Saturday, 18 May 2019

Visitors in fine form: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla at the Dresden Music Festival

Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and the CBSO
Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and the CBSO
Ligeti, Schumann, Brahms; Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, Kit Armstrong, City of Birmingham Orchestra; Dresden Music Festival at the Kulturpalast Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 May 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The Birmingham orchestra on terrific form under its music director on this visit to Dresden

It is some years since I heard the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and I had not heard it under its new music director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, and so the opportunity to do so at the Dresden Music Festival was most welcome, though the irony of travelling from London to Dresden to hear an orchestra from Birmingham was not lost on me.

The planned programme for the CBSO and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyle at the Dresden Music Festival at the Kulturpalast on Friday 17 May 2019 had been Ligeti's Concert Romanesc, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5 with Yuja Wang, and Brahms' Symphony No. 2. But changes in personnel led to changes in repertoire, and instead of Prokofiev we heard Schumann's Piano Concerto with Kit Armstrong as soloist. A safe if unimaginative choice of work.

Ligeti's Concert Romanesc dates from the 1950s when he was still living in Hungary, and whilst it pushes few boundaries it remained unperformed until 1971. It is very much a rhapsodic work based around Romanian folk-songs. In four movements, slow, fast, slow, fast, at first Ligeti presented the folk melodies with little modification, unisons and counter-melodies were a big feature, but gradually the imagination took off and the folk-fiddling of the finale brought things to a close with vivid excitement. Grazinyte-Tyla and the orchestra really made this work a showpiece, from the superbly phrased unison at the opening to the dazzling finale.

Though each section of the strings lost a desk of players for the Schumann concerto, the orchestra was still a little too large to be ideal in this work. Kit Armstrong took a very interventionist view of the piece, making many of the piano statements in the opening movement too artfully poetic for my taste, rather holding up the flow of the argument and giving the feeling that he was overly milking the music in a way that Clara Schumann (who premiered and championed the concerto) would surely have disapproved. [The recording of the concerto by her pupil Fanny Davies, the closes we can come to Clara herself performing it, should be essential listening for every young pianist - see on YouTube].

Kit Armstrong brought quite a light touch to the second movement, creating some nice dialogue with the orchestra. But even here his playing felt too artful, too interventionist and did not flow. The finale was suitably joyous despite quite a steady tempo, but Armstrong's approach seemed to miss something too, perhaps his approach to the articulation of the music. The orchestra did a fine job of making the large band into a responsive instrument, and the orchestral tuttis were engaging in a way that the solo wasn't always.

It was illuminating hearing Schumann and Brahms on a modern band having heard Schumann's Symphony No. 1 played by the Dresden Festival Orchestra the previous night [see my review]. For Brahms' Symphony No. 2 the full 56 strong string section returned. There is no doubt that the orchestra played brilliantly for Grazinyte-Tyla and is a superb instrument. The beautiful unanimity of phrasing of the strings (particularly the cello section in the glorious passages in the Brahms), and the sense of vital engagement from the whole orchestra was superb.

But do you actually want Brahms to sound like this? In the orchestral tuttis the sound was all strings and more, with the wind very much to the rear. Only when the strings quietened down did the wind emerge. Frankly, I prefer the approach of Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with a smaller, lither string section [available from Amazon].

Grazinyte-Tyla took quite an interventionist approach to the music. Individual passages were shaped and crafted, creating a striking series of moments rather  than an overarching architectonic feel. The opening movement moved from delicacy to passion and drama. As I have said, one of the highlights was the phrasing from the cello section in their big tune. In the second movement we again appreciated the cello section, this movement built slowly, delicate at first before we reached the real drama. The wind section brought great charm to the opening of the third movement, quite gentle and not fast, whilst the answering passage on the strings brimmed with energy. The finale opened light and transparent, then we were off full of robust vigour. A couple of moments even sound alarmingly like Mahler (the symphony premiered when the younger composer was 17). It finished with gripping, blazing excitement!

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Dresden Music Festival 2019
    • Three continents, three composers, one concerto - festival debuts its 2019 commission (★★★) - concert review
    • Visitors in fine form: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (★★★) - concert review
    • Visions of the original sound: colour, texture & timbre to the fore in the opening concert of the 2019 Dresden Music Festival (★★★) - concert review 
  • Incredibly informative & inspiring: Charlotte Bray discusses her mentor Oliver Knussen in advance of her piece in his memory at the Aldeburgh Festival - interview
  • An English Vespers: Rachmaninov from the Tallis Scholars (★★★) - concert review 
  • Rough for Opera - Speak Red, A Father is Looking for his Daughter, Dreaming Clouds - opera review
  • A young man's passion: Julian Prégardien & Erik Le Sage in Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe (★★★★) - CD review
  • Far more than choral virtuosity: Handel's Israel in Egypt from the BBC Singers & Academy of Ancient Music (★★★★½) - Concert review
  • French inspiration, spectacular scenery & classical music: I chat to festival director Christoph Müller about this year's Gstaad Menuhin Festival  - interview
  • Brainwaves and modernism: the Ligeti Quartet explores consciousness at Kings Place (★★★) - concert review
  • Telemann from Toulouse: music for strings in stylish modern instrument performances (★★½) - CD review
  • A huge undertaking: Busoni's Piano Concerto recorded live in Boston - Kirill Gerstein, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo - CD review
  • Palpable enthusiasm & engagement: An English Coronation from Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli & Gabrieli Roar (★★★★) - CD review
  • The old ethos and a new professionalism: celebrating Garsington Opera at 30  - interview
  • Youthful Verdi revealed: a lithe and impulsive I Lombardi from Heidenheim (★★½)  - CD review
  • Home

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