United Kingdom Mozart, Abrahamsen, Tchaikovsky: Barbara Hannigan (soprano); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/ Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.8.2016 (JQ)
Mozart – Overture: The Magic Flute
Hans Abrahamsen – let me tell you
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No 4 in F minor
Back in January I saw Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla lead an exciting concert with the CBSO as a guest conductor (review). Tonight when she strode onto the stage at Symphony Hall it was as the orchestra’s Osborn Music Director, appearing with the orchestra for the very first time in that capacity. The concert was sold-out and there was a palpable buzz in the air beforehand.
In a brief but engaging online video, posted by the CBSO, Miss Gražinytė-Tyla made it clear that the programme had been designed with care; it was ‘about future, past and present.’ The Abrahamsen work had been chosen in recognition that ‘one of the very important goals of the CBSO’ is to be involved in contemporary music. There was an element of sentiment in the choice of a Tchaikovsky work since excerpts from his Sleeping Beauty had featured in her very first concert with the orchestra in July 2015. As for Mozart, she commented in the film that there are ‘pieces and composers which we need like bread and water.’
The Mozart performance was interesting in several ways. A smallish orchestra was used in which the violins were divided left and right with the violas on the right of the seconds and the celli on the left of the firsts. The three double basses were behind the firsts and celli. Most tellingly a pair of what I suspect were quite venerable hand-tuned timpani was used. The impact of period practice was much in evidence; vibrato was restricted and the orchestral sound was bright, keen and lean. Accents were sharply observed – perhaps too sharply on one or two occasions. The division of the violins paid significant dividends. This was a very dynamic and dramatic performance and there was no doubt whatsoever that Miss Gražinytė-Tyla had galvanized the orchestra from the first downbeat, not least through her very clear, dynamic beat and encouraging left hand gestures. For my taste the performance was a little too hard driven at times but there was no doubting the urgency and commitment of the performance.
The choice of Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you was a bold one in several respects. For one thing, this remarkable score is a challenging piece for both performers and listeners alike. In addition, it’s a score that is closely associated not only with tonight’s soloist, the Canadian soprano, Barbara Hannigan but also with Miss Gražinytė-Tyla’s illustrious predecessor in Birmingham, Andris Nelsons. I think I’m right in saying that Nelsons conducted the work’s first performance and he subsequently brought it to Birmingham to give the UK premiere with the CBSO. He and Miss Hannigan have made a wonderful live recording of the work and it was reading the review by my MusicWeb International colleague, Leslie Wright, that first alerted me to the piece and led to me acquiring a copy of the disc myself.
let me tell you is a setting for soprano and orchestra of extracts from a poetic novel written in 2008 by the British writer and music critic, Paul Griffiths. Leslie Wright described the piece thus in his review of the CD, from which I quote with his permission. As he explains it, Griffiths’ novel has an intriguing construction, ‘utilizing only Ophelia’s 481 spoken words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ophelia is the narrator and tells her own story. The words do not follow the order in the play, but Ophelia beautifully describes her relationship with her father, brother Laertes and Hamlet. The extracts Abrahamsen chose are not explicitly concerned with Ophelia as protagonist but with her memory, time, light and nature. The result is a poetic song-cycle in three parts containing seven verses, three in the first part and two each in the second and third parts. The first part concerns Ophelia’s past and begins with ‘Let me tell you how it was’; the second part, the present, begins with ‘Let me tell you how it is’; and the last part, the future, in which the first stanza ends with ‘Let me tell you how it will be’.’
The orchestra assembled was the largest used during this concert though I should say at once that Abrahamsen uses the instruments with great sensitivity. The layout of the string choir, now enlarged, was the same as we’d experienced in the Mozart. I’d only previously heard the music via CD and it was fascinating to hear it live, not least because the performance emphasised how demanding the music is not just on the soloist but also on the orchestra, from whom great technical control is required, especially in the many stretches of quiet music. In the delicate opening to Part I, scored for piccolo, celeste and violins Miss Gražinytė-Tyla’s beat, dynamic in the Mozart, become much more restrained and subtle. Here and throughout the performance she showed a most impressive and effective care for texture and balance.
As for Barbara Hannigan’s singing, it was quite astonishing. Abrahamsen makes demands on his soloist that are almost unreasonable at times – though Miss Hannigan was closely involved in the composition process, I understand. Every challenge, not least those which involved the extreme registers of her voice, was met with compete assurance. There are many things that I admire about this work but one of them is the nature of the writing for the voice. Abrahamsen requires his soloist to deploy quite a number of vocal effects during the piece. However, unlike many contemporary composers, at no time does he expect his soloist to do anything other than sing. In other words, there’s nothing outlandish or ugly in the vocal writing.
Barbara Hannigan displayed extraordinary control and technical accomplishment during this performance. Furthermore, this was a performance that engaged totally both with the music and with the audience. Part II is the section of the work that uses the largest orchestral forces and there were a number of times when the accompaniment rather drowned the soloist – that’s not a criticism of the orchestra, by the way. Part III is simply spellbinding, the music slow-moving and rapt. This is music of the utmost refinement and eloquence and it received here a performance that was completely worthy of Hans Abrahamsen’s extraordinary musical imagination. The whole of let me tell you is a wonderfully imaginative creation but the invention and inspiration reaches a peak in Part III. It was a tribute to the quality of both the music and the performance that the audience was clearly absorbed in the performance. Both Hans Abrahamsen and Paul Griffiths were present and they, as well as the performers, were most warmly applauded. let me tell you is an extraordinary score and I was thrilled to experience it live. My only hope is that now that Barbara Hannigan has so successfully launched the work other sopranos will take it up so that it establishes the secure pace in the repertoire that it deserves.
After the interval we were on familiar territory once again with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony for which the layout of the strings reverted to the traditional scheme with all violins on the conductor’s left and the celli and basses on her right. It was appropriate that this piece should pay a part in launching the CBSO’s new era because I read in the programme that the symphony was included in the orchestra’s first-ever concert, in September 1920, two months before the orchestra’s official first concert.
Tonight’s performance was fantastic. The Fourth is my favourite among Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies (including Manfred) but it’s actually a while since I heard it. This performance reminded me forcibly why I like it so much. The opening fanfare was a bold declaration. Thereafter the performance had many passages of fiery drama. Here, Miss Gražinytė-Tyla often impelled the music forward with huge, scything beats, a technique that certainly got results. Yet whenever the music demanded it the drama yielded, often in an instant, to grace and delicacy; there were copious subtleties in this performance. There was one passage mid-way through the movement when I wondered if the tempo had been eased back just a bit too much. Yet even at this slower speed the extraordinary tension of the performance was maintained so any criticism was stifled. It was an ardent, gripping account of the movement and in the coda the playing, which had been superb throughout, became absolutely electric.
The Andantino was introduced by a lovely oboe solo (Rainer Gibbons) which set the standard for much delectable playing from the CBSO woodwind section – at the end of the movement the tune comes back to the bassoon and Luis Knodel matched Gibbons’ fine playing. We needed some relaxation after the urgency of the big first movement and this cultivated account of the slow movement hit the nail on the head. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla moulded the music with affection and finesses. The famous pizzicato passages of the Scherzo were delivered with great precision – I loved the suppressed tension when Tchaikovsky’s dynamics were soft. Later the woodwind and brass matched the precision and character of the strings.
The finale, taken attacca, was as fast and brilliant as I’d expected. But to describe the performance simply in those terms would be grossly unfair for amid the festivities there was further evidence of this conductor’s attention to detail. One example occurred within the first couple of minutes where the woodwind have a succession of chords, each marked with a crescendo. Each and every one of these crescendi was individually cared for by Miss Gražinytė-Tyla. It sounds like a small point but it isn’t; these chords can go for nothing – or very little – in the excitement of performance but here they made their mark yet without any feeling of exaggeration. The performance as a whole was thrilling and when the ‘Fate’ motif returned the theme blazed out from the CBSO’s brass section – which was on collectively fine form throughout the evening. The ending was exhilarating as Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla whipped the orchestra to an electrifying conclusion.
Predictably this superb performance was greeted by a huge ovation and after several minutes of highly enthusiastic applause Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla emerged once more onto the stage but instead of coming back to the podium she climbed the risers at the back of the stage, picked up the music stand in front of one of the CBSO’s percussionists and led him, triangle in hand, to a much more prominent position on the platform from where he proceeded to play a key role in the short, witty encore which I couldn’t initially identify but now understand – thanks to the comment sent in below – was from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.
I have to report that Miss Gražinytė-Tyla then faced a first-night mutiny. The orchestra resolutely refused her requests to stand, insisting instead that she should take a bow by herself. This gesture suggested that the orchestra has already formed a strong relationship with their new music director but, frankly, that was evident throughout the evening in performances of commitment, skill and freshness. The orchestra repeats this programme at the Proms on Saturday 27 August. It will be broadcast live on Radio 3 and recorded for television transmission in early September so a much wider audience will get an early chance to experience this new musical partnership in action.
So, the Mirga Era has been well and truly launched in Birmingham. Buckle up: I think we’re in for an exciting ride.
For more about CBSO concerts visit https://cbso.co.uk/whats-on.