Thursday, 22 August 2019

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - wit and subversion in Weinberg, Knussen and Elgar

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla - photo : Isabelle Casez

Ever welcome, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra  Prom 46, - Mieczysław Weinberg's Symphony no 3  (op 45, 949-50, rev 1959),, Elgar's Cello Concerto(with soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason), Oliver Knussen's The Way to Castle Yonder and Dorothy Howell's Lamia.
Dorothy Howell (1898-1982) was born in Birmingham, so a fitting choice for the CBSO. Her Lamia  was premiered at the Proms by Sir Henry Wood in 1919, and repeated several timnes, as recently as 2010.  Quite an achievemnt for such a young composer - again proof that female composers weren't always "neglected" until the recording industry re-aligned repertoire to suit the mass market.  Even if you didn't know the mythological references, you can hear the "maritime" character of Lamia in the  swelling lines, surging and retreating like the tides. It's not La Mer or A Sea Symphony but a tone poem which many a better known composer of the time would have been proud of. 

 The dream combination in this Prom would have to have been Sheku Kanneh-Mason playing Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor op 85 (1919) - evergreen music and a fresh new talent. Kanneh-Mason shot to fame when he played at the Royal Wedding, but he's good enough to merit the attention he's getting.  Though he's young, but then, so was Jacqueline du Pré! Intuitively, she responded to the bittersweet pathois in the piece, bringing out its emotional depth and dignity. Those who think Elgar was bombast and jingoism don't know their Elgar at all.  In the Cello Concerto, we can ponder why Richard Strauss thought so highly of Elgar. Both were men who revealed their innermost sensitivity to those who understand.  The richness of the CBSO enhanced the poise of Kanneh-Mason's playing: a fine performance, enlivened in the final movement and its assertive panache. 

There was purposeful insight behind that wit and whimsy. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra seem to have constructed this Proms programme around Mieczysław Weinberg's Symphony no 3  (op 45, 1949-50, rev 1959).  Not surprisng at all, since  Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO have made a speciality of Weinberg's music.  Their ground breaking recording of Weinberg's Symphony no 21 ("Kaddish") was recorded during an in-depth Weinberg weekend in Birmingham  with Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, who have done so much to promote the composer in recent years. That recording is an absolute must even to those for whom Weinberg is new. Please read more about that here because it is outstanding.

Nonetheless, Weinbrerg is hardly unknown. He was championed by Shostakovich, Rostropovich, Oistrakh and Soviet era conductors like Mvravinsky, Kondrashin and Barshai.  Seek and ye shall find! Chandos has made a whole series of good Weinberg recordings, including Symphony no 3 with Thord Svendlund, currently the market leader, though Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO might set new standards.  Originally drafted in 1949-50 the symphony came in conflict with the policies of the Stalinist cultural tsar, Andrei Zhadanov. "formalism" ie art music, was denounced in favour of music that suited the state - safe, conservative, "folkloric". By 1959, when he revised the piece, Stalin and Zhadanov were both dead, but Weinberg still had to tread carefully.  

The symphony is in four movements, beginning with an expansive, pastoral Allegro, a Belarussian folk melody creating a cheerful mood. which suddenly descends into a more ambiguous coda, perhaps a hint that not all here is sunshine and joy. A merry flute theme introduces the second movement, answered by pizzicato strings and wild, exuberant strings. The orchestra dances - circular flourishes, based on Polish folk dance, but yet again the flute broke free, leaping over the lower winds and percussion, the coda more restrained : the first movement in wilder form. The Adagio was quieter, long, searching lines, darker timbres giving the final section gravitas.  In the allegro vivace, the pattern of darker, more mysterious endings came to the fore.  No ambiguity here - peace is broken by a strident fanfare -"Soviet heroes on the march ? Horns and trumpets rang out, punctuated by percussion, but the whimsical wind theme would not be suppressed.  The symphony ends on an ostensibly upbeat note, but is Weinberg, as so often, disguisng individualism behind a happy smile? 

Thus the logic of Gražinytė-Tyla's pairing Weinberg Symphony no 3 and Oliver Knussen's The Way to Castle Yonder, connected to his opera Higgelty Pigglety Pop!  The opera starts with a Pig-in-Sandwich Boards offering ham sandwiches to those in the audience too young to appreciate the irony. The sandwiches also serve to keep the kids occupied when Jenny the Sealyham Terrier sings a long, sophisticated aria,wondering if there's "More to Life". Jenny cannot get a job in the Mother Goose World Theatre until she gets “experience” whatever that might be. Logic is the enemy of imagination!  Knussen fills the music with loony cross-references, like bits from Tchaikovsky and Mozart, barbershop quartets, brass bands evoking circuses. all woven into his distinctively intricate multi-layers. (please read more here about the production at Aldeburgh and at the Barbican)  Though Sendak wriote the book for children, the sensibility in it is anything but childish. Knussen, with his instinct for the surreal, and for dark humour, turns the book into an opera that adults can get lots from, if they try. Gražinytė-Tyla understands - Knussen, Weinberg and even Elgar have a lot more in common than meets the eye. 

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