Bold, Imaginative Programming for CBSO’s Successful Nordic Night in Coventry

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rautavaara, Sibelius, Grieg: Klara Ek (soprano), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė -Tyla (conductor). Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, 13.2.2019. (CP)

Mirga Gražinytė -Tyla (c) Vern Evans

RautavaaraCanticus Arcticus – Concerto for Birds and Orchestra

Sibelius – Rakastava; En Saga

Grieg – Incidental Music to Peer Gynt

Bird songs pervaded the Butterworth Hall at Warwick Arts Centre for the first of two similarly programmed back to back story rich concerts by  the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its Chorus. Music from Scandinavia and the Baltic States is the programme brief with works by Rautavaara, Sibelius and Grieg.

Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, Op.61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra) was first recorded in 1972. The vital recording of the arctic terns, shore larks and other bog birds was probably transcribed to a 78/45rpm record or, at best, tape. Now the control is with a strategically placed sound engineer in the stalls with an iPad! Working well with conductor, Mirga Grazĭnytė-Tyla, and, with the first two of three movements completed, an unexpected mobile phone bird song tone caused the sort of hiatus Mirga handles with aplomb. So, with great charm, acknowledging the arrival of the winter visitor, she moved quickly to the third movement.

Rautavaara disliked tradition and saw this commission by a Finnish University as the opportunity to set his face against custom and practice. Throughout the work the orchestra responds to the bird sounds, sometimes imitating them, at other times challenging them as they did with the noisy flocks of swans as they migrate in the third movement, leaving just a lone harp and percussion. It is quite a story beautifully told, with the recordings dovetailing with those CBSO strings of such remarkable clarity.

Coming from Lithuania, conductor Mirga has a special connection and affection for works from the Baltic and applauds the CBSO Chorus for their success in overcoming the phonetic challenge of the Finnish language. Jean Sibelius enrolled at a Finnish school at the age of 7 and soon became fixated by the Finnish text from Book I of the collection of folk poetry, Kanteletar.  From this emerged the 1893 original choral piece for male voices, Rakastava (The Lover) arranged for mixed choir in 1898. Chorus master, Julian Wilkins, prepares the CBSO Chorus of 120 by providing the required language coaching. The 120 rewarded Wilkins’s efforts with a magical performance of this enchanting work; fine sopranos and bass singers who would find a place in any Baltic-based chorus.

The theme of an evening of stories is developed still further with Sibelius’s En Saga, Op.9 (A Story). Quite what the story is remains open to question. However, this is an extremely atmospheric work bringing CBSO’s horn section into the limelight, followed by the gorgeous bassoons and later giving huge encouragement to the tuba to increase the intensity of the piece. Throughout, Oliver Janes’s clarinet playing is spellbinding. Mirga duly acknowledged his efforts at the end of this haunting piece. It would be an alert listener who decodes Sibelius’s thinking by deciphering the accurate story. For many the work remains a fine example of the composer’s early state development.

Grieg’s Incidental music to Peer Gynt brings Norway into the Baltic arena with a remarkable story of the most outrageous, high spirited character – a seducer, an ostentatious individual, but not a great wit. The selected ten small pieces performed began with incisive crisp clarinet and flute playing of a Nordic sunrise before leading viola player (Chris Yates) interrupted with a syncopated folk song theme. Soon it is time to involve the CBSO Chorus again and ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ receives the attention it deserves, reaching a dramatic conclusion as Mirga drives everything to its limits. The piccolo-led ‘Arabian Dance’ and ‘Anitra’s Dance’ brought soprano Klara Ek to the platform.  Soon she was back again to sing the fragile lyrics of ‘Solveig’s Song’. She was joined by the CBSO Chorus for the ‘Whitsun Hymn’ for their last most enjoyable contribution to an event illustrating a remarkably bold and successful programming approach by CBSO.

Clive Peacock

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