Kazuki Yamada Leads the CBSO in a Tremendous Performance of Manfred

21/02/2019

Schumann, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky: Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 20.2.2019. (JQ)

Kazuki Yamada

Schumann – Manfred Overture, Op.115

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.3 in C major, Op.26

Tchaikovsky – Manfred Symphony, Op.58

Kazuki Yamada was appointed as the CBSO’s Principal Guest Conductor at the start of the 2018/19 season and tonight was his second Birmingham concert with them in that capacity. His association with the orchestra goes back to 2012 and among engagements since then he has taken them on tour to his native Japan. I don’t recall that I’ve seen and heard him conduct before but if this concert typifies his work then I’m not surprised the CBSO wanted to enlist him with a formal appointment.

Proceedings opened with Schumann’s Manfred Overture. This overture was part of some incidental music to Byron’s play that Schumann composed in 1848 and it’s the only element of that music that is heard with any regularity today. Yamada led a spruce and lively account of the piece and I liked the clear and unflashy way in which he conducted it. However – and I speak as a Schumann admirer – while on paper the prospect of hearing two Manfred works looked to be an interesting piece of programming, I came to wonder if the overture was not something of an intruder in this context. For all its musical merits it was rather overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s substantial Manfred depiction. Furthermore, the music didn’t really have much in common with the Russian works on the programme. As a practical point, the inevitable platform rearrangement for the concerto meant a delay after the overture. Perhaps it would have been better to omit the Schumann. I noticed a few tiny slips of ensemble during the performance and I wonder if, with two highly demanding works on the programme, the overture had lost out a bit in terms of rehearsal times.

The Ukrainian pianist, Alexander Gavrylyuk joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto; this was his CBSO debut. I see that he impressed my colleague, Rob Barnett when playing the Rachmaninov Third concerto at the BBC Proms in 2017 (review) and the Prokofiev, though shorter, proposes an equally stern challenge to a pianist’s technique. There was no doubting  Gavrylyuk’s capacity to meet the challenge head on and to surmount it with relish. Thus, for example, in the first movement he and the orchestra brought Prokofiev’s bright, vibrant colours vividly to life and impelled the music forward with great rhythmic drive. The last few pages, in particular, brought pianistic fireworks. But there was more to Gavrylyuk’s playing than technical wizardry: the tranquil passages in the movement were beautifully done, yet even here he – and Yamada – maintained palpable tension.

The central movement – I hesitate to refer to it as the ‘slow’ movement – takes the form of a theme followed by five most ingenious variations. The music ranges widely, starting with the theme itself which seems quite innocent, but the succeeding variations take the theme in all sorts of directions – and guises. The movement requires great technical and interpretative skill from soloist and conductor alike if Prokofiev’s demands are to be met successfully and if the music is not to come across as a set of disjointed episodes. The performance struck me as wholly successful on all counts. There’s a good deal of virtuoso piano writing in the finale but the movement is dominated by an aching, soaring melody, so typical of the composer. This melody is drawn from the same melancholic lineage that we find in Rachmaninov. Prokofiev gets the orchestra to introduce it – which the CBSO did in fine fashion – but then, cunningly, he doesn’t immediately develop the tune; he makes his listeners wait. When it returns, therefore, its impact is all the greater and this oh-so-Russian melody was given full value by both Gavrylyuk and the orchestra. Gavrylyuk displayed stunning virtuosity in the whirlwind conclusion to the movement. Indeed, in the closing bars his hands seemed to me to be just a blur. This performance – of the whole concerto, not just the finale – was something of a tour de force. I greatly admired Alexander Gavrylyuk’s playing but Yamada and the CBSO also played their full part in the success of the performance.

Though Alexander Gavrylyuk must have been tired after the Prokofiev he gave in to the ovation and played an encore. Wisely, he chose a piece that would take the temperature down. In view of the reminders of Rachmaninov in the concerto finale I was pleased that he selected a short piece by that Russian master: an arrangement of his Vocalise. I see that Gavrylyuk chose the same piece to follow his 2017 Proms performance of Rachmaninov’s mighty Third concerto. The Vocalise, which he played with wonderful poise and delicacy, is the perfect foil to either the Rachmaninov or Prokofiev Third concertos.

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is a work I’ve long admired, ever since I first encountered it, fully fifty years ago, in a recording by Yevgeny Svetlanov, which was red in tooth and claw. It dates from 1885; thus, it falls between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies. It used to be dreadfully neglected, probably on account of its length – this performance played for 59 minutes – and its extreme difficulty. The forces required may have been a deterrent too: in addition to a very full complement of strings, woodwind and brass, there were two harps and five percussionists – plus the timpanist – on parade tonight and Tchaikovsky adds an organ part for good measure, right at the end. Happily, it seems that the symphony’s musical worth is now being recognised and it’s more frequently heard and recorded than was the case when I first got to know it.

The last time I attended a live performance was in 2013 in this very hall when Andris Nelsons and the CBSO gave a magnificent reading of it (review) that was later released on CD (review). I very deliberately did not listen to that CD in the run-up to this concert but my memory of the Nelsons performance is vivid and I can say that Yamada’s account of the symphony was in no way inferior.

The opening made a great impression, the CBSO strings satisfyingly weighty as they countered Manfred’s theme on the bassoons and clarinets. Right from the outset it was clear that Yamada had a firm grip on the score. His conducting was clear, committed and engaging throughout and though his gestures were often sweeping and exhorting, the gesticulations always seemed pertinent to the music and there was a welcome absence of any histrionics. There was passion a-plenty in the performance of the first movement but Tchaikovsky also included many restrained passages that require considerable finesse and these were convincingly delivered. I was mildly – but only mildly – disappointed with the way Yamada brought the movement to its close. The strings dug in impressively to play Manfred’s theme with great passion. It’s a hugely exciting passage but two things could have made it even better than it was. Yamada paced the passage a little bit more swiftly than many conductors I’ve heard; just a fraction more breadth would have made the music even more impassioned. Also, the baleful interjections from the trombones were not quite strong enough to cut through as they should do. However, with the CBSO in full cry – the percussion sounded terrific – this coda still shook Symphony Hall.

The second movement finds Tchaikovsky at his most delicate. The music portrays the appearance to Manfred of the Alpine Fairy and the score is full of chattering writing for the woodwind which is very demanding. The CBSO woodwinds came into their own here, playing with great dexterity. The middle of the movement – the trio section, in effect – features a long, rolling melody, the song of the Alpine Fairy. This was winningly played, the music as relaxed and graceful as Yamada’s gestures. Partway through this passage I relished the warmth with which the violas sang out Manfred’s theme; I’m not sure I’ve heard that done better. At the end, the music, like the Fairy, simply vanished into thin air.

The pastoral third movement was beautifully done. Here, the CBSO’s playing was finely detailed and admirably nuanced, not least the challenging woodwind parts. This movement is full of vintage Tchaikovsky and under Yamada’s encouraging leadership the CBSO gave a conspicuously fine account of it.

Then, for the finale, we were plunged into the underground realm of the evil Arimanes. This is a no-holds-barred movement, requiring swaggering virtuosity and pinpoint precision from all concerned. That’s just what we got. The first four minutes or so were absolutely electrifying, the playing incisive and hugely committed. Rhythms were strongly articulated. Yamada’s conducting was highly animated – but sensibly so – and the CBSO’s collective response to him was superb. When, after a short calmer passage, the orgy was resumed with a fugal inception the CBSO offered edge-of-the-seat playing. It was all highly compelling. Compelling also, but in a very different way, was the poignant and tender passage where Manfred has a final vision of his beloved Astarte. Here, the playing was wonderfully refined, the contribution of the harps particularly telling. The reprise of the first movement’s conclusion piled on the pressure, culminating in the interjection of Symphony Hall’s mighty organ. Arguably, the organ was a little too mighty; it did rather overwhelm what else was going on in the orchestra. However, the quiet conclusion to the work was poetically and satisfyingly achieved.

This was a tremendous performance of Manfred. Kazuki Yamada conducted it magnificently, with evident total belief in the score. The CBSO gave him playing of the highest order: indeed, I don’t think I’ve heard the orchestra sound quite as good for a while. On this evidence, the orchestra has made a wise choice of Principal Guest Conductor.

The programme book, excellently produced as always, included a splendid note on the symphony by the late Gerald Larner, who died in December. His expert and perceptive notes have frequently graced the CBSO’s programmes. It was good that tonight’s programme included a very sincere tribute to a fine writer on music by Helen Tabor, the CBSO’s Publications Manager, who worked with Larner for many years. Had he been able to hear it, I’m sure he would have been thrilled by tonight’s account of Manfred, about which he wrote so well in his note.

John Quinn

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