The UK Premiere of an Intriguing and Fascinating Piece by Osvaldo Golijov

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Borodin, Golijov, Shostakovich: Eduardo Vassallo (cello), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Alpesh Chauhan (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 9.3.2016. (JQ)

BorodinPrince Igor – Polovtsian Dances

Osvaldo GolijovAzul (2006) (UK premiere)

Shostakovich – Symphony No. 15 in A major, Op 141

Apart from the attraction of the enterprising programme I was keen to attend this concert to see in action for the first time the CBSO’s Assistant Conductor, Alpesh Chauhan. Birmingham-born Mr. Chauhan, who is in his mid-twenties, is now in his second year in this post and I’ve heard a lot of good things about him. He certainly can choose an interesting programme.

We began with the Polovtsian Dances.  In any purely orchestral performance of this music the absence of a chorus is to be regretted. However, the orchestration by Rimsky-Korsakov means that there’s no shortage of colour.  There was no lack of impact in tonight’s performance. Chauhan conducted many of the dances with the necessary verve and energy. However, he also made the most of the lyrical opportunities and he conducted the Maidens’ Dance, with its famous tune (‘Stranger in Paradise’) with sympathetic flow; principal oboe, Rainer Gibbons introduced that melody most persuasively. Later both the General Dance and the Boys’ Dance were delivered with what I can best describe as disciplined abandon. The CBSO played these dances extremely well. It’s not often that you hear members of the audience cheer the first item on a programme but that happened here.

After the Borodin a considerable amount of platform rearrangement was necessary before we could hear the UK premiere of Azul by Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960). This was because space had to be created around the conductor’s rostrum not only for the solo cellist but also for the obbligato group. This consists of an accordion and two percussionists. The latter, who were augmented by a third player for part of the piece, play a large variety of unusual and exotic instruments. The obbligato group and the soloist were amplified, though the amplification seemed pretty discreet to me. A large orchestra, including more percussion instruments, is required. A note in the programme indicated that the string sections should be arranged in a particular way; I may be wrong but it seemed that, in fact, the layout of the strings was conventional during this performance.

Azul was commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 125th anniversary and first performed by them with Yo-Yo Ma at Tanglewood in August 2006 with Donald Runnicles conducting. Robert Kirzinger’s programme note told us that Golijov had deliberately not set out to write a conventional concerto. Rather, he “chose to eschew bombast for contemplation”. Kirzinger added that “among the various ways the composer has thought about Azul is as a 21st-century Baroque adagio, such as those by Handel or Bach. In fact it is the French Baroque composer Couperin who, as in others of [Yo-Yo] Ma’s pieces, stands as a model.”

For this UK premiere the solo part was played by the CBSO’s long-serving (since 1989) Argentinian principal cellist, Eduardo Vassallo. By a pleasing piece of symmetry Alpesh Chauhan, himself a cellist, is a sometime pupil of Mr. Vassallo, as he amusingly reminded the audience while helping his soloist to adjust his music stand before the performance began. (“I was his student: some things never change.”)

The work, which played for about 27 minutes in this performance, is in one continuous movement but divided into two sections. In the opening paragraphs the music was slow-moving and included long, high, soulful melodic lines for the soloist. The percussionists and the accordion supported the soloist with ear-tickling sounds; certainly Golijov’s sound palette is ingenious. I may be wrong but it seemed to me that for long stretches of the work Chauhan’s beat was largely a moderate 4/4, suggesting that Golijov does not here rely on frequent changes of metre, as is so often the case in contemporary music. But even if the pulse was fairly regular there was still considerable interest in the writing. At times, when the orchestral accompaniment had swelled to quite a significant level there seemed to me to be a Latin American feel to the music which I couldn’t quite identify. After the performance the penny dropped when my guest said he had detected a (benign) infludence of Villa Lobos. I agree, though the influence may not have been deliberate.

The second section began quietly with more sustained and intense lyrical writing for the soloist, this time against a rhythmically irregular accompaniment among the orchestral strings. Gradually the music grew in power and suggested to me a threnody. After a short cadenza-like passage for the soloist a remarkable passage of fast, vigorous music began. This was played by the soloist and the obbligato group. The soloist’s music was energetic in the extreme but it was the percussionists who really caught the eye –and the ear. They impelled the music forward with tremendously vital rhythms, deploying the full range of their assembly of instruments. At several points one of the percussionists was required to contribute wordless vocalizations. It was both fascinating and exciting to witness – I’m not entirely sure the section would have quite the same impact if experienced just through an audio recording. Eventually the orchestra joined in the frenetic dance. Then the music slowed and the accompaniment became quiet and warm though the cellist’s lines seemed plaintive. During the remaining minutes of the piece the music glowed though eventually Golijov introduced more dissonance, albeit not in an aggressive fashion. The piece reached its conclusion amid a welter of glissandi from the soloist and orchestra which gradually faded into silence.

On a first hearing Azul is an intriguing and fascinating piece which I should very much like to hear again. Sadly, there is no commercial recording so far as I know though a performance by Yo-Yo Ma has been uploaded to YouTube. It’s always difficult to judge when one is hearing a complex new score for the first time but it seemed to me that Eduardo Vassallo gave a very fine and assured account of the demanding solo part while his CBSO colleagues supported him magnificently, ably directed by Alpesh Chauhan.  Both work and soloist were very warmly received.

After the interval we heard Shostakovich’s last symphony. This is an enigmatic and compelling piece and it received a fine performance here. The first movement was brisk and biting. It is said that Shostakovich described this movement, with its occasional quotations from the William Tell Overture as a “toy shop at night.” Chauhan’s direction of the piece suggested that the toy shop might be a rather scary environment – I wondered if bully-boy toy soldiers were abroad. The CBSO played the music with great virtuosity though it seemed to me that perhaps Chauhan’s direction was a bit too breathless. Perhaps if the tempo had been just a fraction less brisk the music might have registered even more successfully.

At the start of the slow movement the brass chorales, which recall the Eleventh Symphony, were ominous and sombre. There’s a crucial role here for a solo cello and Gregorio Robino delivered these passages with great eloquence, his tone full yet desolate at the same time. This movement is gaunt and spare and there’s no hiding place. Chauhan and his orchestra sustained the tension expertly and the great climax, when it appeared out of nowhere, was full of menace and power. The deliberately raucous woodwinds made a telling contribution to the scherzo in which the composer’s sardonic, mordant humour is to the fore. Here the playing was agile and biting.

The concluding Adagio-Allegretto, with its Wagner quotations, is the most enigmatic part of the symphony. What, for example, are we to make of hearing the violins play what seems to be a three-note motif from Tristan only for that motif to become, in effect, the upbeat to a long, rather graceful original melody? This difficult movement was played very well indeed and I felt that Chauhan maintained a firm focus throughout. He built the music very well towards what was to be the composer’s last towering symphonic climax. After a reprise of the violin melody the music fades in an extended coda that, particularly in the writing for percussion, recalls the Fourth Symphony. I felt that the percussion were perhaps a bit too ‘present’ at times in this coda but that was a minor issue in a very successful performance.

On this evidence the reports I’ve heard about Alpesh Chauhan are fully justified. He is likely to have a significant career ahead of him but I hope he will stay with the CBSO for some time to come. That’s an arrangement which would surely be beneficial to all parties.

John Quinn    

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