Falstaff

Wednesday 13th July, 7.00pm

Programme

  • Verdi  Falstaff, 115′

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Featuring

Tutto nel mondo è burla: “All the world’s a joke”. The final words of Verdi’s Falstaff bring down the curtain on one of the warmest and wisest comedies in all music. What better way to celebrate the Bard than with this uproarious operatic re-imagining of The Merry Wives of Windsor ? A world-class cast joins Edward Gardner to end our season in a burst of laughter and joy.
Sung in Italian with English surtitles
There will be a 20-minute interval after Act 2.

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Review by Rian Evans, Guardian:

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…     “Having marshalled a first-class cast, and in dynamic form on the podium, it was Edward Gardner, in his final appearance as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, who masterminded the occasion, sparky and sparkling from beginning to life-affirming final chord.

In the title role was Ambrogio Maestri, with girth to match his vocal might, and whose authoritative assumption of the fat knight’s persona is internationally acclaimed. Maestri, every bit as magisterial as his name, extrapolated every ounce, no, every gram, of comic possibility from the music, varying his sound from big, booming resonance to mischievous falsetto and bringing lovely variety to the colouring.

Remarkably, this was a performance with neither director nor props, but with Gardner making the action flow so naturally and with such pace as to belie that fact. The singers wore evening dress but, in the case of the men, cleverly subverted, with Lukas Jakobski’s tall Pistola and Peter van Hulle’s shorter Bardolph roughed up to make a classic partnership. The wit and humour of the Garter Inn came over well, both Falstaff’s relationship with his sidekicks and the nature of the man, with his twin obsessions for food and women, manifestly clear. Not only did Gardner get the essential comic timing of this just right – and thus the rest of the opera – but in the part of the Garter landlord, handed Falstaff the bar tab to cue another grand bit of Maestri belly-boasting.”

*****

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Review  by  Richard Bratby, ArtsDesk:

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“Edward Gardner gives the downbeat, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra bursts into Verdi’s great opening guffaw. Enter stage left Graham Clark, as Dr Caius. Enter stage right Ambrogio Maestri, as Falstaff. And before a note has been sung, the audience is laughing. I know that in the post-Dumpygate era we’re not supposed to discuss a singer’s physical appearance. It’s just that everything about Maestri – his stature, his gait, his rolling eyes, his genial manner and his big rubbery smile – suggests that he was born to play the Fat Knight. He simply is Falstaff.

That being so, he’s not merely witty in himself, but the cause that wit is in others. His very presence on stage creates a glow of warmth and good humour. It made an excellent starting point for this concert performance, the final instalment in the CBSO’s Our Shakespeare season.     […]

[…]     And Gardner certainly knows how to assemble a cast. Corinne Winters, as Alice Ford, was a perfectly chosen foil for Maestri: all knowing smiles, flashing eyes and sassy self-confidence, with a voice as bright as it was expressive. Falstaff didn’t stand a chance. Jane Henschel found tenderness as well as a hint of steel as a Mistress Quickly who was very much one of the girls while Clark, Hulle and Lukas Jakobski (Pistola) made a suitably gangly bunch of reprobates; reedy of tone and exuberantly in character (it helped that Hulle is small enough to be physically lifted off his feet and bounced up and down by Maestri).

The darkness of Justina Gringyte’s mezzo as Meg Page was nicely chosen to set off Winters’s soprano, just as Pallesen’s tighter, harder-edged baritone made him a suitable contrast and adversary for Falstaff: a combative figure, with a menacing flash of Iago in his jealous outbursts. And gleaming through it all, Fomina’s sweet, sunlit singing as Nannetta: a luminous performance, which Furness (deputising for an indisposed Allan Clayton) matched in ardour if not sonic beauty.

They played off each other like a dream, and it would be a joy to see this lot together on stage. At times, it really felt like they were – swept along by Gardner’s brisk, fluid tempi and the all-pervading presence of Maestri: whether singing a mocking falsetto as warmly and richly as his great monologues, sitting back and drumming his fingers with a huge, satisfied smirk, or unleashing a truly volcanic surge of black, sonorous tone.”     …

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Review by Mark Pullinger, BachTrack:

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…     “To say that Maestri has made the title role his own is an understatement. He simply is Falstaff, inhabiting his character even without any trappings of costume. His warm baritone filled Symphony Hall with ease, from growling exclamations of “Ladri!” to falsetto impressions of his supposedly enamoured Alice. But what makes Maestri’s Falstaff incomparable is his appetite for the text; he greedily savours every word, inflecting each with distinctive flavour. He is a vocal actor nonpareil. We don’t just laugh at his Falstaff – we laugh with him. We empathise with him too. His hangdog expression and lugubrious “Mondo ladro” as Falstaff bemoans the wickedness in the world struck a chord, I suspect, in many of us. “Everything’s going downhill.” I know the feeling, pal.

Although this concert performance lacked a lot of the visual comedy – Falstaff squeezing himself snugly into a laundry basket, dressing up in his finery to woo Alice, or masquerading as Herne the Hunter – it still radiated good humour aplenty. There were precious few props, but still a sense of drama as singers – performing off-book – entered and exited each scene, although suspension of disbelief was required when Ford and his henchmen, searching for Falstaff, somehow seemed to miss Maestri cowering behind a gerbera! Maestri’s physique du rôle meant he towered over the cowering Bardolph and lifted Alice clean off the ground.

Corinne Winters, in peachy voice, offered an impish Alice, leading Windsor’s ‘Merry Wives’ in their plotting to teach Sir John a lesson or two. Deliciously phrased, Winters’ Alice is the real deal, soaring in ensemble, sighing in mock adoration at Falstaff’s clumsy courting.      […]

[…]     Cast apart, most of the joy came from Ed Gardner‘s assured handling of the orchestra. Verdi’s miraculous score fizzes and teems with detail and the CBSO revelled in it, from double basses scrabbling around like elephants en pointe as the disgruntled Falstaff recovers from his Thames dunking, to wispy flute fluttering skywards in the great ‘Honour’ monologue. Horns whooped their cuckold motif gloriously, gauzy strings accompanied Nannetta’s Queen of the Fairies. Sir Edward Elgar, describing his Introduction and Allegro, referred to its “devil of a fugue”. No fugue is as fiendish, though, as that which ends Falstaff and Gardner kept tight control, each cog ticking away merrily. As Maestri uttered the words “Tutti gabbàti!” (All are cheated), he pointed his finger at every one of us… and we all laughed together.  “

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Review by Alexander Campbell, ClassicalSource:

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…     “The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was on ebullient and scintillating form, enjoying the changing moods and revelling in its part, Edward Gardner leading a fleet and breezy outing, relishing the raunchy, the ethereal and the deliberately overblown passages in equal measure – this was a Falstaff that passed by all too quickly!

The cast was excellent. In the title-role was Ambrogio Maestri, the leading exponent of Falstaff today. Large of frame, and with an impressive and flexible voice, he also has great stage presence and made every syllable of the text brim with meaning… and double meaning. He captured the geniality and the self-delusional aspects of the character perfectly and communicated these in a wonderfully artless way.

Equally impressive was the Ford of Nicholas Pallesen. He has a wonderful sappy baritone, with a ringing top and also much charisma. ‘È sogno o realtà’ was thrilling in its depiction of pent-up jealousy, bewilderment and emotional hurt. He was also very effective in the ensemble passages, always in the picture – and not just because of his dazzling co-respondent shoes!”     …

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Review by Christopher Morley, Critics’ Circle:

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“The CBSO’s concert-season and Edward Gardner’s tenure as principal guest conductor could not have ended on a more joyous note – a scintillating performance of Verdi’s final opera, which had a packed Symphony Hall setting the rafters ringing.

This was a predominantly youthful cast, the Merry Wives themselves (Corinne Winters as Alice Ford, Justina Gringyte as Meg Page) pert and winsome, Nicholas Pallesen’s Ford a blustering, insecure paterfamilias, and Sofia Fomina and Sam Furness enchanting as the young lovers Nannetta and Fenton, who cannot keep their hands off each other.

Other roles were characterfully filled in this lively semi-staging, but most engaging of all were the portrayals of the opera’s two wily schemers, Jane Henschel the resourceful Mistress Quickly delighting in her plotting, and, above all, Ambrogio Maestri as her old mucker Sir John, pompous in his self-esteem and touching in his awareness of his decline.”     …

 

 

 

The Seven Ages of Shakespeare

Wednesday 1st June, 2016, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Programme

  • Nicolai  The Merry Wives of Windsor – Overture , 8′
  • Arne  Songs, 8′
  • Sullivan  The Merchant of Venice – Masquerade Suite, 12′
  • Vaughan Williams  In Windsor Forest , 18′
  • Porter  Kiss Me, Kate – highlights , 12′
  • Berlioz  Béatrice et Bénédict – duet , 10′
  • Purcell  The Fairy-Queen – highlights , 20′

“Sounds and sweet airs, that delight and hurt not…” No-one serves up musical entertainment with a sunnier smile than Nicholas McGegan. And there’s laughter in the air tonight, as he introduces four centuries of musical tributes to Shakespeare: from Cole Porter to Purcell’s all-singing, all-dancing take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Fairy-Queen. In between, there’s Berlioz, Arne… and you’ve heard of Gilbert and Sullivan? Now discover Sullivan and Shakespeare.

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Review by Richard Bratby, TheArtsDesk:

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…     “And when he uses that knowledge – as in the shimmering, whispered closing bars of the duet Vous soupirez, madame? from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict – he can hold an audience breathless. What did work – gloriously – was Vaughan Williams’s cantata In Windsor Forest, a suite of choral offcuts from his operatic version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir John in Love. McGegan’s trump card here was Simon Halsey’s CBSO Chorus: bright, clear and alert, they made each phrase dance as well as sing, relishing the Tudor drolleries of the Drinking Song and providing great glowing arcs of sound in the Bridal Chorus. McGegan and the orchestra responded with a huge Sea Symphony swell.

The best came last: effectively the whole of Act IV of The Fairy Queen, with the three soloists plus tenor Andrew Henley taking their season-themed solos with poise and a rich palette of colours, and the full CBSO – yes, all on modern instruments, and with at least 30 players on stage – playing vibrato-free and drawing from Purcell’s score a range of shades and textures to match any period-instrument band. McGegan, beaming with enjoyment and looking at times as if he was about to start bodypopping, draped violin lines artlessly over Purcell’s melancholy plaints, detonated volleys of trumpets and timpani, and shaped big, dramatic dynamic contrasts. A choir of over 120 in Purcell’s lively little refrains? Well, why shouldn’t we get to hear music this good sound this magnificent, at least once in a while? It’s a celebration, after all. And if this concert proved one thing, it’s that genius is infinitely adaptable.”

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Review by Ruth Horsburgh, Redbrick.Me:

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…      “Nicholas McGegan expertly and energetically conducted the orchestra and chorus with an infectious enthusiasm. There was an abundance of skill on display on stage, with excellent solos performed from all sections of the orchestra. The orchestra performed every piece strongly, with pinpoint accuracy in achieving the softest and tender dynamic to relay poignancy or a wave of sound which triumphantly enveloped the music hall, as was evident in their commanding performance of Sullivan’s ‘The Merchant of Venice – Masquerade Suite’. This effect was also enhanced by the CBSO Chorus, which is made up of, as was said in the programme notes, ‘amateur professionals’. Their skill as a choir was particularly evident in their performance of Vaughan William’s ‘In Windsor Forest’, with sweeping and beautiful melodies filling the auditorium.

There were also vocal solos performed throughout the evening, including a memorable and charming duet of ‘Wunderbar’ from Kiss me, Kate by Cole Porter, between Mezzo Soprano Sandra Piques Eddy and Baritone Duncan Rock. Soprano Fflur Wyn beautifully performed several solos, a highlight being ‘When Daisies Pied’ by Thomas Arne, which epitomised the harmonious relationship between Shakespeare and music, with a call and response ‘Cuckoo’ section. This was then followed by tenor Andrew Henley who sang Arne’s ‘Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun’.

Shakespeare is renowned for his ability to convey the complexities of love and human relationships and this variety was reflected in the performed pieces, from the poignant Berlioz performed by the two soprano soloists to the feisty and amusing ‘I Hate Men’ performed by Piques Eddy. The evening culminated in a united and compelling rendition of Purcell’s ‘The Fairy Queen’.”     …

 

Henry V

Thursday 7th January, 2016, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Programme

  • Strauss  Macbeth, 18′
  • Vaughan Williams  Three Shakespeare Songs, 8′
  • Verdi  Macbeth – ballet music, 12′
  • Walton  Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario (arr. Christopher Palmer), 60′

“O for a Muse of fire…” Shakespeare’s Henry V crammed the Battle of Agincourt into a tiny wooden theatre. Four centuries later, William Walton matched that vision with music that redefined British cinema, and this lavish concert version weaves all the play’s greatest speeches and Walton’s score into a compelling musical drama. Edward Gardner launches our year of Shakespeare celebrations with passionate Shakespearean masterpieces by Verdi and Richard Strauss.

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Available on BBC Radio 3 iPlayer here for 28 days

 

Review by Norman Stinchcombe, Birmingham Post:

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…     “The CBSO Chorus, prepared by Julian Wilkins, performed Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs and excelled in the charmingly delicate Full Fathom Five.

They ended the concert in full cry with the stirring Deo gratias conclusion to Walton’s music for Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V.

Christopher Palmer weaved the film cues, some other Walton filler material and the play’s great speeches into a convincing and moving hour-long Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario.

The narrator Samuel West played the King, the Chorus (and more) switching between swagger and sobriety with ease and delivering a St Crispin’s Day speech that would have made even a pacifist feel like taking up arms.

Gardner elicited playing of equal ardour from the orchestra. Splendid!”

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Review by John Allison, Telegraph:

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As the orchestra closest to Shakespeare country, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra naturally has a role to play in this year’s anniversary celebrations of the Bard. But there is nothing dutiful about its approach to Shakespeare 400: this start of the CBSO’s “Our Shakespeare” season showed it not only getting in ahead of other British bands with its Shakespearean programming, but doing something more interesting than most.

Edward Gardner opened the concert by conducting a great rarity, Richard Strauss’s early tone poem Macbeth. This work’s neglect is not hard to fathom, for it lacks big tunes, but as a study in darkness it is fascinating. Sounding a little as if the midsummer light of Wagner’s Meistersinger had been switched to midwinter, with touches of Tchaikovsky at his gloomiest, this music blows in stormily and seldom lets up. Icy shivers accompany Lady Macbeth’s entry, and the textures run deep. Gardner drew a taut, brilliantly energised performance that showcased the orchestra at its surging best.

Balancing this was the ballet music from Verdi’s Macbeth, an obligatory addition when the composer revised his opera for Paris. Verdi’s sophisticated scoring, evoking supernatural elements, inspired the orchestra to play with colour and bite.”     …

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Review by Sam Chipman, TheReviewsHub:

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…     “Walton’s score was written for the 1944 Henry V film, starring Laurence Olivier – at one of the darkest periods in Britain’s history the film was a propaganda effort commissioned by the government to buoy the national spirit during the onslaught of World War II. From the court in England to Falstaff’s death and the send-off of the troops to the battlefields of France, Walton’s score tells the story vividly, making no attempt to hide in the background, and complements the famous words of Shakespeare. The brass and percussion come into their own during this section of the concert, adding the much needed triumphant feel that rings around the magnificent Symphony Hall, a jubilant performance from all involved. Falstaff’s death features an exquisitely played lower string melody which much resembles a theme from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and a rustic bassoon melody adds a real English courtly feel. Seasoned Shakespearian actor, Samuel West masterfully weaves his way through Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, a performance of real stature and variation. He is compelling throughout, and his St Crispin’s Day speech is a stand out moment, truly rousing. The CBSO make an enormously full sound, leading to a powerful and climactic end befitting of the evening and Shakespeare’s magic.

“In sweet music is such art…” Shakespeare’s work lends itself incredibly well to the musical world, and the imaginations of those that inspired such musical feats – when the words and the music come together a higher emotional plane is reached.”

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Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

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…     “Under Gardner, the orchestra and its chorus made it a vivid enough experience, though, and there was a nicely judged virtuoso performance from Samuel West as the narrator, who took on a variety of roles, from the Chorus to the king, via Falstaff, Pistol and the Duke of Burgundy.

The concert had begun with another rarely heard work, Macbeth – one of the least known of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems. It’s a dark, turbulent piece, without too many memorable moments, though Gardner made its fierce climax impressive enough. There was more Macbeth-inspired music in the shape of a taut, rhythmically snappy account of the ballet from Verdi’s opera, while in between came Vaughan Williams’s Three Shakespeare Songs, insubstantial, but a chance for the CBSO Chorus to shine without the orchestra getting in the way.”

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Review by Geoff Read, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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…     “The Olivier film of Henry V had started as a piece of propaganda in 1943 and thankfully co-producer Dallas Bower convinced the actor that William Walton was the best man to provide the backing score. This combination, together with the later arrangement by Christopher Palmer, lives on in the concert hall and its enactment proved to be the ideal platform from which to launch CBSO’s commemorations to Shakespeare: vibrant music from the conductor and orchestra, patriotic delivery from the narrator. Gardner induced a sense of period colour and mysticism before sheer grandness took over in the Prologue, a royal sensation reinforced by trumpet fanfares (the trumpet section crisply led throughout by Jonathan Holland) and a flamboyant crescendo of the choir. The scene was set, as in the play by the commentator ‘Chorus’, actor Samuel West dramatically entering stage left for ‘O for a Muse of fire’. Elizabethan merry-making and enthusiastic drum rolls (the CBSO percussion section had a busy night) gave way for the bassoon and brass to introduce the corpulent Falstaff, jug in hand, At the Boar’s Head. But the flatulent jester is dead, his heart broken by the king, having been rebuffed by Hal’s ‘I know thee not, old man’ at the end of Henry IV Part Two, the solemn tone of West and the orchestral accompaniment knitting together impeccably. This eventually gives way to the jubilant familiar Waltonesque strains of Embarkation and a resolute ‘No king of England, if not king of France’ from West. The leave Pistol takes from Mistress Quickly in Touch her sweet lips and part seems an Interlude somewhat out of place to me, not being from Shakespearean text. By contrast Harfleur was dominated by the iconic ‘Once more into the breech’ and although no Olivier (who is?) West oozed inspiration and patriotism, fortified by the ranks of the CBSO willing to follow him. After Chorus describes the early skirmishes, Gardner brought a tension to Walton’s swirling dark music in The Night Watch as West portrayed a ‘little touch of Harry in the night’, the lowering of the hall lights and subsequent total extinguishment, adding to the atmosphere. West was at his best for the philosophical and prayer-like Upon the King, verse so appropriate on the eve of such an historical day in 1415, an execution worthy of the stage of Stratford’s Memorial Theatre or London’s Globe. Agincourt and the St Crispian address to the ‘rememberèd…. band of brothers’, the first ‘few’ to whom so much is owed, saw West begin in conversational mood, gradually building up the fervour in his voice to match the exciting loin-girdling score. Mid-battle King Henry has another word with his maker ‘to dispose the day…. how He pleaseth’ and as the battle raged Gardner seemed to squeeze that extra ounce from the strings (well by Zoë Beyers) fiercer than ever amid the Spirit–of-England theme on the brass, leading to an excruciating musical climax. Against the odds Henry is rewarded – West’s ‘The day is ours’ poignantly heard across the hushed auditorium before praising God. The choir gleefully rejoiced with the Agincourt Song, continuing this mood into At the French Court, where the Duke of Burgundy acts as mediator with more beautiful Shakespearian lines; this sentiment made more contextual by the orchestra’s pastoral back-drop that dissolves into a snatch of Cantaloube’s Baïlèro, hauntingly played by the oboe of Rainer Gibbons. In the Epilogue, the French King offers his daughter Kate to seal the truce. Now with something to genuinely celebrate, Gardner and the CBSO let it rip, revisiting earlier Walton themes. Chorus resumes his story-telling role with ‘Thus far…’ relating how for Henry V ‘Fortune made his sword’, the Agincourt Song and ‘Deo gratias Anglia’ wholeheartedly rounding it all off.

A five star send-off to Our Shakespeare.”

 

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Storify by Jennifer, of Twitter comments:

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Mahler’s First

Saturday 28th November, 7.00pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Programme

  • Ives  The Unanswered Question, 7′
  • Bernstein  Chichester Psalms, 19′
  • Mahler  Symphony No. 1 , 56′

“The symphony should be like the world,” said Gustav Mahler. “It should embrace everything.” And from its breathless opening to the roof-raising triumph of its final bars, his blockbuster First Symphony does exactly that. It’s a thrilling showcase for guest conductor Lahav Shani; first, though, our superb Chorus shouts for joy in Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and Charles Ives sets one of music’s most intriguing puzzles.

Brahms’ German Requiem

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Thursday 22nd October, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Programme

  • Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25, K.503, 30′
  • Brahms A German Requiem, 70′

Francesco Piemontesi’s encore –
Unfortunately, Susan Gritton has had to withdraw from the these concerts due to illness. We are grateful to Eleanor Dennis for taking her place at very short notice.
“Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”. Brahms didn’t believe in God, but he did believe in love, and as he grappled with personal tragedy he created a Requiem intended to comfort those left behind. Andrew Manze conducts our acclaimed Chorus in this most tender of all great choral works, while Francesco Piemontesi rejoices in the sunlight of one of Mozart’s noblest concertos.
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Q&A with Francesco Piemontesi in the Guardian “Facing the Music“.

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Review by Robert Gainer, BachTrack:

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…     “Although the Requiem is some seventy minutes long, there was not a moment when I was not fully engrossed. Beginning with some gorgeously resonant bowing from the basses and cellos, Manze created a tension in the acoustic that he shaped, moulded, folded and manipulated perfectly, remaining undaunted by the magnitude of the work nor by the 180 strong assembly of singers and instrumentalist facing him. Indeed, it was remarkable just how much they trusted him, and he held them entirely in the palms of his hands as he coaxed delicate whispers in pianissimo and sucked out the breath from their diaphragms in majestic and unrestrained fortissimo.

The CBSO Chorus were at their very best. I have seen them a number of times and hold them in the highest regard, but in this piece and under Manze’s baton, they excelled themselves. Each section held its own and the distinction between the alto and soprano voices was especially clear. Yet this was not a concert of an orchestra supporting a chorus, or vice versa, but of two ensembles being played as one. At no point were any voices drowned out by the instruments, and each section played in complete sympathy with the others. The timpani (played by Antoine Siguré) was perfectly weighted in the piano passages and thunderous in crescendo, exactly as it should be. The principal flautist (Veronika Klírová) was making some wonderful sweet lyrical songs from her part, and played particularly beautifully in the final few bars of the fifth movement.

The two principal voices of the requiem, a baritone and a soprano, were provided by Mark Stone and Eleanor Dennis respectively. Stone performed admirably, his lower register seemingly sharing some of the same resonance as the bowed basses and cellos in the opening bars of the first and second movements. His diction was excellent and he projected well, making full use of the acoustics in the hall. Dennis was a last minute substitution for soprano Susan Gritton, unfortunately unable to perform due to illness. Dennis sang the part with quite a heavy vibrato which suited the solemn and melancholic mood, and her performance of the fifth movement was one of the highlights of the evening.”     …

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Review by Geoff Read, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

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Although the text Brahms employs for his Ein deutsches Requiem is taken from the Old and New Testaments (plus two verses of the Apocrypha) it makes no reference to Christianity as such. This was intentional, giving the work universal rather than national or sectarian appeal. Indeed, after its premiere in 1869, the composer pointed out that he might well have omitted ‘German’ from the title and substituted ‘Human’. And this performance of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the direction of Andrew Manze on 22nd Oct 2015 was a human one, reflecting the highs and lows of life.

The piece was inspired while Brahms was mourning the loss of his mother and the first movement Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed are they that mourn) very much conveyed a feeling of bereavement. The reiterations of Selig sind from the CBSO Chorus were truly blessed; their variations of the Beatitude couplet offering both soothing sympathy and heavenly solace, emotions smoothly aided at times by the oboe of Rainer Gibbons. It was a superb opener: the German text coming across well whether the voices were in unison, the repeated Getröstet (comfort), or in sequence, Die mit Tränen (with tears). The soaring sopranos on denn sie sollen (for they shall) were inspirational. Manze added a marschemässig to the continuing langsam tempo for the second movement Denn alles Fleisch (For all flesh), Antoine Siguré solidly beating out the rhythm. The music drove forward at funereal pace to the texts of Peter and James, before liltingly celebrating the ‘fruits of the earth’.

After the A Section reprise, Manze strikingly burst forth with a triumphant Aber des Herrn Wort (But the Word of the Lord). Mark Stone was imposing enough as the baritone soloist in the next section Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord make me know) although I thought his words from Isaiah more pleading that prayerful. The sopranos of the CBSO chorus led the way in the popular fourth movement Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How amiable are thy tabernacles). Birmingham is blessed with a richly acclaimed choir, and they once again stole the show on 22nd Oct 2015 with this movement; with Director Simon Halsey seemingly taking a back seat, it was Matthew Hamilton of the Hallé who was credited as Chorus Master, proving he had done his homework well.”     …

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Review by David Hart, Birmingham Post:

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…     “But it’s a hard sing – though you wouldn’t have thought so listening to the effortless, gold plated CBSO Chorus last Thursday – and, if not handled properly by a sympathetic conductor, can be exhausting to sit through. On this occasion, however, it was not.

From the outset a wonderfully hushed opening chorus showed how alert Andrew Manze is to tone and structure which, as the work progressed, acquired an almost symphonic dimension. Admittedly, he couldn’t do much about the contrived conclusion to ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’ (Mark Strong the robustly articulated soloist) or the cloying sweetness of ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (a waltz in all but name, clearly enjoyed by the choir).

And ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’, undoubtedly the most cogently wrought of its seven movements, was contoured superbly well by Manze, with clenched-fist energy at the climax and a thrilling concluding panegyric.”     …

Star Wars

Friday 16th October, 7.30pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Featuring

Programme

  • Newman – 20th Century Fox Fanfare
  • Williams – Star Wars Theme
  • Williams – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace Flag Parade
  • Williams – Anakin’s Theme
  • Williams – Adventures of Jar-Jar Binks
  • Williams – Duel of the Fates
  • Williams – Episode 2: Attack of the Clones Across the Stars
  • Williams – Yoda’s Theme
  • Williams – The Imperial March
  • Williams – Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith Battle of the Heroes
  • Williams – Episode 4: A New Hope Here They Come!
  • Williams – The Cantina Band
  • Williams – Princess Leia’s Theme
  • Williams – Throne Room
  • Williams – Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back Asteroid Field
  • Williams – Episode 6; Return of the Jedi Luke and Leia’s Theme
  • Williams – Parade of the Ewoks
  • Williams – The Forest Battle
  • Encore Williams – The Imperial March

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… John Williams lifted his baton and cued one of the greatest scores in movie history. As the world awaits the launch of Episode VII, conductor Michael Seal, the CBSO and voice actor Marc Silk, who can be heard in the Phantom Menace film, present John Williams’ music from all six Star Wars films, from A New Hope to Revenge of the Sith. The Force is strong with this one!

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Review by Justine Halifax, Birmingham Mail:

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“Breathtaking and spectacular are the only worthy words I can use to sum up a concert staged at the Symphony Hall in honour of the music of the incredible Star Wars series.

CBSO 2015-16 Friday Night Classics: Star Wars proved not only to be an audible treat, one of which the great maestro John Williams himself would be proud of, but a visual delight, too.

With a welcome in the foyer for the arriving audience from both a storm trooper and a sandman, the tone of this memorable evening was set before we’d taken our seats.

This fantastic two-hour concert, performed to a packed hall of both young and old Star Wars’ fans, saw the amazing City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra join forces with the awesome CBSO Chorus.     […]

[…] For me the most spectacular pieces were those that featured the Chorus, including a breathtaking rendition of the Duel of Fates from Episode 1.”     …

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Review by Paul Marston, BehindTheArras:

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IT’s not unusual to hear people leaving City of Birmingham Symphony Hall Concerts saying ‘that was out of this world’.

But this performance went even further, it was out of the universe for Star Wars fans who packed the Symphony Hall to enjoy the dramatic music of the legendary John Williams which adds so much to the thrilling movies.

Many youngsters were there with their parents for the latest Friday Night Classics,  and one man admitted to going down the aisle to Star Wars music….and in full costume.

Williams, a big fan of British orchestras, sent a personal message from Los Angeles thanking the orchestra and conductor Michael Seal for performing so much of his music – written to ‘smack you in the eye’ – and regretting that he couldn’t be in the Symphony Hall for the event.”     …

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Review by Selwyn Knight, TheReviewsHub:

Click here for full review

…     “As the films were originally released through 20th Century Fox, there can be no other way to open than with the 20th Century Fox Fanfare, quickly followed by the Star Wars main theme. This is, of course, instantly recognisable to all, whether fans of the franchise or not. It sounds simple hiding a complex structure. The CBSO effortlessly reproduces the sound and changing moods. They are assisted in this, as ever, by the wonderful acoustics of the purpose-built Symphony Hall, an appropriate home for such grandeur.

Our conductor, Michael Seal, conducts energetically, appearing at times to be using his baton to dig the notes out.

It is astonishing to think that, despite some familial resemblances, the music for each Star Wars film is quite different to the others. There are themes – epic brass motifs, flowing strings, moments of introspection, and a vast variety of tuned percussion giving that slightly unsettling otherworldly feel – but each piece has its own personality. That is especially true of the charming and witty The Cantina Band from Episode 4: A New Hope. A cut-down jazz band featuring guitar and drum kit evokes that smoky jazz club atmosphere while still retaining an element of strangeness, causing smiles to propagate around the vast hall.

Supporting the CBSO is the CBSO Chorus, a vast choir of local people who come together under their director, Simon Halsey, to sing symphonic choral music. Their contribution to Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace and to the stirring and martial Battle of the Heroes from Revenge of the Sith that closes the first half is excellent, if a little surprising to some members of the audience seated behind them as they leap to their feet in unison during Duel of the Fates.”     …

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Review by Mark Newbold, StarWars.com:

Click here for full blog review

…     “Led by conductor Michael Seal, the CBSO started with Alfred Newman’s 20th Century Fox fanfare before launching into the familiar Star Wars theme from A New Hope. Then came one of the many musical surprises of the night as the piece ended not with the A New Hope credits, but with the triumphant end moments of Return of the Jedi. Seal was clearly loving it, encouraging his musicians to take a bow to rapturous applause at every opportunity. His enthusiasm was infectious, feeding the music-hungry crowd and leading them into a selection of themes from The Phantom Menace. “The Flag Parade” was presented in a very unfamiliar arrangement before leading into “Anakin’s Theme” and the “Adventures of Jar Jar Binks.” The City of Birmingham Chorus made themselves known, standing to perform the dramatic vocals from “Duel of the Fates.” In a room like this, with a knowledgeable crowd and an orchestra at the top of their game, it was an exhilarating moment.
CBSO Star Wars concert
Attack of the Clones — surely the most underrated of all the Star Wars scores — was next with Across the Stars, and from there we were treated to “Yoda’s Theme” and the “Imperial March” from The Empire Strikes Back. A perennial crowd-pleaser, “The Imperial March” is certainly the best known Star Wars theme after the “Main Title” itself. Revenge of the Sith was next and once again the CBSO Chorus were used to great effect in “Battle of the Heroes,” sending the audience off to the intermission on a high.”     …

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BBC Prom – Beethoven Symphony No 9

Royal Albert Hall

Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP 0845 401 5045

Sunday 19th July, 7.30pm

Price: £9.50 – £46
Andris Nelsons Marco Borggreve057.

Featuring

Programme

  • Beethoven Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus, 5′
  • Woolrich Falling Down (London premiere) , 15′
  • Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, ‘Choral, 67′

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Due to personal circumstances, Dmytro Popov has sadly had to withdraw from this concert. We are grateful to Pavel Cernoch for taking his place at short notice.

Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony is a celebration of human endeavour, as is his ballet score The Creatures of Prometheus. This is Latvian Andris Nelsons’ final concert with the CBSO as Music Director. John Woolrich’s dark, sardonic contra-bassoon concerto was written for the CBSO’s own contra-bassoonist Margaret Cookhorn.

This concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3

Available on iPlayer here – until 18th August 2015

CBSO Storify here

Chorus Soprano Eluned Mansell writes about performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the BBC Proms with the CBSO”

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Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

Click here for full review

…     “Nelsons’ performance, though – echoing the one he gave last autumn as part of his complete Beethoven cycle in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall – would have been blazingly memorable whenever and wherever it had taken place. There were all the hallmarks that have become so recognisable over the seven seasons he has been in Birmingham, especially the meticulous attention to detail and the knack of making it all seem utterly fresh, combined with an unwavering certainty about what the music’s ultimate destination is. The dynamic range of this performance was huge – the pianissimos intense, the fortissimos immense – whether in the first stirrings of the opening movement, the furious rush of the scherzo or the careful building of the finale, layer by layer, towards its huge choral affirmation, in which Nelsons’ gestures seemed to invite the whole Albert Hall into celebrating along with the CBSO Chorus and soloists Lucy Crowe, Gerhild Romberger, Pavel Černoch and Kostas Smoriginas.”     …

*****

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Review by Richard Bratby, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “At first, it felt understated; but as Nelsons let inner voices sing out, and gave space for the woodwinds and horns to be their gloriously musical selves (has Marie-Christine Zupancic’s flute ever sounded more sweetly, poignantly expressive?), you began to sense a massive, tidal undercurrent of symphonic movement. By the time the CBSO Chorus was blazing with white-hot fervour through Beethoven’s final chorus, the build-up of emotion was almost unbearable. With its glowing sound, cosmic vision and quiet, piercing moments of both pain and joy, it’s tempting to say that this felt like a Ninth filtered through Parsifal – “made wise through compassion”. It certainly proved just how far Nelsons and the CBSO have come together since 2007, and how all the energy, spontaneity, and mutual affection that this orchestra and conductor have shared since day one – and which was pouring off the stage tonight – has matured into a great artistic partnership, cut heartbreakingly short.”

*****

Blog post by Richard Bratby:

Click here for full blog

…     “It was one of those occasions where personal emotion takes precedence over critical detachment – something you’ll only really understand if you’ve been in Birmingham for the last 8 years. I’m not a fan of Beethoven’s Ninth: last night, though, I heard it say something new, surprising and very moving. There’s absolutely no sense that the CBSO / Nelsons relationship has run its natural course – I’ve never seen an orchestra and conductor have so lengthy a honeymoon, and last night’s performance made it sound as if the relationship is only now reaching its artistic peak. The loss of Nelsons is bitterly felt in Birmingham. It’s untimely, to say the least, which made last night a doubly poignant occasion.”

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Review by Sebastian Scotney, ArtsDesk:

Click here for full review

…     “The virtues of Nelsons’s way with Beethoven had been there from the very start of the concert, with the short, early overture to the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. He took it, on this occasion, surprisingly fast. It had humour, sparkle and charm, and made the very most of the contrasts of loud and soft. Nelsons has a way of crouching and reining himself in, of making himself almost invisible in quieter passages, and then presenting audience and orchestra with a far taller and more imposing version of himself when the volume and intensity are higher. The Prometheus overture was just a small-scale foretaste of what would be offered with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The performance of this infinitely complex work seemed to evolve naturally and organically. In the first movement the build-ups from very quiet to very loud were organic, accretive, totally convincing, the sense of landing harmonically always just right. In the second movement Nelsons’s gestures were a delight. Phrases in the minuet seemed to be treated as people, they were welcomed into the room, and waved goodbye. The trio section was expansive, free with tempo, giving soloists – particularly first horn Elspeth Dutch – opportunities to shine. The string section playing in the third movement was delightful, and this was an occasion when the whole movement cohered with nothing wasted.

The final movement with lower strings flawlessly energetic, and later with soloists (Lucy Crowe, Gerhild Romberger and Pavel Černoch Kostas Smoriginas, pictured right) and chorus in fine balance, again showed the strengths of Nelsons’s approach. He knows precisely how to get the best out of an English amateur chorus, by extracting each and every syllable from their mouths. They even got a jokey visual aid for the word “Götterfunken”. The first involvement of the solo quartet, placed in the chorus at the back of the stage, prompted the only brief moment of tempo-uncertainty of the whole symphony.”     …

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Review by Ivan Hewett, Telegraph:

Click here for full review

…     “Then we arrived at the peak itself, Beethoven’s Ninth. In recent years, Nelsons has led the CBSO in an entire Beethoven symphony cycle, which was distinguished by huge, questing energy, as if the music were eagerly searching for its own future. This performance of the Ninth felt different, more majestic and spacious, less concerned to grip us by the throat with sheer rhythmic excitement. The slow movement was luxuriantly slow, and the way each section melted into the next via a change of harmony was beautifully eloquent, like a door opening onto a new landscape. In the Finale, though the jubilant moments were indeed jubilant (thanks to a fine quartet of soloists and the CBSO chorus), it was the reflective moments and impassioned invocation to “join in one embrace, you millions!” which really struck home.”

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Blog post by Mark Berry – Boulezian:

Click here for full post

…     “Nelsons forestalled applause, thank goodness, by moving immediately to the finale. He and the orchestra fairly sprung into and through its opening: very impressive on its own terms, although it would surely have hit home harder, had it been properly prepared by what had gone before. The cellos really dug into their strings too. Nelsons had them and the double basses paly deliciously softly for their recitative; now, a true sense of drama announced itself, expectant rather than merely soft. Bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas delivered his ‘proper’ recitative, ‘O Freunde …’, with almost Sarastro-like sincerity and deliberation. I liked the way the rejection of such ‘Töne’ was no easy decision. The soloists as a whole did a good job; that there remains a multiplicity of options, and dare, I suggest, a residual insufficiency to any one quartet, says more about Beethoven’s strenuousness of vision and humility before his God than performance as such. The CBSO Chorus, singing from memory, was quite simply outstanding. Weight and clarity reinforced each other rather than proving, as so often, contradictory imperatives. Nelsons imparted an unusual sense of narrative propulsion, almost as if this were an opera, or at least an oratorio: I am not sure what I think of such a conception, but it was interesting to hear it, and there was no doubting now the conviction with which it was instantiated. The almost superhuman clarity of the chorus’s words – ‘Und der Cherub steht vor Gott!’ a fitting climax to that first section – certainly helped. It was fun, moreover, to be reminded of the contrabassoon immediately afterwards. (Was that the tenuous connection with the Woolrich piece?) The infectious quality to the ‘Turkish March’ brought with it welcome reminiscences of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. And the return to ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’ proved exultant in that deeply moving way that is Beethoven’s own.”     …

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Review by Melinda Hughes, Spear’s:
Click here for full review
…     “John Woolrich’s ‘Falling Down’ composed for double bassoon and orchestra was written especially for Margaret Cookhorn, the CBSO principal double bassoonist. What a piece, a highly spirited rhythmical onslaught of the senses, and what an instrument, reminiscent of the sounds of the mothership from Close Encounters.With Andris Nelsons conducting this Prom, one could be guaranteed a lively evening. This was his very last concert with the CBSO so it was a fitting farewell. Nelson’s energy and novel expression are very entertaining, yet he can be grand and regal when required, particularly in the hugely sonorous Ninth Symphony. He accentuated dramatic pauses in the music, producing a majestic moments of silence which seemed to fill the Albert Hall. The choir and soloists were in fine voice, particularly soprano Lucy Crowe, whose beautiful timbre simply thrilled me. What a luxurious tone she has. I simply love the Proms.”
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Review by Colin Clarke, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:
Click here for full review
“Andris Nelsons has been Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 2008, and this Beethoven Ninth formed part of his farewell for pastures new – Boston and its Symphony Orchestra, to be precise. The programming was intriguing: two works by arguably the greatest master of them all framed an over-long, inconsequential London première.
The Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus is a slim piece, a mere five minutes. But there is something of the core of Beethoven there, concentrated into a perfectly proportioned morsel. Beautiful orchestral balance, pinpoint scampering strings and razor punch to tutti chords characterised Nelsons’ Beethoven; and promised much for the Ninth of the second half.
But first came the London première of John Woolrich’s Falling Down – a “capricho” for double bassoon and orchestra dating from 2009. The soloist, Margaret Cookhorn, is the dedicatee – she also gave the world première of the piece, which was a CBSO commission – and her way with the long, resonant lines exuded confidence. This could have been such an eye-opening piece, and the Stravinskian element to the opening in particular augured well from the pen of a composer whose music in this writer’s experience has so often been characterised by its greyness. Yet the length of the piece far outweighed its invention. Effects abounded, not least antiphonal timpani, and the way that the lower orchestral instruments, such as cor anglais, tuba and trombones, both supported and extended the soloist. The opening gestures move towards the top of the orchestra’s range, from which the piece descends.”     …
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Review by Nahoko Gotoh, BachTrack:
Click here for full review
…     “The second movement was swift and breezy, in fact too breezy so that the scherzo section lost some of its earthiness, and the contrast between the scherzo and the trio became blurred. Here too, Nelsons took the music in longer phrases, moving the music forward, but so mellifluously that the timpani interjections felt too abrupt. It was elegantly played, with some interesting attention to detail, but was this the “Affekt” Beethoven intended in this movement?
Elegant cantabile playing was certainly intended in the sublime Adagio movement and indeed there was beautiful playing especially by the woodwind and the violins. Nelsons took a decidedly Romantic approach and he micro-managed and shaped every single melody out of sheer enthusiasm, but I felt he pulled around the tempo too much (even in the first clarinet entry at the beginning was delayed for effect). In fact, throughout the work, there were some dynamic contrasts and ritardandi that seemed exaggerated.
The work regained momentum in the final movement, joined by the excellent CBSO Chorus and a harmonious vocal quartet of Lucy Crowe, Gerhild Romberger, Pavel Černoch and Kostas Smoriginas. The opening recitatives by the cellos and basses were fluent and eloquent, as was Smoriginas’ solo entry “O Freude”. Interestingly, in the Alla marcia section, Nelsons avoided bombast, taking a lighter approach and making sure the tenor could be heard over the choral forces. In the vocal quartet, Lucy Crowe’s soprano soared and her top B was spectacular. Nelsons controlled and inspired the massed forces and at one point in the first choral climax of “Freude schöner Götterfunken”, he seemed to turn around to the audience as if to say “join us!”. All in all, it was a warm, passionate and lyrical performance – if lacking a little in interpretative depth – to close CBSO’s magnificent chapter with Nelsons.”

Andris Nelsons’ Farewell Concerts

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Thursday 18th June, 7.30pm

Programme

  • Ešenvalds Lakes Awake at Dawn, 13′
  • Mahler Symphony No. 3, 92′

All good things come to an end. And on what are sure to be emotional evenings, Andris Nelsons has chosen to say farewell to Birmingham with Mahler’s huge, rapturous hymn to nature – both unchanging, and forever renewing. A beautiful new choral work by Andris’s fellow-Latvian Eriks Ešenvalds – jointly commissioned (thanks to support from the Feeney Trust) with Andris’s new orchestra in Boston – brings our orchestra, choruses, audience and conductor together to celebrate seven inspirational years.
Share your memories of Andris’ time with the CBSO
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Support the CBSO
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Andris Nelsons says Birmingham must keep loving the CBSO.

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Farewell Andris – CBSO Gallery, video, etc

Storify here

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Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:
Click here for full review
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     “Lakes Awake at Dawn is scored for SATB choir and a large orchestra and in this performance played for about 10 minutes. In it Ešenvalds sets some lines by the Latvian poet, Inge Ābele in an English translation to which the composer has appended some words of his own, also in English. The score plays continuously but has two clearly defined sections. In the first, the Ābele setting, the music is tense and powerful, depicting, to paraphrase the composer’s own description, “one’s emotional unrest, anxiety, and physical running away from danger at night in a forest.” Nelsons inspired his combined forces to project this music very strongly, creating a potent atmosphere. Ešenvalds’ own words depict the arrival at the consoling safety of a lake. Here the music becomes hymn-like. The writing for both choir and orchestra has great beauty and is initially tranquil though it gradually builds to a majestic climax, retreating thereafter to a soft consonant orchestral conclusion. The piece has great impact – especially in such a committed performance as this one – and its enthusiastic reception by the audience clearly delighted the composer, who was present. […]

[…]

The concluding Adagio opened with wonderfully rapt playing from the CBSO strings; you sensed they were on their collective mettle, determined to deliver one last time for Nelsons – and they did. Nelsons paced the music broadly and generously but though the tempo was expansive there was always a sense that the music was moving forward with purpose: there was a goal in sight. Throughout this movement the orchestra were at the top of their game. Impressive dynamic contrasts were a telling feature of the reading. In the last few minutes there was a true sense that Nelsons was leading his forces to the summit; certainly he drew every last ounce of commitment from the orchestra. He surely knew that the last great D major chord would be followed by an immediate ovation but Nelsons held the moment, his arms aloft, so that no applause intruded until the music had reverberated around the hall and properly died away. Only then did he lower his arms.[…]

[…]

During a prolonged standing ovation Nelsons plunged into the ranks of the orchestra; it seemed as if he shook hands with or hugged most of the players on the platform. After several minutes he gave a disarming short farewell speech in which, typically, he stressed two themes: the CBSO family, including its audience, and a strong plea to the people of Birmingham to cherish their orchestra. And so with this unforgettable performance the Nelsons era came to an end, though it’s not quite the end for he and the orchestra and the CBSO Chorus have one last outing together: Beethoven’s Ninth at the BBC Proms on 19 July. He will be back in Birmingham, I’m sure, as an honoured guest, but for now, with his successor still to be chosen, he leaves big shoes to fill.”     …

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Review by Robert Gainer, BachTrack:
Click here for full review
…       “Ešenwald’s composition was commissioned by both the CBSO and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Nelson’s new home. It was fitting that the great Latvian conductor should have used the opportunity to promote the music of one of Latvia’s best contemporary composers in this UK première. The CBSO Chorus clearly relished the work, projecting their magnificent sound throughout the hall with enthusiasm and diction that made the most of the counterpoints and rhythms. Although a number of the lines from the text were repeated, it was never repetitive thanks to the imaginative and colourful orchestration. At various points I could hear the sound of gulls on the lake coming from the violins, the waters of the lake rippling in sync with Nelsons’ elongated fingers, and the sun finally breaching the horizon to a percussive technique that looked from afar like a string bow being drawn across a xylophone block. Yet this was not ‘experimental’ music, but a mature and innovative composition in its portrayal of both imagery and narrative. I have heard some of Ešenwald’s work before on recording and I have been impressed. Its impact in concert is manifold, and I shall be seeking opportunities to hear his work again. (sic) […]
[…]     

Highlights from the other movements were aplenty. The changes of mood in the third movement were brilliantly executed, with the offstage flugelhorn exquisitely lyrical. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s performance was perfectly measured and supported by some mellifluous French horn playing. The CBSO Youth and Children’s Choruses were enchanting in the fifth movement, maintaining good balance with the adult chorus and bringing joyous light relief after the profundity of the fourth movement. In the final movement Nelsons, who had conducted with passion and energy throughout and sometimes jumping on the spot, seemed to get renewed strength and there was a palpable response from the musicians as the finale built to its emphatic conclusion.As Nelsons cut the final thunderous chord his arms remained aloft, motionless and statuesque. Two thousand two hundred lungs simultaneously suspended their breath. Not until the sound had completely faded away after a prolonged pause did he move. Only then did the audience exhale, rising spontaneously as one in a standing ovation that went well past the point of hand hurting.

 

So, what is it that Nelsons has with the CBSO that they find so difficult to replace? Personal chemistry. Despite the risks, the CBSO is right to hold out until they find such chemistry again before appointing Nelsons’ successor.”    

*****

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 Review by Fiona Maddocks:

Click here for full review

…     “A hundred minutes is a long time to be on the edge of your seat, but Nelsons kept us there throughout this epic hymn to man and nature.

During his time in Birmingham he has made his mark with resplendent Wagner and Strauss, electrifying Beethoven and a shoal of world premieres and recordings. The orchestra, trained for 18 years by Simon Rattle and for a decade by Sakari Oramo, was already on fine form. With Nelsons they have discovered a new freedom of expression. This reflects the qualities of this warm-hearted musician from Riga, not yet 40, who encountered his first opera – Tannhäuser – aged five, cried when the hero died, and decided to become a conductor.

Nelsons working his way round the entire CBSO to say his goodbyes.

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Nelsons working his way round the entire CBSO to say his goodbyes. Photograph: Neil Pugh

The Ešenvalds work, Lakes Awake at Dawn, recalls a dark event in Latvian history – June 1940 – when a mass Soviet deportation to Siberia forced thousands to flee their homes and spend a fearful night in the forest. After an explosive start, the work achieves a radiant calm as dawn arrives. The writing is tonal and ecstatic, immediate in impact rather than radical. Commissioned both by the CBSO and Boston, where it was premiered last year, it was a thoughtful prelude to the Mahler, troubling more for its subject matter than its harmonies.

Nelsons has always shaped every phrase and nuance – unlike, say, Barenboim, who sometimes drops his arms altogether and leaves his players to get on with it. Edging towards the precipice with his fascination for detail, Nelsons somehow always holds the work secure and intact. This was true in the half-hour-long first movement of the Mahler. Colours and effects stood out as if for the first time – the burbling bassoons, the military wind-band mood of the high E flat clarinets. (“Yes, Mr Mahler has E flat clarinets on the brain,” sniped a Viennese critic, one of many who questioned the composer’s sanity when the work was new.)

Watch the CBSO’s farewell video.

Using a full avian repertoire of gestures, Nelsons shifts from gawky wet crow to elegant flamingo to shrinking sparrow to, in the limitless melody of the final movement, a giant kite gliding freely in space. His players, never knowing what might happen next, are ever alert. Check out the CBSO’s tribute video, and see him waggle his hands behind his ears to conjure a brass trill. Boston will enjoy him, if they can keep him.”     …

*****

Andris Nelsons’ Farewell Concerts

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Wednesday 17th June, 7.30pm

Programme

  • Ešenvalds Lakes Awake at Dawn, 13′
  • Mahler Symphony No. 3, 92′

All good things come to an end. And on what are sure to be emotional evenings, Andris Nelsons has chosen to say farewell to Birmingham with Mahler’s huge, rapturous hymn to nature – both unchanging, and forever renewing. A beautiful new choral work by Andris’s fellow-Latvian Eriks Ešenvalds – jointly commissioned (thanks to support from the Feeney Trust) with Andris’s new orchestra in Boston – brings our orchestra, choruses, audience and conductor together to celebrate seven inspirational years.
Share your memories of Andris’ time with the CBSO .
See the final rehearsal pictures of CBSO with Andris Nelsons here
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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post
Click here for full review
…     ” “Please continue to love this orchestra; I feel almost guilty that I am leaving,” were Andris Nelsons’ parting words to the packed audience gathered for his final concert in Symphony Hall as music director of the CBSO after seven amazing years. […]
Sticking with these supposedly slighter central movements, Michaela Schuster was the Erda-like mezzo soloist in the “O Mensch, gib Acht!” Nietzche setting, joined by the ebullient CBSO Chorus Ladies, sounding delightfully youthful, and Julian Wilkins’ remarkable CBSO Youth and Children’s Choruses for the medieval exuberance of “Es sungen drei Engel”.

Full marks to the youngsters for their exemplary attentiveness throughout such a long concert. And so to the top and tail.

The opening movement, nature stirring into life, was persuasively delivered under Nelsons, his conducting gestures constantly alert and choreographic (one of his CBSO predecessors, Boult, would not have approved), balancing colour, dynamics and multi-metred textures always with the most detailed clarity.

World-stopping is an appropriate word for the finale, and some conductors might make its melodic/harmonic richness sound glutinous. Nelsons gave it a flow and sense of direction, growing at last to the tremendous affirmation, two timpanists pounding out the most fundamental of musical intervals (nice to welcome back Peter Hill as an old-stager — trumpeter Alan Thomas was another), as Mahler’s vision of the world was at last achieved.

This finale’s gorgeous melody has a phrase initially sung out by Eduardo Vassallo’s cellists, and it sounds hauntingly like the tune of the old song “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places”.

Sorry, Andris, we won’t. But we all wish we were.”

*****

Review by Ivan Hewett, Telegraph:

Click here for full review

“Andris Nelsons, the brilliant Latvian conductor who’s led the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra these past seven years, is departing for Boston. It seemed appropriate that, to say their farewells, he and the orchestra chose to play the most colossal symphony in the repertoire, Mahler’s 3rd.

Andris Nelsons may not be particularly big in stature, but on the podium he seems like a giant. He leans forward eagerly as if to scoop the sound from the players, sculpting it with huge embracing gestures.

This might seem domineering, but what makes Nelsons’ music-making so humanly appealing is that the music possesses him, not the other way round. That inspires the players as well as us. “He catches your eye to enthuse you, then lets you do things your own way,” said one of the wind players, one of several orchestral members who gave spoken tributes to Nelsons from the platform.

These followed the 12-minute curtain-raiser, a setting of two poems for chorus and orchestra by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds about cold Siberian lakes, and hope arising even in the dead of night.”     …

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Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

Click here for full review

…     “Some conductors ease their way into what is the longest of all Mahler’s symphonies, but that is not Nelsons’s approach. The CBSO horns delivered the opening theme like a challenge, setting the stage for a performance that bristled with combative energy, and the kind of vivid incident that Nelsons finds in everything he conducts. There was some tendency to compartmentalise things, to micro-manage detail at the expense of the overall symphonic scheme, which mattered more in the 30-minute opening movement than it did in the later ones where Nelsons regularly sought out the sinister undertow to the music, whether in the faster sections of the second, or the nature imagery of the third, despite the escapist dream offered by its offstage posthorn solos.

But the finale was very much all of a piece, and it built to a final, gloriously assured affirmation; the sense that every section of the orchestra was determined to give its music director the best possible send-off was quite obvious.”     …

Parsifal

Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Sunday 17th May, 3.00pm

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Featuring

Programme

  • Wagner  Parsifal, 306′

“In this realm, time becomes space”. Wagner’s Parsifal tells of the knights of the Holy Grail: a story of truth, suffering and redemption, set to music so beautiful that it pierces straight to your very soul. Andris Nelsons has been hailed around the world as one of the finest Wagner conductors of our time: this concert performance of Wagner’s final opera should be transcendent.

The approximate running times of Acts 1, 2 and 3 are 118’, 63’ and 75’ respectively.
There will be a one-hour interval after Act 1, and a 30-minute interval after Act 2.

Storify audience reaction to Parsifal here

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Review by David Karlin, BachTrack:

Click here for full review

…     “Individual vocal phrases were also brought through with the full richness of their character. When Burkhard Fritz’s Parsifal cries out the he feels Amfortas’s wound, we feel the stab of heart-wrenching pain. When Mihoko Fujimura’s Kundry tells us that she is forever cursed because she laughed at Christ, her scream of “ich lächte” rips through the hall. At the end of Act II, he tells Kundry that she knows where she can find him, his near-whisper drips with derision.

Acts I and III are the domain of the elderly knight Gurnemanz, and Georg Zeppenfeld gave a performance of exceptional lyricism, bringing out the fundamental kindness and nobility of the man with a timbre that is smooth and powerful all the way down to its lowest notes, and phrasing that continually added splashes of sympathetic colour.     […]

[…]     Fujimura’s powerful mezzo achieved just as much smoothness and control as Zeppenfeld, spanning the far greater emotional range demanded by her role. Fritz excels at the heldentenor technique for long notes, in which a single note develops in colour and dynamics as it progresses. His attractive voice transmits great feeling for this music.

The supporting cast were uniformly impressive. Wolfgang Bankl sang Klingsor with much power and venom, employing a lot of parlando in a way that provided a total contrast to Zeppenfeld’s lyricism. James Rutherford gave us particularly well-rounded phrasing as Amfortas, while Paul Whelan’s Titurel, sung from high above the orchestra near the organ, was especially powerful. Amongst a fine set of flower maidens, Erica Eloff was especially notable with a voice that soared high above the orchestra.

But the performance’s high point came from Nelsons and the orchestra. The music in Act I for Parsifal and Gurnemanz’s ascent to the Grail castle was delivered with an immense degree of measured power. It’s music of incredible rapture whose effect was even palpable on the performers: Fritz could be seen blinking back the tears in his seat.”     …

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Review by Andrew Clements, Guardian:

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…     “There is urgency, spaciousness and radiance in Nelsons’ approach, and a total understanding of how the climaxes of both of the outer acts build like series of overlapping waves of ever increasing amplitude. The CBSO played out of their skins for him, as if all too aware of what they will lose when he steps down in two months’ time. The Transformation Music in both acts had spine-tingling power and grandeur, the Good Friday Music sustained lyrical beauty, and the choral set pieces, with the CBSO Chorus making full use of Symphony Hall’s spatial effects, had fabulous clarity and precision. Perhaps the numbed prelude to the third act was less bereft, less intensely tragic than some great conductors make it, but in Nelsons’ hands it was still intense and mysterious.

Despite its swan shooting, magic garden and hovering spear, not to mention time becoming space, Parsifal loses less in a concert performance than most operas, and this was not simply a sumptuous orchestral and choral treat. The soloists were outstanding, every one an experienced, totally assured Wagner singer, and the drama was fiercely etched. Burkhard Fritz was Parsifal; he was a little stolid in the first act, perhaps, but gained steadily in presence until his assumption of authority in the final scene became utterly authentic. Georg Zeppenfeld was the Gurnemanz, noble, never histrionic and making every word of his first-act narration crystal clear. James Rutherford was Amfortas, stoically resilient in his great lament. And while there was nothing remotely vampish about Mihoko Fujimura’s Kundry in the second act, her control, even beauty of tone, and musical poise proved startlingly effective alongside Wolfgang Bankl’s fiercely stentorian Klingsor.”     …

*****

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Review by Alexander Campbell, ClassicalSource:

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“This fleet, magical performance of Wagner’s Parsifal in the warm generous acoustic of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall was one with the highest musical values allowing those present to revel in glorious playing and singing without the distractions of a director’s ‘know it all’ interpretation. From the start of the Prelude the CBSO produced playing with sheen and bite, with warm string sound, punchy brass and some superlative playing from the woodwind soloists. Using the spatial possibilities of the Hall to maximum advantage the off-stage chorus was above and behind the bulk of the audience, and the off-stage brass behind the stage. The tricky integration of the Bells of the Grail Temple was superbly realised. The atmosphere when the composer’s intentions were properly considered and realised was about as perfect as one could imagine.

Andris Nelsons’s Wagner was alert and energetic, yet the sense of architecture and purpose felt unerringly correct. It was also very dramatic and intelligent. The Prelude was an instance, where the initial appearance of the chorale associated with the rituals of the Grail Knights had an indefinable coolness to it, perfectly delineating their spiritually uncertain state. Only in the final pages of the entire score did these themes finally get the full glow as Parsifal takes control and harmony is restored. Likewise Klingsor’s restless motifs were very obvious in the first Act where he does not even appear. In the middle Act there was sensuality with a touch of detachment – again perfectly appropriate.”     …

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Review by Peter Quantrill, ArtsDesk:

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…     Fujimura, too, had the unique ability to fill the hall without great apparent effort: there is a rounded, vatic quality to her dramatic mezzo which suggests that it is coming to the listener at the end of a long tunnel. As Gurnemanz, Georg Zeppenfeld most nearly approached her authority, with a scrupulous use of the text to lift his lengthy narratives, and a gently resonant, bell-like bass that fell easily on the ear. Rutherford’s Amfortas also sounded well in the hall, and comfortable, too much so to leave more than a neutral impression of compromised kingship.

The effort to do more than sing must be considerable under the antiseptic conditions of a well-lit concert hall, but Fujimura made it, seemingly with the prop of her Bayreuth experience foremost in mind, since the Kundry of this first act was no wild woman but a stern governess fully in charge of James Rutherford’s Amfortas while simultaneously in thrall to forces of arrogance and shame she is only beginning to understand, knowing rather than wounded in her retort to the impertinent squires (sung by Alexander Sprague and Edward Harrisson), “Are the beasts here not holy too?” Chemistry with her saviour and master in Act Two was never confined by her imagination but by the limited responses of Fritz, and the stolidly sung, gruffly presented Klingsor of Wolfgang Bankl.

Without yet having led a performance from the pit – that time will surely come, and soon – Andris Nelsons has a clear vision for the piece, at least in the first two acts, and after eight years as Music Director, he has the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra right at the end of his baton: the orchestral response was remarkably prompt, and in a neat accelerando back-out of Act One’s communion scene to the knights’ dispersal, he conducted with progressively smaller beat to bring everyone together with him. He is well prepared to pull around the tempo rather than plod through recitative,”     …

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Review by Anna Picard, Spectator:

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…     “The pristine acoustic of Symphony Hall was intrinsic to the numinous sonority of on and off-stage voices and instruments in Acts I and III and the raw tumult and refined sensuality of Act II. From the purity of ‘Durch Mitleid wissend, der reiner Tor’ to the steady glow of redemption at the close, Nelsons and his players and singers balanced expressive urgency and expansive musical architecture. Words and music combined to extraordinary intensity, with the simplest phrases among the most powerful — Amfortas’ ‘Wehe! Wehe!’, Kundry’s ‘Dienen, dienen’. This was an outstanding cast, from Burkhard Fritz’s tireless Parsifal to Mihoko Fujimura’s tormented Kundry, James Rutherford’s gleaming Amfortas, Wolfgang Bankl’s snarling Klingsor, Paul Whelan’s sepulchral Titurel, Georg Zeppenfeld’s humane, understated Gurnemanz and the beautifully supple sextet of Flowermaidens. The silence at the end, held in the splayed fingers of Nelsons’ outstretched hand, was electric.”

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Review by Geoff Brown, The Times (££):

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…     “And the CBSO Chorus, as always, sang with perfect togetherness and hearts of oak.

On the podium Nelsons continually leapt from his seat to press the score’s surges of ecstasy or the sublime. Yet every phase and detail seemed part of an organic whole, driven along by a conductor and splendiferous orchestra in perfect sync, at least for a few more weeks.”