Spectacular Rachmaninov from Karina Canellakis and the CBSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Franck, Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninov: Cédric Tiberghien (piano); City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 17.5.2017. (JQ)

6/2/14 3:06:39 PM  Karina Canellakis Portraits  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014
Karina Canellakis Portraits © Todd Rosenberg

Franck – Le Chasseur maudit

Saint-Saëns – Piano Concerto No. 5 (Egyptian)

Rachmaninov – Symphonic Dances

Making her CBSO debut at this concert, the young American conductor Karina Canellakis arrived with an impressive pedigree. Her professional career began as a violinist and she spent two years regularly playing in the Berliner Philharmoniker as a member of their Orchester-Akademie. During that time she was encouraged to pursue conducting by Sir Simon Rattle, who is described in her biography as her ‘mentor’. Since taking up the baton professionally she has spent two seasons  (until 2015/16) as Assistant Conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and her accomplishments have included winning the 2016 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award.

Her programme was most interesting, not least in the choice of an opener. Franck’s Le Chasseur maudit (The Accursed Huntsman) is a piece that I tend to associate with conductors such as Beecham and Munch. I may be wrong but I don’t believe it’s played all that often nowadays yet in an introductory note in the programme book Ms Canellakis spoke most warmly of it and proceeded to confirm her enthusiasm through the performance she led. This symphonic poem tells of the retribution visited on a huntsman for having the temerity to skip church one Sunday in order to go hunting. As the story concerns a huntsman the score is, inevitably, peppered with hunting horn motifs and the CBSO horn section audibly relished their moment in the sun. Having decided to forsake his place in the church pews our huntsman is off in pursuit of his quarry. The thrill of the chase was excitingly portrayed by the CBSO with Ms Canellakis acting as Master of Hounds, ensuring that rhythms were tight and urgent. Later, things take a disturbing turn when the huntsman himself becomes the hunted as he’s chased by a pack of demons who pursue him to his doom. All this was conveyed very excitingly in a driven and dramatic performance. Karina Canellakis certainly put the piece across powerfully and the CBSO responded to her direction with playing that was tense and, in the quiet, spooky passages, suitably atmospheric. To judge by their committed performance you’d think that the orchestra played the piece regularly. I’m sure that’s not so, however; I wonder when last they played it. This performance made the case that we should hear it more often.

The Saint-Saëns Fifth Piano Concerto is a work that the CBSO has probably played more recently than Le Chasseur maudit. I think I’m on fairly safe ground in saying that because it was part of a market-leading set of all the composer’s works for piano and orchestra that they recorded with Stephen Hough and Sakari Oramo back in 2000/01 (review). Here the soloist was the French pianist, Cédric Tiberghien. The concerto has been given the nickname ‘Egyptian’ because it is said that Saint-Saëns noted down the main theme of the Andante while on a voyage down the River Nile. The story may well be apocryphal though, as Gerald Larner pointed out in his programme note, the theme in question does derive from a Nubian love song. Whatever the origins of that theme the concerto as a whole has a distinctly exotic air about it, which was well brought out in this performance. The concerto’s music may not be particularly deep but it is consistently interesting and, in the best sense of the word, entertaining.

I enjoyed this performance very much. In the first movement Tiberghien was absolutely on top of all virtuoso demands made by the composer but what I admired even more was his feeling for the lyrical passages. I understand that he and Karina Canellakis performed this concerto together elsewhere earlier this year and this familiarity showed in the extent to which this performance displayed a fine, alert partnership between soloist and conductor. The inventive and beguiling Andante may well have had its origins in a Nubian melody but many of the sonorities in that movement more than hinted at other influences, including Spanish and gamelan music – I believe Saint-Saëns heard a Javanese gamelan at the Paris Exhibition in 1889. This concerto was composed in 1896 but, to be honest, in places the sound world of this middle movement was quite ahead of its time. More traditional virtuosity is required in the finale – and it should be remembered that the composer himself gave the first performance of this concerto.  Cédric Tiberghien, the CBSO with him every step of the way, gave a colourful, dashing performance; the soloist negotiated all the athletic demands of the music with aplomb.

The very warm reception for this performance was eventually rewarded by an encore. Hunched over the keyboard, Tiberghien gave us a superbly and imaginatively articulated account of La Puerta del Vino from Debussy’s second book of Préludes.

In the first half of the concert we heard two very good works. In part two we heard a great work: Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. In his excellent programme note Andrew Huth summed up the work admirably, saying that the three movements ‘contain all that is finest in Rachmaninov, representing a compendium of a lifetime’s musical and emotional experience.” The score makes virtuoso demands on both conductor and orchestra and here the CBSO, ardently and precisely led by Karina Canellakis, rose to the challenge superbly.

In the first dance I admired the weight and bite of the playing in the outer sections. The gorgeous central section is dominated by a choice example of the composer’s trademark bittersweet nostalgic melodies. Here it was introduced soulfully by the alto saxophonist (Mark O’Brien) but just as outstanding as his playing was the supple way with which his woodwind colleagues wove their decorative material around the melody. This haunting passage was beautifully moulded, mainly with her left hand, by Ms Canellakis. When the strings took over the melody, delivering it with yearning sincerity, I admired – not for the last time in this performance – the very natural and idiomatic rubato that the conductor brought to the music. The lead back to the movement’s opening material was decisively conducted as was the reprise of that material. I loved the expressive way in which the violins played the self-quotation from the composer’s First Symphony just before the hushed close of the movement

The second movement is a spectral, uncertain waltz. Who knows what ghosts from his Russian past Rachmaninov was summoning up in this music? The music was ideally shaped and shaded in this performance. It’s marvellously written for the orchestra and Ms Canellakis and the ever-sensitive members of the CBSO brought out all the nuances most effectively. Again, the use of rubato was telling; there was highly idiomatic give and take in the music’s flow. The closing pages call for will o’ the wisp dexterity and that’s just what was delivered. The performance of the final dance was simply superb. This is exciting and dynamic music and as I remarked when reviewing a filmed performance conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, it’s perhaps only when you see a performance that you realize just how very difficult it is to play and conduct. Tonight’s performance had knife-edge precision; the playing combined flair and dash. However, this movement isn’t all about edge-of-the-seat excitement; in the central section Rachmaninov yet again indulged in one of those characteristic dreamy, nostalgic episodes. Karina Canellakis ensured that this section was phrased with just the right degree of romantic ardour while steering admirably clear of self-indulgence. The closing pages, taken quickly but not so quickly that the music sounded at all rushed, were very exciting and Ms Canellakis made sure that the final tam-tam crash was allowed properly to resonate and decay before richly-deserved applause began.

This Rachmaninov performance was a spectacular end to a very fine concert. This was the first time that I’ve seen or heard Karina Canellakis conduct but I was impressed. She proved to be an alert and supportive concerto partner and in the two purely orchestral items she galvanized the CBSO, who were clearly on top form. She makes what I think is her Proms debut conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 5 September in a programme that includes a Bartók piano concerto and Dvořák’s glorious Eighth Symphony: on the evidence of tonight’s concert that will be well worth catching. I hope very much that it won’t be long before we see her back in Birmingham though I suspect her diary will be pretty full.

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and readers who can access the BBC iPlayer can hear the concert for 30 days from the date of transmission.

John Quinn

2 thoughts on “Spectacular Rachmaninov from Karina Canellakis and the CBSO”

  1. Tim Walton, a seasoned concert-goer in Birmingham – and beyond – who keeps assiduous records of the performances he attends has kindly contacted me in answer to the question I raised as to when the CBSO last played ‘Le Chasseur Maudit’. Tim tells me it was on 13 May 1993 in a concert conducted by Lawrence Foster. So a revival was definitely due.

  2. I heard this CBSO on BBC R3’s iPlayer several months back, and I agree with JQ’s assessment. I also heard KC’s Proms debut on iPlayer, and she did well there also. Canellakis does indeed seem to be a conducting talent to watch. She has also made Franck’s ‘Le chasseur maudit’ something of a calling card for her, since she’s led the work with several other orchestras, like the Milwaukee Symphony, and she leads the work with the Utah Symphony next April.


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