Inspired by Mahler – a moving salute by Kenneth Woods and the English Symphony Orchestra

Violinist Zoë Beyers performing the Weinberg Concertino with the ESO and Kenneth Woods. © English Symphony Orchestra

In their latest episode of studio concert series, the marvellous English Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Kenneth Woods focus on twentieth century works inspired by Gustav Mahler

The three main works featured on the episode were written by composers whose fates became entangled with the Holocaust. Two of them, Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann were murdered in Auschwitz, whereas Mieczsław Weinberg managed to escape his native Poland in the early months of the Holocaust, ending up in Soviet Union and facing the hardships of the Stalin regime. 

The programme opens with Mahler’s Das irdische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-1901), in Woods’s a spot-on reduction for voice and chamber orchestra. Grippingly sung by soprano April Fredrick, Mahler’s bleak portrayal of a child starving to death was a forceful meditation, pre-echoing the disasters of the 20th century. 

In our contemporary pandemic context, it is hard not to hear Das irdische Leben as an allegory of the performing arts, globally starving under the restrictions.

Mieczsław Weinberg’s three-movement, folk-rooted Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42 (1948) is an instant charmer, due to its incessant melodic flow, overt lyricism and enchanting harmonies. Despite its lovely appeal, Concertino fell under the shadow of the anti-formalist (and anti-Semitic) campaign of the Soviet Composer’s Union Congress, and remained unperformed in the composer’s lifetime. 

The Allegretto cantabile first movement is based on a theme derived from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944). The uplifting opening movement unravels in the most natural manner, spellbindingly performed by the ESO leader Zoë Beyers, with Woods and the strings providing spirited accompaniment.

A lyrical oasis, the second movement opens with a cadenza, leading to the adagio section for full ensemble. The allegro moderato poco rubato finale follows attacca, providing the Concertino with a brilliant closing, wonderfully performed by Beyers, the ESO and Woods.  

Erwin Schulhoff’ssix-movement Suite for Chamber Orchestra (1921) was first performed in Berlin in April 1922 by the musicians of the Staatsoper. Conceived in the manner of a baroque suite, Schulhoff’s score is built upon dance idioms of the era, as manifested in the matter-of-factly titles of the six movements; Ragtime, Valse Boston, Tango, Shimmy, Step and Jazz. 

Schulhoff’s suite is, quite simply, an outrageously brilliant score. Scored for a salon-type ensemble of solo strings and winds, joined by two horns, trumpet, harp and no less than four percussionists playing twelve instruments, the twenty-minute suite is a feast of delicious tunes, sparkling colours and upbeat rhythms.     

Out of his jazz materials, Schulhoff crafts a score of astounding invention, wholeheartedly endorsed by the wonderful ESO performance with Woods, first released as a part of their New Year’s concert

Be it the riveting drive of the opening Rag or those splendidly nocturnal, moonlit textures of Boston, let alone the gorgeous Tango, Woods and the ESO musicians are ever attuned to the surreal beauty of the score, providing their online audiences with a wondrously dreamy take of the score.

The sheer joy of music-making is tangible in the superb Shimmy, followed by a percussion tour-de-force of Step. The whole ensemble is united again in the closing movement, a spirited Jazz, performed with vigor by Woods and the ESO. 

Kenneth Woods conducting Schulhoff with the ESO at Wyastone Concert Hall. © English Symphony Orchestra.

The programme closes with Viktor Ullmann’s String Quartet No. 3 (1943), in Woods’s orchestration for larger string ensemble, under the title of Chamber Symphony. Written in Theresienstadt, the four-movement quartet contains a dazzling musical universe, condensed in fifteen minutes. 

The music opens with an allegro moderato, rooted in agorgeous valse appeal, clad in riveting harmonies. The mood changes drastically in the presto second movement. Its vehement, almost brutal soundscapes have a shattering effect on the listener.   

The impressive largo slow movement gazes into a wasteland. Woven into fugal textures, the deeply moving sonic tableau builds up to an instrumental requiem of tangible intensity. 

Closing with a rondo-finale, the quartet’s musical tensions are turned into a nightmarish sequence, before resolving into the reappearance of the material from the opening movement.

A compelling masterpiece, Ullmann’s Third Quartet lends itself quite naturally to the extended sonorities of a string orchestra. Woods’s orchestration does not draw attention to itself. Rather, it serves the composer’s original quite idiomatically, especially in a committed, top-class performance as the one recorded here. 

Another case in point of splendid programming, the ESO and Woods Inspired by Mahler programme is a wholehearted salute to the multi-faceted brilliance of the twentieth century music, and to the composers perished in the atrocities of a world bereft of humanity. In memoriam.        

English Symphony Orchestra

Kenneth Woods, conductor

Zoë Beyers, violin

April Fredrick, soprano

Gustav Mahler: Das irdische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (1892-1901, arranged by Kenneth Woods)

Mieczsław Weinberg: Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42 (1948)

Erwin Schulhoff: Suite for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 37 (1921) 

Viktor Ullmann: Chamber Symphony, Op. 46a (String Quartet No. 3, 1943, arranged for string orchestra by Kenneth Woods) 

Recorded at Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, 2020

First released on 27 January 2021 on the ESO YouTube channel

© Jari Kallio


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