Abrahamsen and Mahler

Thursday 28th April, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Programme

  • Debussy (orch. Abrahamsen)  Children’s Corner , 16′
  • Hans Abrahamsen  Left, alone (CBSO co-commission, UK premiere), 20′
  • Mahler  Symphony No. 4, 55′

Gustav Mahler never wrote anything happier than his Fourth Symphony. Jangling sleighbells, Mozart-like melodies, and a child’s vision of heaven… if it almost sounds too sweet, trust Ilan Volkov to find the black comedy beneath the playful surface. First, though, we’ve a charming new version of Debussy’s Children’s Corner – and the first UK performance of a new piano concerto, specially written for tonight’s soloist by the Danish sonic magician Hans Abrahamsen.

CBSO+ 6.15pm Hans Abrahamsen will be interviewed before his UK premiere by CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock.

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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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“The CBSO has a proud history of premiering new work, and its latest offering proved an absolute triumph.

“Left, alone” is the apt title, both witty and sad, of Hans Abrahamsen’s Concerto for Piano Left Hand, a CBSO co-commission with orchestras in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, and was written in response to the composer’s weakness in his own right hand. Like the Ravel Left Hand concerto, it begins in the nether regions, but unlike the French work’s grumblings, here it flickers in paroxysms of rhythmic energy, ducking and diving in and out between varying orchestral textures.

Orchestral detail — including the grim presence of another piano — teems with activity, impeccably marshalled by Ilan Volkov’s baton, and throughout this 20-minute piece, the proportions of its six movements perfectly judged, the soloist (Alexandre Tharaud here) is a poignant presence of immense character and dignity.”     …

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Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

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…     “Abrahamsen himself was born with restricted use of his right hand so that, as he says, he has always had a “a close relationship” with those piano works, like the Ravel concerto, composed for left hand alone. None of those pieces, though, deals with the challenge of writing such a work in the way that Left, Alone does so memorably. As the title suggests, it’s music of solitariness, in which the piano’s lonely melodic line (which only very rarely becomes chordal) weaves its way through the glittering and grumbling thickets of canons and cross rhythms that the orchestra creates, trying to establish its own identity. It regularly finds itself stranded, without support, and only in the last of the six short movements is there some kind of reconciliation between the two.

All this takes place in the special airy sound world that Abrahamsen has invented for himself, full of textures that can hang suspended in the orchestral stratosphere or plunge at any moment to the lowest depths that instruments can inhabit. Before the concerto, too, there was the chance to hear that world taken on in the work of another supreme musical colourist, as Volkov conducted Abrahamsen’s orchestration of Debussy’s Children’s Corner, which renders that suite of piano pieces into astonishing miniature tours de force, each one with its own carefully defined range of sonorities, that seem at the same time to belong to two very different musical worlds.”     …

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Review by Richard Bratby, TheArtsDesk:

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…     Ilan Volkov conducted with pinpoint precision, and the CBSO supported Tharaud with playing of breathtaking transparency and refinement. Transfixingly beautiful and charged with unspoken emotion, Left, alone doesn’t so much end as cease to be audible. It deserves the same success as Abrahamsen’s Grawemeyer Award-winning song cycle let me tell you (due to be performed by the CBSO and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at this summer’s Proms). For now, congratulations are due to the CBSO for co-commissioning a work that should by rights become a modern classic.

After the interval, Volkov deployed all his alertness and ear for texture in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. More than that: beginning with sleighbells in strict time, he made the cod-Mozart opening theme as graceful and springy as a ballet. From there on in, this was Mahler in inverted commas – all knowing irony and brisk, bold gestures. That gave the scherzo a hallucinatory quality, with long string slides offset by honking clarinets and tangy, low vibrato solos from leader Ioana Petcu-Colan. In the third movement Volkov held the cellos’ opening theme poised above its pizzicato bass like the slow movement of Schubert’s string quintet; later he unleashed huge sweeps of horn and violin sound with the same crisp beat. And then on came Sarah Tynan in full storytelling mode, gazing around the hall, glancing conspiratorially up at the audience and all the while colouring Mahler’s “child’s vision of heaven” with luminous warmth darkened by just a hint of boyishness.

Volkov and the CBSO supported Tynan with the same delicacy and care they’d brought to the concerto; and at the start of the concert, Abrahamsen’s orchestration of Debussy’s Children’s Corner. These arrangements were lovely, poignant things. Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum became a lush prelude, the tuba commented on Jimbo’s Lullaby and a lone castanet clicked comically and just a little sadly in the Serenade of the Doll. On paper, it looked like a throwaway opener. But by the time Left, alone had told its tale and Tynan’s wide eyed child was marvelling at her heavenly fruitbowl, it made perfect sense. Few conductors have more eclectic tastes than Volkov, and few plan their programmes with more intelligence and care. Under his direction, every part of this concert clicked perfectly into focus.”

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Review by Richard Whitehouse, ClassicalSource:

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…     “Abrahamsen the arranger was in evidence at the start of this concert, his 2012 orchestration of Debussy’s Children’s Corner (1908) well-removed from the familiar one by André Caplet. In essence this comes down to texture, with Abrahamsen eschewing the picturesque in favour of something plangent and restrained, most evident in the heaving pathos of ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’ or distanced eloquence of ‘The Little Shepherd’. Not that the high-jinks of ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ was passed over, its capering humour rounded off this insinuating version and perceptive reading of it.

An unusually well-planned concert ended with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (1900), once the most-often-heard of this cycle in the UK (the Birmingham orchestra giving only its second performance here in 1927) and whose blend of the sardonic and naivety was duly brought out by Volkov – not least in a first movement that found a secure formal trajectory without sacrificing charm or humour. If the deadpan irony of the Scherzo could have been greater (though leader Ioana Petcu-Colan handled its scordatura with aplomb), and the trios’ easy rapture was ideally caught.

Nor was there much to quibble over in a slow movement which, while avoiding the grandeur summoned by Rudolf Schwarz in a fondly remembered account with the CBSO over three decades ago, traced a convincing course across its developing variations through to a climax of celestial radiance and a coda of heartfelt repose. Sarah Tynan was affecting and never merely cloying in the Finale’s setting of ‘Das himmlische Leben’ – not least during those evanescent closing pages with their promise of benediction in some hereafter.”

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Review by Robert Gainer, BachTrack:

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…     “This impression was the exact opposite of that created by the first piece of the evening, Debussy’s Children’s Corner, which only goes to show how just how versatile Abrahamsen is as an orchestral arranger. Originally written for piano it was arranged for orchestra by André Caplet in 1911, and this is the version with which most of us are likely to be familiar. This arrangement by Abrahamsen was refreshing, much more subtle and sophisticated than Caplet’s, yet also more vivid. The famous final movement for example, The Golliwogg’s Cakewalk, was coherent as an orchestral piece in its own right rather than merely an orchestrated transcription of a piano rag. Unlike Left, alone, the whole six-movement suite had a continuously warm yet appropriately light and witty ambiance.

The second half of the concert was Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 in G major. Again a creditable performance by Maestro Volkov and the CBSO, though I did feel the first two movements were a little sterile. Yes, the strings were sumptuous and there was nothing I could fault in the conducting or playing, just that I was unmoved. It was all a little bit too safe. However, by the third movement I began to transcend my critical ear and lose myself in the beauty of Mahler’s blue sky vision, ascending heaven-bound. This is what Mahler wanted to achieve, and the CBSO delivered. Soprano soloist Sarah Tynan put in a perfectly measured invitation to the heavenly-realm and Volkov, once he finally had the hall in the grasp of his hand, did not let it slip. By the end I was entranced. “

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Review by Rebecca Franks, The Times (££):

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“I felt as if I had stepped out of time in this concert. Hans Abrahamsen’s new concerto, Left, alone, is weightless and otherworldly, as stark, soft, radiant and magical as fresh snow. Each movement seems to hang in the air. Even its composer, who took his bows after the flawless UK premiere with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the soloist Alexandre Tharaud and the conductor Ilan Volkov, had the air of a magician with access to unimagined realms.”     …

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Blog post by “Doundou Tchil”, Classical-Iconoclast:

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…     “Abrahamsen’s music listens, as a child listens, with purity and wonder.  It’s alert to the kind of quiet detail that gets missed in a world of white noise and bluster. A child doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone. He or she can marvel, without precondition.  One of my friends hated Abrahamsen’s Schnee (2007) because it “feels like watching snow fall”, but for me that’s precisely what I love about Abrahamsen.  Buddhists believe that the path to wisdom lies in divesting oneself of Self and the need to control. Abrahamsen’s music examines sounds from different angles and, importantly, through silence, the antithesis of mental muzak 

In Abrahamnsen’s Left, Alone the concept “the sound of one hand clapping” is uniquely realized.   Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand was written for Paul Wittgenstein who lost his right hand in war.    Perhaps it carries the memory of a lost limb, as often happens to amputees. Abrahamsen’s piece feels, however, like an exploration of something entirely imagined. Left, Alone moves through a series of six vistas, dark rumblings on the lower keys to bright outbursts in the orchestra. Single notes on percussion blocks tempt the piano forth. At first the piano sounds tentative, as if exploring space. A surge of strings from the orchestra, then a long passage of semi-silence. In fact there are several, passages of semi-silence, each one different, so you have to pay attention. Eventually the piano finds its voice, stabbing exuberantly at the keys, the whole orchestra  animated in support. Having thus found itself, the piano can return to quietude. Single notes are played, repeatedly. A huge arc of sound from the orchestra, a frenzy of sparkling notes: piano, percussion, winds and strings together. The pace intensifies, bubbling along cheerfully.  Not having a right hand is not funny, but the protagonist triumphs, nonetheless. Alexandre Tharaud was the soloist.  Preceding Left, Alone was Abrahamsen’s orchestration of Debussy Childrens Corner. The connections are clear: six vignettes unified by playful imagination.”     …

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Romeo and Juliet

  • Wednesday 20th April, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Programme

  • Tchaikovsky  Romeo and Juliet Overture, 21′
  • Bernstein  West Side Story – Symphonic Dances , 23′
  • Prokofiev  Romeo and Juliet – highlights , 50′

Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…” But whether we’re talking Montagues and Capulets or Nureyev and Fonteyn, medieval Verona or New York gangland, one thing’s for sure: Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers have inspired some truly glorious music. Tchaikovsky’s impassioned overture, Bernstein’s explosive dances and Prokofiev’s bittersweet ballet: guest conductor Lahav Shani will commit to each of them, body and soul.

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Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “Shani and the CBSO gave a vivid account of the music. As the Jets and Sharks strutted their stuff in the ‘Prologue’ the playing was at first incisive and sassy and then brash and exciting, the bongos beating out frenetic tattoos. Shani ensured that ‘Somewhere’ was suitably yearning while the Coplandesque ‘Scherzo’ was light on its feet. The percussion section drove ‘Mambo’ along in manic style and as the movement reached its exuberant conclusion the CBSO trumpeters had a field day, blowing, as they say, mean horns. The sultry rhythms of ‘Cha Cha’ were well inflected. The ‘Cool’ Fugue is a terrific invention: who but Bernstein would have thought to introduce a 12-tone, rigorous fugue into a Broadway show – and who but Lennie would have made it so gripping? This section, above all, is where you realize how musically advanced West Side Story is. Shani built the music powerfully, generating a strident climax. ‘Rumble’ is just as advanced in terms of Broadway music; here it was done with great panache. Finally, the tender, tragic ending was really well done, the CBSO strings playing with great sensitivity.

Another Russian take on Romeo and Juliet followed the interval. A couple of years ago Andris Nelsons and the CBSO played a selection of numbers from Prokofiev’s great ballet score (review). Here Lahav Shani offered a selection that contained many of the same pieces. I remember that I greatly enjoyed the Nelsons concert and Shani’s performance was another fine one. Like Nelsons, his selection included many movements that lie at the heart of the drama but both conductors sensibly interspersed two or three of the lighter dance movements.

The start of Shani’s performance – ‘Montagues and Capulets’ – augured well, the massive dissonant chords built thrillingly and, at their peak, thrust home with great power. In the same movement we had the lumbering Knights’ Dance but also passages of much greater delicacy. ‘The Young Girl Juliet’ began with scampering eagerness but when Prokofiev shows us the more thoughtful side of her nature Shani was just as adept in bringing out the nature of the music. The ‘Balcony Scene began with a lovely depiction of a moonlit night from the CBSO. At the start of the encounter between the two young lovers I admired very much the lustrous tone of the cello section, and then the violins took over and sent the music soaring to the heights. Under Shani’s enthusiastic leadership the orchestra invested the music with ardour and romantic sweep but just as impressive was the spellbinding clarity that the players brought to Prokofiev’s magical scoring at the end.

From ardent young love we moved to violence with ‘The Death of Tybalt’. This was vivid and dramatic. The fight itself was fast and furious; no quarter was given. After Tybalt had been slain his body was borne off with shattering power.”     …

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Review by Katherine Dixson, BachTrack: (for same programme on 23rd April)

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…     “Tchaikovsky‘s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was his third attempt at this subject but was still one of his early works. Its substantial introduction opens with solemn woodwind foreshadowing Friar Laurence’s fateful involvement then moves into pugnacious, jagged music, the irregular accents conjuring up flashing swords and setting up the conflict with a bang. Brass and percussion, particularly cymbals, were in their element while Shani showed both great enthusiasm and control over the build-up of volume and intensity. Furious bowing from the strings added a visual reference point as you could just imagine weapons flying. The audience was well and truly hooked.

A complete change of colour occurred with the move into the luscious love theme: tempo, dynamic, articulation and melody producing a heart-stopping plaintive contrast with the clash and clamour of the previous scene.  A delicate harp spoke of moonlight shining on Juliet’s balcony. Shani urged the players to heights of tenderness, just as much as total involvement in the foreboding of eerie chords and fateful trumpets pealing out the Friar Laurence theme again as the tragedy unfolds. The funeral march coda, prefaced with menacing cello, brought the piece to a carefully-placed, emotionally-charged ending.”     …

 

Bruckner’s Ninth

Wednesday 13th April, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Programme

  • Mozart  Clarinet Concerto, 28′
  • Bruckner  Symphony No. 9, 59′

Bruckner’s Ninth has been called a “cathedral in sound” – and no question, it’s got majesty to spare. But that’s just the surface: this is nothing less than one man’s final struggle to find peace, told in music of shattering power and beauty. There’s more to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto than just gorgeous melodies, too – and if any soloist can get to its heart, it’s Michael Collins. Soul music, Austrian-style.

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Review by Richard Ely, BachTrack:

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…     Their cause was aided greatly in the Mozart by soloist Michael Collins‘ choice of the basset clarinet, for which the concerto was written, in preference to the smoother tones of the modern instrument. This gave the solo part an arresting edge which contrasted with the hushed orchestral accompaniment – reined back almost to a whisper during the Andante –and served equally well in the more extrovert outer movements: the gallop of the finale was especially piquant. Collins, genial and earthy next to Feddeck’s more ascetic presence on the podium, proved himself a stalwart advocate for the piece, as powerful when playing in concert with the orchestra as in his spotlit solo role.  This was a performance as alert and life-enhancing as anyone could wish for: the bear traps of blandness were sidestepped with agility.  […]

[…]     Along the way, much orchestral detail was revealed that too many performances overlook. Feddeck downplayed the bombast of the Scherzo, which became less the aural depiction of hell some interpreters like to make it and more of a long march over rough terrain, with a rest break (the trio) in the middle.  The contrasting music of the trio, with its disturbing and otherwise un-Brucknerian sensuality was vividly characterised by the strings in combination with the woodwind.  Although I’ve heard far weightier accounts of this movement, Feddeck’s approach worked through its combination of toughness and ethereality.  

The final Adagio showed conductor and orchestra at their finest. Most  impressive was the solo violins’ harrowing depiction of the ‘cry of anguish’ at the start of the movement. Aside from some scrappy ensemble between the horns and the Wagner tubas, the balance between the different sections was impeccable and there was an almost Viennese lilt to the strings. There was no sense of incompleteness in this performance as  Feddeck and his forces brought the piece home in a blaze of sound that shook Symphony Hall to tis foundations.  ”     …