Saturday, 21 October 2017
Europe Day Concert stars: progress report
Well, two of the many twentysomethings who made this 9 May in St John's Smith Square the best yet, at any rate (pictured above at the event by Jamie Smith). Our conductor Jonathan Bloxham, now in his second year as assistant conductor to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, set St Paul's Covent Garden alight with the London Firebird Orchestra - young professionals, see here - in one of the two best Beethoven Seventh Symphonies I've heard live (the other was Haitink's with the Concertgebouw, so not bad going). My thanks to John Naulls for stills from his film of the concert, which I've used wherever possible.
And violinist Benjamin Baker, soloist in what turned out to be the first serious Brexit piece, Matt Kaner's Stranded and recently covering himself in glory along with pianist Daniel Lebhardt in the Wigmore Hall, essayed his first Berg Violin Concerto with the enterprising Salomon Orchestra back in St John's Smith Square.
That's Ben above with fellow Kiwi and conductor Holly Mathieson in St John's Footstool after the concert. While I felt that all she could do with her amateur players, given limited rehearsal time, was to keep them together in the Berg - one of the casualties with such a group is dynamic nuance, though Ben's work was assured and beautifully focused throughout - I can't thank her enough for letting us hear Franz Schmidt's Fourth Symphony. I'm totally in love with the E flat major Second after Bychkov's Vienna Philharmonic Prom performance and the subsequent recording- which should be BBC Music Magazine disc of the year if I have anything to do with it (and I do, on the team of judges for the forthcoming awards) -
and so I was looking forward to this.
And it has to be said that what the Salomons do especially well is create the warm, rich kind of ensemble ideal for late-romantic works (boding well if Jonathan can get his way and conduct them in Strauss's An Alpine Symphony next year). The brass are rather splendid, the strings make a cohesive sound and Mathieson seemed in perfect command of the Fourth's stately progress (afterwards, she said tellingly that she realised she'd applied too much rubato in her previous performance of the work - it just goes). Not having heard it on CD for years, nor consulted the programme note, I found it a magnificent, slowly dying beast, briefly rallying in a fantastical scherzo (the least successful movement for the Salomons, for obvious reasons of nimble manouevres). It turns out to be a memorial for his daughter Emma, who had died in childbirth the previous year (1932), but it's also one of the very last flourishes of a vanishing age - only Strauss had more to offer, right up to 1949.
Schmidt was also seriously ill when he composed the symphony, but he lived on until 1939, which is unfortunate since it left him under the shadow of the Nazis in more ways than one. Born in Pressburg/Pozsony/Bratislava - now, of course, the capital of Slovakia, but then essentially Hungarian, as were Schmidt's mother and his half-Hungarian father - he was Mahler's favourite cellist in the Vienna Court Orchestra (though not the leader of the cello section, he played most of the solos). His output is small but everything I've heard is individual and quickly recognisable (not least in the Magyar/Roma gruppetti or turns, more profoundly in the startling harmonic progressions and the catering, in the orchestral works, to what I think of as the Vienna Philharmonic sound).
Unfortunately he got taken up by the Nazis, though seemingly with no desire for it, and left a cantata for them unfinished in favour of two chamber works for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. I can only think that this is why he's been seriously underrated as a symphonist. The Fourth, certainly, doesn't 'whore after the public taste', as Ingmar Bergman put it, and is even uningratiating, but it has total integrity, and I can't thank Mathieson (pictured below) and the Salomons enough for letting us hear it live.
Jonathan Bloxham must take up the baton for Schmidt, too - he's interested - and he has to join Ben in the Berg, with such supreme orchestral musicians as clarinettists Joe Shiner and Greg Hearle, whose sensitivity would be crucial in many of the dialogues with the violin. There was certainly another remarkable partnership on display the previous Tuesday, with Belarus(s)ian cellist Aleksei Kiseliov in Saint-Saëns' First Cello Concerto.
What an adorable and concise piece this is, with its startling central minuet led by muted strings (neoclassicism in 1873!) Kiseliov was so nimble and personable; the orchestra flowed with him to perfection, I have to say that Jonathan as cellist made an even better job of 'The Swan', his encore, at last year's Southrepps Festival, but then Kiseliov was probably knackered by then, and it always sounds better with the original piano accompaniment.
It was a big programme. Must say I was more impressed by the first oboe (James Hulme) than the perfectly good flute in Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, but the woodwind were uniformly fine as before. Soprano He Wu has ideal stage presence but a rather fast vibrato for the line of Leila's aria from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, and though her comedy was spot-on in Offenbach's Doll Song (pictured below) - rhythmically timed eyelash-flutters included - I'm not convinced she's a natural coloratura. One who is, incidentally, Maltese soprano Nicola Said, who moved everyone so much as Martinů's Ariane in the Europe Day Concert, will be singing her first Lucia with Fulham Opera next month.
Beethoven Seven, though, induced the delirium it should. For some, it was too fast in parts, but I admired it all - the second-movement Allegretto needs to remain of a piece with the rhythmic bounce of the other movements - and Jonathan conducted with attaccas for each movement throughout. Mirga, whose Beethoven Five at the Proms has the same freshness and focus, would have been delighted (hope she gets to see the film).
Detail could have been blurred at such speeds but never was; articulation, not all of it as expected, proved flawless throughout. Perhaps a mistake to add an encore downer, Sibelius's Valse Triste, but then Jonathan does like to follow in Paavo Järvi's footsteps. Not his fault if I've heard it too often in the past two months. Still, the exhilaration remained - huge congratulations to all.