Schubert’s Great



ThumbnailRelax and Revitalise

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′
Listen on Spotify

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

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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)



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

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…     “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.”     …



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

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…     “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.”     …

Tristan and Isolde

Saturday 3 March 2012 at 4.00pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121-780 3333

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons  conductor
Stephen Gould  Tristan
Lioba Braun  Isolde
Christianne Stotijn  Brangäne
Brett Polegato  Kurwenal
Matthew Best  King Marke
Ben Johnson  Melot / Shepherd
Benedict Nelson  Sailor / Helmsman
Men of the CBSO Chorus  

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Sung in German with English surtitles) 230′ Listen on Spotify

A wounded knight, a tragic bride, and a love that’s stronger than death. When Richard Wagner premiered Tristan und Isolde in 1865, he changed music forever. You can hearTristan und Isolde as the greatest love story ever told; or you can hear it as an emotional experience so overwhelming that no music will ever sound the same again. But with lifelong Wagnerite Andris Nelsons conducting a superb hand-picked cast, just make sure you hear this extraordinary concert performance.

The approximate running times of Acts 1, 2, and 3 are 80’, 75’, and 75’ respectively. There will be a one-hour interval after Act 1 and a 20 minute interval after Act 2. Please note the change to the previously advertised interval durations, in response to the needs of the artists.

Find out what our musicians love about this music – watch music director Andris Nelsons and CBSO cello section leader Ulrich Heinen discussing Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde.

To listen to some of the music in this concert, and explore the rest of the season, using our Spotify playlists, click here.

This concert is within the CBSO season and also forms part of Symphony Hall’s 21st Anniversary Festival. It may be booked as part of a CBSO or Birmingham International Season concert package.

Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

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…     “One of the highlights of Nelsons’ Lohengrin had been Lioba Braun’s Ortrud, and she was the star of this performance too, not in the role of Brangaene, in which first made her name in the 1990s, but as Isolde. Feisty and fierce in the first act, meltingly tender in the second, she sang the final act’s Liebestod with mesmerising, rapt containment.”     …

Review by Ivan Hewett, Telegraph:

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…     “And yet these things took on a human glow, thanks to conductor Andris Nelsons’s wonderful pacing of the score. He seized on the drama’s essential conflict of fevered desire and yearning for oblivion, and made it vividly real in musical terms. Flexibility of tempo was the keynote, a quality evident in Nelsons’s masterly shaping of the Prelude. It issued out of nothingness in groping, hesitant notes, and constantly pushed and fell back in speed. Nelsons shrewdly drew back at the climax, opening the way to the drama to come.”     …

Blog review by Intermezzo

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…    ” It’s not exactly news that Andris Nelsons is an exceptional Wagner conductor. Everything comes down to his grasp of detail. Those broad sweeps and surges are built up from finely judged tempos and infinitely graded dynamics. Not a note passed unconsidered; the music was constantly alive. A halting, reticent overture hinted we might be in for a meditative interpretation, but once the story got going, a powerful theatrical pulse started beating. Symphony Hall’s warm acoustic magnified a sumptuous and often thrilling sound, with chorus and sometimes soloists placed above and behind the orchestra to make the most of the hall’s spatial qualities.”     …

Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…     “The orchestra relished the opportunity to reveal what a responsive, flexible, sonorous and delicate opera orchestra it is      […]

[…]     And the singers were uniformly magnificent: Lioba Braun such a warm-voiced Isolde, her Act One Narration well-paced, her Liebestod building to a cathartic climax, and with such vivid body-language; Stephen Gould’s well-supported tones much less barking than some other heldentenors, and so sweetly nuanced; Matthew Best’s King Marke sorrowingly authoritative; Christianne Stotjin a Brangaene of genuine personality, her watch-tower warnings shimmering with moonlit mystery: Brett Polegato conveying all of Kurwenal’s bluff decency.”     …

Review by Fiona Maddocks, The Observer:

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…     “a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde, Nelsons’s first. Yet again this young Latvian proved himself among the most exciting and exploratory Wagnerians alive. Yes, that good. He takes immense risks, sometimes slowing the tempo to a near standstill then accelerating with a surge of alert, manic urgency. He taxes his players to the limits of breath or bow control, demanding extremes of volume or, far harder, near silence.

The CBSO, who could surely play the Prelude to Tristan in their sleep but never have the chance to play the entire score, responded with lustrous virtuosity, with special praise to the bass clarinet, cor anglais, trombones and harp. Many of the singers were new to their roles, including Lioba Braun (Ortrud in the CBSO and Nelsons’s 2010 Lohengrin), a mezzo who sounded pale in soprano high notes but who compensated with the intelligence of her reading.”     …    


Review by Rian Evans, ClassicalSource:

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…     “Lioba Braun by contrast was most musical, portraying an Isolde who was totally credible. Spirited and gutsy in the first Act, the body language conveying a great deal without any resort to histrionics, her voice carried warmth and humanity to embody Isolde’s healing gift. In Act Two, the effects of the love-potion were manifest in the sound: Braun produced the most meltingly beautiful tone in the middle of range – a reminder that it was the mezzo role of Brangäne that Braun sang very successfully in the 1990s – but she negotiated the upper range with impunity, only occasionally harsh at the top under duress.      […]

[…] Nelsons’s control was as dynamic as ever: the veiled colours with which he painted the tone, the clarity of details, the force with which the great climaxes were built, albeit of necessity unfulfilled, all demonstrated the a sure touch. Ralph van Daal’s cor anglais solos deserves special mention, always well-focused, and particularly beautifully when playing off-stage in Act Three. In the ‘Liebestod’ Braun realised all that is sublime and transcendent in the score, still sounding remarkably fresh and poised. Her ability to shape the phrasing ensured an expressive immediacy both engaging and moving. It set the seal on a memorable evening.”