Ex Cathedra: New Jerusalem

Parry, MacMillan, Panufnik

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2014/15 Concert Package, Ex Cathedra Season 2014/15 Concert Package, SoundBite, Birmingham International Concert Season 2014/15, Ex Cathedra Season 2014/15 and Vocal Music

Saturday 31st January

Town Hall

Ex Cathedra Choir and Ensemble
Jeffrey Skidmore conductor

Parry Jerusalem 10’
Roxanna Panufnik Since we Parted (world premiere) 8’
Parry Songs of Farewell 31’
James MacMillan Seven Angels (world premiere) 40’

Nostalgia has always been a potent force in British music but the emotions it provokes can look forward as well as back.

In this inspired programme, James MacMillan takes up where Elgar left off with a superb new choral work based on The Last Judgment, while a new work by Roxanna Panufnik, two much-loved favourites by Parry, evoke a century of great music.

Ex Cathedra is a Town Hall Associate Artist. http://www.thsh.co.uk

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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “Between the two Parry offerings came the first of the evening’s premieres, Roxanna Panufnik’s Since We Parted, a wonderfully warm work of immense emotional sincerity interweaving two deeply-felt poems of lovers’ separations.

Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s mid-Victorian eponymous poem fused perfectly with Kathleen Coates’ A Year and a Day, written on the brink of the First World War, and Panufnik’s well-layered choral textures combined with adroit imagery from a tiny instrumental group to create a heart-stopping 10 minutes.

Four times its length was the evening’s other premiere, James MacMillan’s Seven Angels, bringing to life the Book of Revelations’ Last Judgment and picking up a century later on Elgar’s reluctance so to do in his own New Testament trilogy.

Sharing with Elgar a desire for performance authenticity, MacMillan makes extensive use of two shofars (temple fanfaring instruments) brilliantly alternating with natural trumpets at the lips of Mark Bennett and Simon Munday, high in the organ-loft.

There are also virtuoso parts for solo cello (Andrew Skidmore), harp (Lucy Wakeford) and percussion (Sarah Stuart).

And, of course, the chorus, from which soloists emerge in Ex Cathedra’s traditional manner. MacMillan’s vocal scoring shares the often improvisatory nature of Penderecki’s St Luke Passion, including swooping exhalations, whistling, rapid teeth-palate alternations, humming and the like, all with the effect of setting his more conventional, fully-harmonised choral writing into glorious prominence.

As Seven Angels progressed, naturally structured upon each of the seven angel’s fanfaring, towards its visionary conclusion, we arrived at a final F minor chord, and the sound was genuinely ecstatic.

I doubt this performance could ever be bettered. The stunned audience silence at the end could have gone on forever.”

*****

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Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “Roxanna Panufnik’s Since we Parted was commissioned by Ex Cathedra with the support of Jane Arthur. Jeffrey Skidmore had asked that the piece should remember the Great War and, if possible, should set words by or about women. Miss Panufnik combines lines by two poets. A verse by Robert Bulmer-Lytton (1831-1891), from which the work’s title derives, acts as a kind of refrain for the full choir and is heard on several occasions. In between the refrains come lines by Kathleen Coates (1890-1958) from a poem entitled ‘A Year and a Day’. The piece is scored for choir and a small ensemble of harp, piano, cello and a pair of trumpets, the latter being used with great restraint as far as dynamics are concerned. It plays for about ten minutes.

The refrain is wistful and quite gentle. I may be mistaken but I had the impression that the music was subtly varied at each re-appearance. The composer said that in this music she tried “to create a sense of yearning – with harmonies that lean into each other and suspensions that only partly resolve.” I’d say she succeeded. The Coates lines are set in two separate passages. The first is for female voices and here the textures were graceful and the music warm. The men have the second Coates passage and their music is more robust. The performance seemed, at a first hearing, to be expert and the composer, who was present, was clearly delighted.     […]

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MacMillan chose as his text lengthy passages from the Book of Revelation in which St John describes that part of his vision when seven angels appear in succession, each to blow a dread fanfare to usher in further apocalyptic events. The angels were represented by two trumpeters, here placed behind and above the choir, next to the organ console. These trumpeters contributed a series of arresting fanfares, using not only trumpets but also natural trumpets and shofars, the primitive ram’s horn trumpets of Old Testament times, one of which Elgar deployed tellingly in The Apostles. In addition to the trumpeters the small accompanying ensemble comprised harp, cello and a battery of percussion, played indefatigably by one percussionist. It should be said straightaway that one of MacMillan’s many achievements in this score is to conjure a tremendous variety of arresting colours from just these five instrumentalists. This is just one way in which the score is highly imaginative.

Just as impressive is his writing for the choir. They have many passages of homophonic or polyphonic writing. In addition various other vocal techniques are employed, including Sprechstimme, glissandi, humming, shouting and whistling. The whistling occurs just before the appearance of the seventh angel and I suspect it’s intended to convey the sound of a great wind; if so, it works brilliantly. Indeed, all the various non-singing techniques made their mark and were relevant to the moment in the text at which they occurred; in other words, these techniques were not employed just for effect.

The words are intensely dramatic and MacMillan’s vast experience as a composer both of religious music and of operas equipped him extremely well to surmount the challenges of the text. Among many passages that caught my ear was a section, just before the appearance of the seventh angel, when the cello and tubular bells initiate a fast dance, the rhythms of which are excitingly irregular. This dance is sustained when the choir enters and it’s extremely effective. Effective too were the four passages for solo voices – bass, tenor, alto and soprano successively – which illustrate the appearances of the first four angels. Most imposing of all, however, was the music at the point to which the whole work had surely been aimed: the words beginning “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. Here the whole ensemble was united in a luminous outburst which gradually unwound to be followed by several more similar explosions of fervour. The work finished with the words “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” The long silence that followed the conclusion of Seven Angels bore testimony to the power and eloquence of the piece we had just heard for the first time.

I confess that for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure what I would make of Seven Angels but this is a work that draws the listener in and which compels attention. The music is astonishingly inventive and imaginative, though I do wonder if the trumpet fanfares are not perhaps a little overdone. The performance by Ex Cathedra and the small instrumental ensemble was beyond praise. The music is clearly complex and extremely demanding yet not only was it put across with great assurance but also with the conviction that only thorough preparation and highly skilled execution can produce. The composer, who was enthusiastically applauded, looked delighted by the performance and I’m not surprised.

This was an unforgettable concert of memorable music superbly performed. I’m particularly keen to hear Seven Angels again for it is a profound and dramatic work that demands detailed listening and reflection; one hearing simply isn’t enough.”

American Classics with Freddy Kempf

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Wednesday 28th January 2015 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Michael Seal  conductor
Freddy Kempf  piano

Bernstein: Divertimento 14′
Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F 29′
Listen on Spotify

Korngold: Symphony in F Sharp 53′
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A symphony from the New World… with a difference. Mahler declared Erich Korngold a genius, but Hitler had other ideas – and from exile in California, Korngold poured out all his hopes and sorrows in 53 minutes of grand, heartbroken passion. It’s a wonderful counterpart to Bernstein’s hilarious Divertimento and the irresistible jazz-age melodies of Gershwin’s “skyscraper concerto”, played by one of Britain’s favourite pianists.

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Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “Near the end Gershwin pares everything back to just a solo flute and the pianist, quietly duetting as if they were the last people left in a downtown bar late one night. Here Marie-Christine Zupancic and Kempf were quite magical in partnership. There was vitality and drive in the colourful finale. Kempf offered sparkling playing but, as in the Bernstein, I didn’t quite feel the orchestra were encouraged by Michael Seal to be quite as unbuttoned as the music demands. Nonetheless, this was an enjoyable account of the concerto

 Erich Wolfgang Korngold attracted great attention as a youthful prodigy in Vienna. In the 1930s he made a new home in America where he put his prodigious talent to work writing many notable movie scores in Hollywood. Yet despite his success in the cinema Korngold continued to write concert music also. His only symphony was completed in 1951. It is an elusive work in the sense that opportunities to hear live performances are rare indeed. I first became acquainted with it through Rudolf Kempe’s pioneering 1972 recording – the MusicWeb International review by Ian Lace is well worth reading, not least for much valuable background information.  There have been a number of subsequent recordings of the work – including one by Sir Edward Downes for Chandos  – but I’ve never had a chance to hear it live until this evening.

 The symphony is scored for a large orchestra, including a substantial percussion section, and the scoring is constantly interesting and resourceful. Among many features that catch the listener’s ear are the percussive use of piano and marimba, especially in the first movement, and the rather spooky end to that movement, including col legno work by the strings. It was one of the achievements of this performance that Michael Seal and the CBSO brought out all the colour and rhythmic ingenuity in the work.”     …

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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “The first winner was Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento, a sparky masterpiece of sleight-of-hand wizardry bettering Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, allowing every section of the orchestra to shine (it was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, so there’s a topical connection, Andris Nelsons about to leave the CBSO for that band), and consummately delivered under the efficient and empowering baton of Michael Seal.

The second was George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, the greatest to emerge from the western hemisphere, so redolent of the aspirations of the United States, and delivered with idiomatic flair here by Freddy Kempf’s fleet pianism.

An initially staid orchestral contribution came to life once Kempf got going, the soloist positively encouraging attentive interplay between himself and the players, and his gorgeously singing cello-like tone in the lyrical episodes drawing an “anything you can do” response.

This was a performance radiating sheer pleasure, and will not easily be forgotten.”     …

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Review by Richard Whitehouse, ClassicalSource:

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…     “Enjoying audible rapport with the CBSO, Freddy Kempf knitted its various sections together convincingly – though this performance, as with the work itself, was at its best in the Adagio; its trumpet theme plaintively phrased by Jonathan Holland, with Kempf maintaining tension admirably in the brief central cadenza prior to an eloquent climax. He made the most of the finale’s review of earlier ideas as part of its agitated progress, and if the peroration seemed a mite underwhelming, the breezy coda did not lack for panache.

After the interval, a welcome hearing (the first-ever in Birmingham?) for Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp of 1952. The composer’s most far-reaching attempt to recalibrate his innate late-Romanticism for the austere post-war era, it is a work fairly riven with contradiction for all that its ambition cannot be doubted. Seal had the measure of the initial Moderato with its bracing deployment of piano and percussion (not the only instance where Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony acts as a template), and purposeful interplay of its respectively ominous, yearning and poignant main themes. The quixotic Scherzo needed a little more agility for its acute contrasts in harmony and texture fully to register, but the Adagio was finely handled in terms of sombre emotions which reach a climax of tragic and consciously Mahlerian import prior to the resigned close.”     …

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Review by Owen Walton, OldMusicalCuriostiyShop:

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…     “Michael Seal, a passionate devotee of the composer, has waited some time to conduct the work in Birmingham and I for one am extremely grateful to him for being afforded the opportunity to hear the symphony live played by a world-class ensemble.

For that is the impression that this performance left; a truly astonishing display both of orchestral virtuosity and of commitment. We all know that British orchestras operate on a minimal rehearsal schedule and the results here were deeply impressive. There is no real Korngold tradition in Birmingham, the orchestra having performed his music for the first time in 1993 (the now ubiquitous Violin Concerto which would, arguably, have become a repertoire staple much earlier if it were not for the length of time it took for soloists capable of rivalling Heifetz in the work to emerge) and little else since. Considering, then, that this was a new work to the majority of players the results were a testament to their versatility and to Seal’s ability to galvanise his players.

Korngold wrote expertly for orchestra and the CBSO obviously relished the challenges that faced them in every department. The brass, in particular, now seem to have a sound when playing as a full section that is deep, dark and centred in the Concertgebouw mould (how different they sound than in the Rattle era). The strings start with a focussed bass section, rich celli, vibrant violas. The upper strings have a leanness (do not mistake this for undernourished) that make easy work of clarifying Korngold’s frequently dense close harmony writing. If the second movement scherzo was a feat of ensemble playing and expert crowd control, the dark heart of the work (the ensuing adagio) sang with an eloquence that was intensely moving when not shrieking with despair. Korngold’s own brand of wistful nostalgia, in which he brings to the fore fragments of what sound once popular Viennese songs brings to mind the sentiment of ‘Gluck mir das verblieb’ from Die Tote Stadt (Ich kenne das Lied/Ich hört es oft in jungen, in schöneren Tagen/ Es hat noch eine Strophe- weiß ich sie noch?). These small ideas seemed to materialise and fade away, half-remembered experiences of a happier time. It takes intelligence and an ear for orchestral balance for this to work.”     …

Singalong with the CBSO: Mozart’s Requiem

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Sunday 25th January 2015 at 7.00pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Simon Halsey  conductor
Gwawr Edwards  soprano
Gaynor Keeble  alto
Alexander Sprague  tenor
Jeremy Huw Williams  baritone
CBSO Chorus

Mozart: Requiem 45′
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Ever wondered what it’s like to sing live at Symphony Hall with the full CBSO? Now’s your chance to find out, in this one-off performance from scratch of Mozart’s Requiem. And whether you’re a choral society veteran or have only ever sung in the shower, you’re welcome to rehearse and perform it today, under the CBSO’s world-famous chorus director Simon Halsey.

Singer information: rehearsals start at 1.30pm; details will be sent with singer tickets. Scores: we will be using the Novello edition. To hire a score with Simon Halsey’s rehearsal markings, purchase the Singer & Score Hire ticket when booking. NB If you’re not bringing your own score, pre-booking score hire is essential. Collect your pre-booked score on the day.

Spanish Night

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Thursday 22nd January 2015 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Josep Pons  conductor
Maria Toledo  singer
Javier Perianes  piano

Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole 15′
Falla: El amor brujo (complete) 40′
Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain 24′
Listen on Spotify

Ravel: Boléro 15′ Watch on YouTube

“Something more than festivals and dances has inspired these evocations in sound,” said Manuel de Falla, “for melancholy and mystery also have their part.” In the latest instalment of the CBSO:2020 project, two fiercely poetic scores from 1915 reveal the Spain that musical tourists never see – though in the hands of the great Spanish conductor Josep Pons, Ravel’s Boléro will never have sounded more authentic!

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Javier Perianes talks to Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full article

“An all-Spanish programme from the CBSO this week brings probably the greatest work for piano and orchestra ever to emerge from the Iberian peninsula, Manuel de Falla’s moody and evocative Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

The soloist is the exciting young Spanish pianist Javier Perianes, who tells me this is proving a very “British” period for him, beginning with a tour of his home country with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sakari Oramo.

“It has been a real pleasure, and a great honour, to share the stage with the BBC Symphony and Maestro Oramo once again,” he says.”     …

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Review by David Hart, Birmingham Post:

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…     “Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo (Love, the Magician) was certainly the real deal in this concert, performed in its original chamber ensemble version with a genuine flamenco singer.

Here, it was the remarkable María Toledo, whose characteristically throaty voice-production and dramatically charged articulation provided such a refreshing change from what we usually hear.

And the direction of Josep Pons, a conductor whose tidy beat encourages rather than dictates what goes on in the ranks, enabled a much reduced CBSO to relish the score’s transparency and its opportunities for individual display, notably in the Pantomime (lovely cello solo from Richard Jenkinson) and Will-o’-the-Wisp numbers.”     …

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Review by Sam Chipman, ThePublicReviews:

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…     “Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole opens the program, a piece showing Ravel’s passion for Spanish music inherited from his mother. A grand scale Orchestra play with great rise and fall under the leadership of conductor Pons, with a very expressive woodwind section adding much to the texture. A suitably poetic atmosphere is created in Prelude a la nuit and the lively Espana is full of life and vigour.

Ravel’s Bolero is a piece recognised in many a British household; largely down to the fact that Torvill and Dean’s gold medal winning performance at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics included a routine to the piece. Ravel, at the time of writing Bolero could not have known how bigger success the one-theme piece would be, but his clever orchestration gives it fire where the lack of melodic development leaves a gap. It has a rather hypnotic feel and proves a fitting finale to the concert with its rowdy, brash ending.

Many will not be as familiar with Manuel De Falla’s work as with that of Ravel. The Love, the Magician suite originated as a Flamenco ballet, and tells the story of a gypsy girl who is haunted by the memory of her dead lover. The songs are powerfully performed by Maria Toledo, described as ‘the Diana Krall of Flamenco’. Her abrasive tones map that of traditional Flamenco singers and her attack of the text adds to the uniqueness of the performance. A smaller orchestra play magnificently in this piece, creating a more intimate chamber feel.”     …

Schubert’s Great

 

 

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Saturday 17th January 2015 at 7.00pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

David Afkham  conductor
Brett Polegato  baritone

Webern: Passacaglia, Op.1 11′
Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer 14′
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 (The Great) 57′
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There’s nothing in all music to compare with Schubert’s monumental Ninth Symphony. Some hear it as a challenge to Beethoven, others hear it as a summer journey through a sunlit world of melody. Either way, it’s a wonderful Birmingham debut for the charismatic young German conductor David Afkham, and a magical complement to Mahler’s ever-fresh Songs of a Wayfarerwww.cbso.co.uk

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Review by Sam Chapman, ThePublicReviews:

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…     “However, on this occasion, Anton Webern’s Passacaglia, Op.1 opens the evening. The CBSO, led by David Afkham ranges from lyrical to passionate where appropriate. The pizzicato string sections are well controlled during this piece.

Gustav Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer is performed by the baritone Brett Polegato; who among other credits has performances at La Scala and l’Opera National de Paris to his name. His clear and intelligently used voice is a pleasure to listen to; however, the performance could benefit from more connection with the text.

The sublime orchestration and changes of mood in Schubert’s ‘Great’ symphony make it incredibly fulfilling to listen to from start to end: it is like a novel full of surprises that leaves a pang of loss once it has come to a close. David Afkham leads the CBSO intelligently, and the attention to the finer details really gives the piece the grand feel it requires. The string section is a joy to listen to, the triplet’s at the piece’s finale lay down a marker and make the performance a great success, if just short of being truly rousing.”     … (sic)

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Review by Geoff Read, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb: (for the matinee concert with different “overture”)

Click here for full review

…     “Afkham demonstrated his orchestral accompaniment skills in the second item: Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer) with baritone Brett Polegato sharing the podium. Throughout, the woodwind section provided magnificent support with clarinettists Oliver Janes and Joanna Patton getting things off to a cracking start in Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht (When my darling has her wedding). Billed as a much sought-after lyric-baritone, I expected a more tender ‘ich’ as this wayfarer retired into his ‘traurigen Tag’ and I would have liked more contrast in the middle section as the beauty of the world is envisaged, prior to gloom overtaking him again. Mahler’s love of nature came across in the second movement, ‘Ging heut Morgen übers Feld’ (I Went This Morning over the Field) with the flutes of Marie-Christine Zupancic and Veronika Klirova prominent, yet this joyful mood did not seem reflected in Polegato’s body language;. However his closing Nein, nein, das ich mein, mir nimmer kann! did carry the right timbre. The despair of the wayfarer reached a climax in ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (I have a gleaming knife) mirrored by some ferocious string playing and although Polegato’s diction was always excellent, I did not experience the sheer agony the text portrays; any sensations of the cold steel were absent. The fourth song ‘Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz’ (The two blue eyes of my beloved) provides a resolution to the cycle, notable for its reference to an attachment Mahler had with the singer Johanna Richter from the Kassel Opera House. It also contains a mention of the Lindenbaum, following in the footsteps of his Germanic forefather Franz Schubert and his Winterreise (Winter Journey). All round this was the best execution of the four songs with Polegato’s fine communication of the dénouement and the soloist on the same wavelength as Afkham and the CBSO players.

The empathy Afkham had clearly struck with the CBSO continued in the main contribution to the matinée, Schubert’s Symphony No 9, the Great C Major. Above all they conveyed the expansive nature of the piece, driving relentlessly forward with a meaningful and measured pace, yet never losing sight of the plethora of Schubertian melody that infuses the 1825 score. The horn section got the Andante section of the first movement off to a glorious start (worthy of them being the first orchestral section to be signalled out by Afkham at the close) their beautiful theme suggestive of the beginning of a country stroll, a walk which other sections of the orchestra took turns to lead: the strings led by Laurence Jackson eagerly took up the motif, sonorously echoed by the woodwind. As the opening movement continued the trombone section of Edward Jones, Anthony Howe and David Vines (bass trombone) were soon demonstrating their strapping dexterities, adding their variation to the opening theme, enthusiastically taking the lyrical lead. In his pre-concert address CBSO violinist David Gregory had drawn attention to the symphony’s extensive use of trombones and enlisted the help of the CBSO three-man section to prove his point; we saw what he meant! Afkham moved effortlessly into the Allegro ma non troppo section, vividly highlighting the variety of colours Schubert used to expand his sonata form.”     …

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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post: (for the matinee concert with different “overture”)

Click here for full review

…     “But what actually can anyone do with Schubert’s interminable Ninth Symphony?

Just give clear downbeats, keep counting the bars, and remember if you’re going to repeat sections or not. Afkham ticked all those boxes, and ticking away with him throughout were the amazing CBSO strings, so controlled in the infernal, eternal triplet figurations which spin out the finale to paid-by-the-note lengths.

What did help keep the interest alive here was Afkham’s cherishing of inner detail (possibly Schubert’s chamber-music writ large on this overblown canvas), and the sturdy, resonant horns, just two of them sounding like a huge choir, abetted by noble trombones.”     …

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto

 

Thursday 8th January 2015 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Alexander Vedernikov  conductor
Nikolai Lugansky  piano

Rachmaninov: Vocalise 6′
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 44′
Listen on Spotify

Tchaikovsky: Suite No. 3 41′

Nikolai Lugansky’s encore – Rachmaninov: Etude-Tableau Op.33 No.8

It’s been called the “Everest of piano concertos”, and it’s true – for difficulty, grandeur and pure heart-on-sleeve romance, Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto is hard to top. Nikolai Lugansky, an old friend here in Birmingham, takes on that challenge today, and former Bolshoi music director Alexander Vedernikov brings all his theatrical flair to Tchaikovsky’s delightful Third Suite – half ballet, half symphony: all Tchaikovsky.

http://www.cbso.co.uk

Listen to the concert online here – BBC Radio 3 Live in Concert – available for four weeks

Support the CBSO

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Review by Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “He lavished care on the opening Elegie, the ballet-influenced melodies eliciting some sumptuous string playing led by Laurence Jackson who made a telling solo contribution later in the suite.

There was an aptly sinister edge to the Valse melancolique, with its bass line nagging away like a toothache – as disturbing as the sixth symphony’s limping waltz. The fourth movement’s variations were individually etched, with Sarah Harper’s cor anglais meltingly beautiful, with a roof-raising final Polonaise.

Nikolai Lugansky has recorded Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto with the CBSO and has performed at Symphony Hall to great acclaim – and he triumphed again.

The huge demands on the soloist were traversed by Lugansky with playing that was passionate but never hectoring, elegant but not over-cool and with a diamond-sharp precision that, especially in the cadenzas, had my head shaking in disbelief.”     …

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