.

Listen and Buy

You can listen to clips and purchase this disc from the Presto website.

Reading

You can read Arcana’s interview with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra violist Dov Scheindlin here, and listen to a playlist picking out Ben Hogwood’s personal favourites here.

In concert – Benjamin Grosvenor, CBSO / Marta Gardolińska: Mozart, Beethoven, Fanny Mendelssohn & Felix Mendelssohn

marta-gardolinska

Mozart Die Zauberflöte K620: Overture (1791)
Beethoven
Piano Concerto no.1 in C major Op.15 (1795, rev. 1800)
Fanny Mendelssohn
Overture in C major (1832)
Mendelssohn
Symphony no.4 in A major Op.90 ‘Italian’ (1833)

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Marta Gardolińska

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 3 November 2021 (2.15pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Picture of Benjamin Grosvenor (c) Andrej Grilc

Those having heard Gustavo Dudamel’s recent Ives cycle will know of Marta Gardolińska’s role in the success of the Fourth Symphony, with her similarly methodical attention to detail being evident in this afternoon’s concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

An avowedly Classical concert it may have been, but an artfully programmed one. Certainly, it was refreshing these days to hear the introduction of Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute given with this degree of gravitas, followed by a purposeful take on the main allegro such as brought out the music’s verve along with an onward striving apposite given its indebtedness to the ideals of the Enlightenment. The CBSO itself sounded wholly enthused in what was as purposeful and as immediate an account of this piece as it can have given in recent seasons.

It also prepared admirably for Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with Benjamin Grosvenor (above). The latter has often sounded unduly self-effacing in the concerto repertoire, but this work fits his temperament to a tee – not least its initial Allegro, whose alternating of bravura with more equivocal expression included an electrifying transition to the reprise then nonchalant take on what is the second (c1805), shortest and contextually most satisfying of the composer’s three cadenzas. Neither was there any lack of eloquence in a Largo such as ranks among the most affecting of Beethoven’s earlier slow movements, while a headlong if never hectic tempo for the final Rondo enabled Grosvenor to instil his last entry with a poise as made the orchestral payoff the more conclusive. A fine performance which inevitably brought the house down.

Grosvenor returned for an affecting encore of Danza de la Moza Donosa – second of three Danzas Argentinas by Alberto Ginastera (maybe Grosvenor will investigate one or other of his piano concertos one day?). There was further unfamiliar fare after the interval, with an Overture by Fanny Mendelssohn. Her only completed orchestral work, its formal cohesion and technical finesse indicate what might have been possible under different circumstances, not least when Gardolińska drew such committed and characterful playing from the CBSO.

There cannot have been a time when Felix Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony was unpopular in Birmingham and so it proved here. As has become customary, Gardolińska (rightly) observed the first movement’s exposition repeat, with its substantial lead-in, in what was otherwise an unexceptionally fine account of this opening Allegro. More individuality came through in the Andante, not least with its quirkily understated interplay between pedantry and pathos, while the intermezzo was more than usually arresting for the distinction made between its elegant outer sections and a trenchant, often combative trio. The ensuing Saltarello rounded off this performance in bracing fashion – those rhythmic contrasts between its main and second ‘tarantella’ themes vividly brought out on the way to a conclusion of no-nonsense finality.

This appealing programme was enthusiastically received by the fullest house the CBSO had enjoyed since live music-making resumed. Symphony Hall will hopefully be as well attended this Saturday, when Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla returns for the commemorative A Covid Requiem.

Further information on the CBSO’s current season can be found at the orchestra’s website. For more on Marta Gardolińska, click here – and for more on Benjamin Grosvenor, head to the pianist’s website

CBSO players perform the Allegretto from Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E flat here:

In concert – Sarah Beth Briggs, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Mozart in Cheltenham

sarah-beth-briggs

Sarah Beth Briggs (piano, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Sawyers The Valley of Vision (2017)
Mozart
Piano Concerto no.22 in E flat major K482 (1785)
Beethoven
Symphony no.6 in F major Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Town Hall, Cheltenham
Monday 25 October 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; picture of Sarah Beth Briggs by Carolyn Mendelsohn

Tonight’s concert found the English Symphony Orchestra at the Town Hall in Cheltenham, a building of Victorian opulence with an expansive while (surprisingly?) immediate acoustic to match, in a programme featuring classics of their respective media by Mozart and Beethoven.

First, though, a welcome revival for The Valley of Vision – the tone poem by Philip Sawyers that surveys the environs around Shoreham, Kent as were immortalized in the visionary early landscapes of Samuel Palmer. Although the composer had identified five continuous sections, the probing intensity of this music makes for a seamless unfolding which was to the fore in a superbly focussed account as directed by Kenneth Woods (who recently premiered Sawyers’ Fifth Symphony at the Colorado Mahler Festival). No less tangible was the control over this music’s momentum, extending through to a climactic faster section before soon regaining its initial pensiveness. In its subtly evocative aura and persuasive handling of tonality, moreover, this piece can rank with the most significant British orchestral works of the past two decades.

From the six piano concertos that Mozart wrote for his subscription concerts during the mid-1780s, the Twenty-Second is likely the least often heard. A pity, when its relatively expansive form and unpredictability of content are striking even in the context of this most exploratory phase from the composer’s output. Certainly, it is a piece of which Sarah Beth Briggs had the measure – whether in the forceful impetus of its opening Allegro, winsome interplay between soloist and woodwind in the central Andante (arguably the most eloquent among Mozart’s sets of variations) or blithe unfolding of a final Rondo afforded greater pathos by the ‘harmonien’ episode whose interposing was an inspired departure. Nor were Dennis Matthews’s succinct and artfully integrated cadenzas other than an enhancement of what was a fine performance.

Not that there was there anything routine about Beethoven’s Pastoral following the interval, a worthy successor to those performances of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies that Woods and the ESO have given in recent concerts. Thus, a purposeful though never inflexible take on the opening movement left sufficient room to characterize its reflective asides, with the ‘Scene by the brook’ even more engrossing through its homogeneity of texture and seamless continuity; the closing bird-calls elegantly phrased and enticingly integrated into the whole.

Too rapid a tempo for the scherzo left Woods with insufficient room to point up contrasts in motion with its trio sections, but the Thunderstorm was finely rendered as an extended introduction into the finale – this Shepherd’s Song emerging as the formal and emotional culmination in all respects. Not the least of these strengths was an inevitability of progress – here maintained right through to a coda of serene poise and, in the process, underlining the degree to which any vestige of self has been sublimated into the enveloping cosmic dance.

An absorbing performance as made one look forward to further Beethoven symphonies from this source. Woods and ESO are in Worcester at the weekend with two concerts as part of the Autumn Elgar Festival, the first featuring the masterly Elegy for Strings by Harold Truscott.

Further information on the ESO’s current season can be found at their website. For more on composer Philip Sawyers, visit his website here, while more on pianist Sarah Beth Briggs can be found at her website