Twenty young composers capture the zeitgeist in Birmingham, plus the best of January’s classical concerts

Millicent B James - Aphra Hiscock
Millicent B James - Aphra Hiscock

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall ★★★★☆

Among the many artistic spectaculars derailed by the pandemic was the CBSO’s celebration of its 100th anniversary with no less than 40 specially commissioned works. Twenty of these were by emerging composers, and it was only yesterday, more than two years late, that they finally received their premieres. The orchestra under conductor Clark Rundell performed them with incredible concentration and stamina.

Listening to 20 brand-new pieces in succession - even if they’re only four minutes long - is a tall order, but fortunately what could have been an endurance test was actually a pleasure. They were enormously wide-ranging in style, from angular modernism to (in the case of Simmy Singh’s Lament for the Earth) a keening folk-like quality. There was hardly any echo of the ‘grand old men’ of British modern music, apart from a hint of Harrison Birtwistle’s stark, sinister musical mechanisms in Laurence Osborn’s The Biggest Thing I’ve Ever Squashed, and a glow of Michael Tippett’s dancing rituals in Angela Elizabeth Slater’s beautiful Unravelling the Crimson Sky.

One thing the pieces effortlessly surmounted was the modernist shibboleth that an orchestral piece can contain fascinating sounds, close to electronic music, or familiar melodies and harmonies, but not both. The very first piece, Benjamin Graves’s FanFare offered both with cheerful insouciance, the stark familiar sound of the bare fifth at the opening suddenly turning deliquescent, like a Dali watch.

Though modernist complexity was rare, the driving motoric rhythms of American minimalism were often heard. Liam Taylor-West’s Turning Points and Nathan James Dearden’s Anthem harnessed them to drive towards a massive conclusion, while in Millicent B James Come Show Them the River, a constant pulse on silvery bells coloured a text about self-healing from Avatar: The Last Airbender, sung with gospel-ish intensity by the composer.

Capturing the zeitgeist was much in evidence. Chloe Knibbs told us she wants to “reframe societal issues” through “lyricism and vulnerability”, and her piece String Bilateral certainly had an anguished tender quality. At the opposite pole of exuberant aggressiveness was Florence Anna Maunders’s In the Land of Hypocrisy, which excoriated the corruption of political life in an enjoyably furious mélange of distorted evocations of many styles.

Standing aside from this percussion and harp-drenched sound-world was the Bourrée by Finnish composer Joel Järventausta, which stood out for its extraordinary tuba-and-bells sonorities and its feeling of aloof ritual. The most purely affecting piece was Yfat Soul Zisso’s A Standing-stone. Against a troubled tense harmony in the strings the composer sang a drooping lyrical song about the need to “hold it together”. Some would describe its simplicity as gauche; I would call it daring, and moving. IH

Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, with the LSO under Gianandrea Noseda - Mark Allan
Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, with the LSO under Gianandrea Noseda - Mark Allan

LSO/Noseda, Bar

bican ★★★★★

If your idea of a good concert includes a healthy balance of light and dark, troubling depths and easygoing lightness, you would have found Thursday’s concert by the London Symphony Orchestra seriously challenging. It was an evening of unremitting emotional intensity, most of it dark and tragic, from start to finish.

But it’s one of the glorious paradoxes of art that sadness and suffering can become magically transfigured, and even elevate the soul. So it proved at this concert, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, the Italian conductor for whom unremitting intensity is bread-and-butter. In the opening performance of Beethoven’s Coriolan overture – inspired by the Roman hero who betrays his country, has agonies of conscience and dies at his own hand – he made a lunging gesture to unleash the first hammer-blow chord and then dropped his arms and closed his eyes as if to say: feel that pitiless sound in the pit of your stomach, and know that for this man there is no escape.

Then came Sibelius’s violin concerto, a piece that also has a heroic aspect, thanks to its sheer difficulty and the struggles of the violinist to match the granitic chords the orchestra keeps hurling at it. Some violinists seize that aspect of the piece and sound imperious and indomitable throughout, even in the full-throated lyricism of the gorgeous slow movement.

That wasn’t Janine Jansen’s way. This Dutch violinist, one of the world’s finest, has a winning way of approaching well-known pieces from an angle you might not expect. In this piece, it was the way of vulnerability – which might seem a perverse approach in a piece so well-known for grand self-assertion, but Jansen made it seem not just plausible but true to the piece. The opening melody has rarely seemed so lonely and lost, and in the second movement she found a broken, hesitant tone that shone a different light on the music. After all that, it was a shock when in the galloping final movement – sounding like an army approaching over a gloomy Finnish landscape – she suddenly threw off vulnerability and became conventionally “masterful”, but with an energising emphasis on the syncopated rhythms that was anything but conventional.

Finally came Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, which like his Fifth is overshadowed by the Second World War. Unlike the Fifth, this is an emotionally bitter piece that refuses to be triumphant, although it ends with a massive major chord that the unwary might mistake for triumphalism.

The journey leading to that moment, guided by Noseda’s febrile hand, left us in no doubt what it really meant. The strange juxtapositions of gigantic emotional assertion (James Fountain’s trumpet sounding as substantial as a graven image) with unsettling robotic marches and a haunted melody evocative of ancient suffering showed that Prokofiev’s mind was as musically inventive as ever but, as the programme note told us, was “suffering from wounds that cannot be healed”.  That final chord, major-key though it was (the Soviet censors would expect no less), felt like the end of the world. IH

This concert is repeated at the Barbican on 29 January, when it will be recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3;

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆

Steven Osborne, Royal Festival Hall - Redferns/Amy T. Zielinski
Steven Osborne, Royal Festival Hall - Redferns/Amy T. Zielinski

This concert from the LPO under its Principal Conductor Edward Gardner offered contrasting kinds of Englishness from three different composers, and also three very different kinds of achievement. The Solemn Prelude by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the composer of part-African extraction who became the nation’s best-loved composer - thanks to his oratorio Hiawatha - was the evening’s unproblematic piece. A perfectly made miniature, it launched the evening in a note of solemn dignity, touched here and there with optimism that at times ventured towards triumphalism, but always retreated back from it.

The other two pieces were ambitious and challenging, in very different ways. The Piano Concerto by Michael Tippett comes from his great period of the 1950s which produced such masterpieces as the opera Midsummer Marriage (performed by this same orchestra and conductor to great acclaim not so long ago). The concerto is suffused with the same radiant lyricism, which seems to burgeon outwards infinitely. Nowhere was that more movingly revealed than at the very beginning, when soloist Steven Osborne unfurled a slowly rising tangle of bell-like sounds, rising magnificently over the chanting woodwinds in a way which seemed effortless but actually required iron control.

There were many things to savour thereafter, such as Osborne’s rapturous duetting with the silvery sounds of the celeste, when the hall seemed filled with magic, and the agile dancing of the strings. But there were dubious moments, such as the uncertain brass playing in the opening of the slow movement. More often one felt it wasn’t the orchestra that was responsible for a lack of focus, but the composer. The over-complex rhythmic layering of the second movement was puzzling, and the finale’s rustic horns and piano’s galumphing rhythms felt gauche. But the first movement showed Tippett’s gift for mystical exultation in abundance, and the piece was well worth hearing just for that.

The final piece, Elgar’s questing 1st symphony is challenging in a different way: brilliantly achieved but full of violently opposing currents of feeling. Under Edward Gardner’s shrewd direction the music’s narrative seemed unusually lucid, especially at the wonderful passage at the opening of the final movement when memories of the dignified opening melody, glowing remnants of the slow movement we’ve just heard and the hints of the coming martial outburst are mingled in a mood of tingling anticipation. When the final triumphant apotheosis of that opening melody arrived, it needed no exaggerated emphasis to seem totally convincing. IH

Hear this concert for 30 days on BBC Sounds

Violinist Daniel Pioro, with James McVinnie on harpsichord
Violinist Daniel Pioro, with James McVinnie on harpsichord

Rosary Sonatas, Southbank Centre ★★★★☆

It’s hard to imagine anything more niche than a set of 15 sonatas for violin and keyboards, composed by an obscure Baroque composer, celebrating the sacred mysteries of the Catholic faith. The very idea of offering something so culturally remote to a paying public seems quite mad.

But that’s why we have arts organisations like the Southbank Centre in London; to take the risks others might baulk at. And their boldness was rewarded, because the audience for Sunday’s performance of the complete set of Rosary Sonatas by Heinrich Biber, though not huge, was utterly rapt.

It helped that the two artists – violinist Daniel Pioro and, on organ and harpsichord, James McVinnie – together with the Southbank’s management had taken such care over details of presentation. The first and last group of sonatas devoted to the Joyful Mysteries of Christ’s birth and the Glorious Mysteries of the Resurrection were played at 8am and 4pm in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a space blessed with huge windows so we were aware of dawning light in the first group, and sunset in the second. The central set, the Sorrowful mysteries of the Crucifixion, took place in an appropriately darkened Purcell Room.

In between the concerts, we learned from invited speakers about the intricate symbolism of Biber’s pieces, and how their composition took place in a frenzy of Catholic assertiveness that saw off the Turkish and Protestant threat and condemned several hundred “witches” to be burned alive in Biber’s own city of Salzburg.

But it was the performances that really made this vanished world come to life. Almost all the sonatas require the violin to be retuned in some exotically unusual way, and Pioro made a virtue of this by laboriously adjusting his violin for each sonata (rather than having several differently tuned violins to hand) and then improvising briefly in the new tuning. It was like being gently led from one richly coloured musical universe to another. Having thus “attuned” us, he and McVinnie then launched into the sonatas, which were packed with symbolically apt inventions.

Some, such as the virtuoso skyrocket gestures that launched the Resurrection sonata, were obvious; others – say, the Scourging (whipping) of Christ, with its delicate, lyric sweetness – were harder to fathom. I’ve heard more pliantly tender performances of this music – Pioro used a standard bow, which gave his sound a sometimes over-emphatic edge, rather than the lighter Baroque bow most performers favour – but none that made the unfolding spiritual drama of the music seem so blazingly intense. IH

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican ★★★☆☆

Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits - Mark Allan
Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits - Mark Allan

There may be whisperings of “war fatigue” among the Western allies of Ukraine in the dreadful ongoing war. But there’s no lessening of fervent support for Ukraine in the concert hall, if Sunday’s concert from the BBC Symphony Orchestra is anything to go by. The event was practically a mini-Ukraine festival, with a Ukrainian conductor on the podium (Kirill Karabits), a Ukrainian pianist in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, and filling the concert’s second half the Third Symphony by the composer who in Ukraine is practically a household name, Borys Lyatoshynsky.

Both works received a rapturous ovation from the crowd. But at the risk of seeming like the dreary critic who refuses to see the bigger picture, the performance of Rachmaninov’s concerto wasn’t the sort that would normally send an audience into ecstasies. Despite Karabits’s urgent and incisive direction, the orchestral players didn’t seem fully engaged, and the balance seemed odd at times. But that may have been partly the fault of pianist Anna Fedorova.

She has an exquisitely delicate touch, as was proved by the wistful, Mozart-drenched little piece by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov she played as an encore. She brought that delicacy to the opening of Rachmaninov’s concerto, which for a few seconds was appealing but soon started to seem underpowered for such a fulsome and romantic piece. Whenever Rachmaninov’s concerto ventured towards his characteristic elfin, sinister mood, she shone; whenever the piece touched depths of nostalgic yearning or tumultuous passion, it felt as if she were somehow holding back – an impression you never want to give, in this most open-hearted of composers.

Lyatoshynsky’s symphony of 1951 is equally emotive, in a heroic, military way. Its noble title “Peace shall Defeat War” didn’t save the symphony from being banned by the Soviet authorities, but listening to this performance it was hard to see what could have offended them. The terrifying tumult of war evoked at the outset was soon softened by a stoically sad Ukrainian folk melody, and this fundamental contrast animated all four movements, mingled with other elements: desolation in the slow movement, a surprisingly Viennese sweetness in the scampering third, and a sense of major-key optimism finally winning out in the finale.

Karabits’s shrewd variety of pace and terrific playing from the now thoroughly alert orchestra couldn’t disguise the fact that the endless repeating patterns in Lyatoshynsky’s piece did eventually seem hectoring. But there was something winning in the music’s ingenuous lyricism and determined idealism. One came away understanding why this symphony is much beloved in its native land. IH

Hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 on Jan 17 at 7.30pm and for 30 days thereafter on BBC Sounds

English Baroque Soloists, St Martin-in-the-Fields ★★★★☆

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the English Baroque Soloists at BBC Proms in September 2021 - BBC/Chris Christodoulou
John Eliot Gardiner conducts the English Baroque Soloists at BBC Proms in September 2021 - BBC/Chris Christodoulou

There was a time forty years ago when John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists made 18th century music seem edgy, as far as Bach and Mozart can ever seem edgy. The wiry sound of the violins, expressive in the way a whippet-thin dancer is expressive, the tangy sound of old-style oboes and bassoons, the whooping, slightly wonky-sounding 18th century horns, the clattering kettle-drums – all this seemed thrillingly new. At the front, the intense, unsmiling “Gigi” urged the players to fill the music with dancing energy.

Have he and the players mellowed since then, or is it just that we’ve become used to that extraordinary sound? Probably a bit of both. Last night, Gardiner was all smiles, as were the players. The sound was as fascinatingly coloured as ever, but seemed more generous and less sharp-edged. And the players actually looked as if they were enjoying themselves, which wasn’t always the case in the past. It helped that the programme was made for smiles. It consisted of Haydn’s radiant and witty Symphony No 84, the grand but playful Symphony No 36 by Mozart and, sandwiched between them, Mozart’s heavenly double concerto for violin, viola and orchestra – the Sinfonia Concertante.

One of the satisfying things about the concert was the way the exact central point of the triptych – the slow movement of Mozart’s concerto – was also the evening’s emotional core.  It’s an utterance of tragic desolation, in which it’s hard to disentangle the heart-breaking beauty of the music from the arching sadness of the melody and the harsh harmonic clashes between the violin and viola. The two soloists, violinist Isabelle Faust and violist Antoine Tamestit, caught both aspects to perfection. The cadenza (solo spot) when the orchestra fell silent to allow them to lament together was the evening’s perfect moment.

The other movements were as brilliant and energised as the slow movement was desolate, Gardiner and the orchestral players alert yet tactful in supporting the soloists’ impetuous, enamoured dialogue. As for the symphonies, their major-key optimism was inflected by numerous subtleties, such as the rough peasant energy of the Minuet in Haydn’s symphony, and the surprising final section of the slow movement, where oboes bassoons and horns spun a luxuriously long ending, like a florid signature at the end of a poem.  The grandeur of Mozart’s symphony sometimes gave way to moments of almost romantic mystery, which Gardiner and the players made sure we noticed.  In all an evening of pure joy, which cast a glow over a damp January evening. IH

The English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir perform Bach’s St Matthew Passion at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 24 April

CBSO: Larcher/Mahler, Symphony Hall Birmingham ★★★☆☆

Gergely Madaras conducts the CBSO in Birmingham - Hannah Fathers
Gergely Madaras conducts the CBSO in Birmingham - Hannah Fathers

This was that rare thing, a concert in which the theme linking the pieces felt natural and convincing. You could sense the connections stirring unprompted in the mind, rather than having to rummage around for them in the programme notes. What linked everything on Thursday night at Birmingham Symphony Hall was the grandeur and mystique of mountains, especially the Austrian mountains that inspired the two featured composers: Thomas Larcher, now in his 60th year, and Gustav Mahler (1860–1911).

In Mahler’s Symphony No 1, which filled the second half of the programme, it felt as though the snow-topped peaks were being admired from the safety of the foothills below. In Larcher’s Symphony No 3, composed in 2019 for the CBSO but only receiving its UK premiere here owing to pandemic-induced delays, it was like being up among those peaks – and constantly on the edge of a precipice.

Larcher’s piece was subtitled A Line Above the Sky, the name given by British climber Tom Ballard to the view seen from a particularly challenging route (which he devised) up a Dolomite peak. Ballard died in 2019 while climbing in Kashmir. Larcher tells us that the first movement of his symphony is a tribute to the sheer daring of the climber; the second is a funeral lament for him.

What one actually felt was the glistening mysteriousness of mountain-tops, summoned by a lavish array of exotics added to the orchestra, such as jangling steel-pans and cimbalom, rustling sheets of baking paper and roaring thunder-sheets – all combining with the orchestra into an overwhelming blizzard of sound, before thinning unexpectedly to a single note of unearthly purity and stillness. It was all very evocative in a filmic sort of way, but the constant quotations of Schubert’s Winter Journey and the solemn brass chorale in the second movement felt too easily emotive, and disconnected from the rest of the music.

Mahler’s symphony, on the other hand, is a thing of true unity, where evocations of how nature and mountains look and sound and the expression of how they make us feel cannot be disentangled. The orchestra made a sound of glowing warmth, and conductor Gergely Madaras shaped the music with unusual tenderness and flexibility, in a way that brought out its Schubert-like lyricism. It reminded me of the quotations in the Larcher symphony we’d just heard, and for a moment made that piece seem better in the memory. It showed how a great composer can sometimes give a helping hand to a not-so-great one. IH

No further performances

Katya Kabanova, Barbican ★★★★☆

Simon Rattle conducts the LSO in Kayta Kabanova - Mark Allan
Simon Rattle conducts the LSO in Kayta Kabanova - Mark Allan

Thwarted passion can be expressed artistically in different ways. There’s the way of “Brief Encounter”, all eloquent silences and stammered half-avowals. And there’s the way of Janáček’s Katya Kabanova, where the hot desires and furies of the characters cooped up in a remote Russian estate can’t be suppressed for long. They burst out in ecstatic avowals and incandescent lava-flows of orchestral sound that are like the naked essence of emotion.

And yet, before the damn bursts everybody seems to be repressing anger or lust, and the strain on the characters is evident from the beginning. It’s hard to think of another great opera where there’s quite so much sheer bad temper on display. What made this concert performance so riveting was that both sides, the suffocating social conformity and timidity and the passions boiling beneath were so powerfully expressed.

Much depends on the singer who plays the family matriarch Kabanicha, who polices everyone’s private life, and here she was made to seem truly fearsome by Katarina Dalayman. Her foster daughter Varvara is the only one who dares to thwart her, but Magdalena Kožená didn’t really catch her sly manipulativeness.  Of the other characters under Kabanicha’s thumb, the merchant Tichon who tries ham-fistedly to flirt with her was amusingly played by Pavlo Hunka, but Andrew Staples seemed somewhat colourless as her hapless son, who always fails to stand up for his wife, Kayta, the opera’s tragic heroine.

The heart of the opera is Katya’s doomed attempt to escape from her loveless marriage through a timid affair with Boris. Her desire is constantly checked by guilt and fear, a conflict caught beautifully by American soprano Amanda Majeski. In a wonderful scene of rapturous moon-drunk emotion, with nocturnal rustlings in the orchestra, they finally declare their love, and if Simon O’Neill as Boris seemed somewhat constricted vocally, there was no doubting the intensity of his feelings. Their love duet was entwined with similar declarations from Varvara and her lover Kudrjas, played with real fervour by Ladislav Elgr. Unlike Katya’s, their affair has a happy ending.

One of the marvels of this opera is that though the characters’ feelings often emerge in blunt, almost awkward words, the orchestral music reveals the emotional truth behind them, but without a trace of sentimentality. That was especially true here, thanks to the LSO’s superbly eloquent performance under conductor Simon Rattle. The players imbued Janáček’s laconic phrases and whirling repeated patterns with huge intensity, shot through at times with dark colours, as in the storm scene where one could almost feel the wind and rain.

But it was Majeski’s nobility in suffering that really seized one’s attention. Her final desperate aria, when the sense that death may be the only way out is already gathering in her soul, and she declares pathetically “I can’t find the words to express what I feel”, was almost unbearably moving. Her tragic end, and the horrified reaction of the characters and the excellent London Symphony Chorus, had the brutal suddenness of an avalanche. IH

Final performance January 13;  

Soul Strings, Wigmore Hall ★★★☆☆

Anubrata Chatterjee, Amaan Ali Bangash, Ayaan Ali Bangash and the violinist Jennifer Pike on stage at the Wigmore Hall - Wigmore Hall Trust
Anubrata Chatterjee, Amaan Ali Bangash, Ayaan Ali Bangash and the violinist Jennifer Pike on stage at the Wigmore Hall - Wigmore Hall Trust

Since the renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar recorded the album East Meets West with the equally renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin back in 1967, the vision of bringing together the Indian and Western classical traditions has never quite gone away. It hangs in the cultural memory, a beautiful dream of something finer and nobler than the restless commercially driven fusions of world music.

On Saturday night at the Wigmore Hall that dream was revived. On stage were the brothers Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, two great performers on the sarod, a North Indian plucked instrument not so different to the better-known sitar but with a more wiry and penetrating sound. To their left, also seated cross-legged was Anubra Chatterjee, a performer on the pair of tuned drums called tabla. On their right perched on a chair was violinist Jennifer Pike, who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2002 and has since blossomed into a soloist of searching musical intelligence – as was evidenced by this concert, in which she played alongside the three Indian musicians.

To prepare the ground for this meeting of two playing styles, Pike gave a pleasingly light, effortless performance of the opening Preludio from Bach’s 3rd Partita.  She then tactfully absented herself from the stage, to allow the three Indian musicians to perform folk melodies from Bengal and Assam, as well as a song by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore. This allowed us to savour the essentially vocal aesthetic shaping those rich twanging notes. The melodic line would aspire upward to a note via a slide, or sink down with graceful melancholy, the tuning wavering expressively – all so different to the cool, clear Western way of shaping a tune.

When Pike joined them to perform two compositions by the brothers’ father and “guru” Amjad Ali Khan, perhaps the best-known sarod player alive, we heard that contrast projected with startling clarity. This isn’t to say Pike hasn’t immersed herself deeply in their style, and doesn’t capture the wayward, spontaneously unfolding nature of Indian melodies. But there was something about her sweetly focussed vibrato and cleanly articulated notes that was miles away from the ecstatic flights of the two brothers, which were too intense to be sweet. In its modest graceful way Pike’s contribution felt touchingly sincere, and it certainly brought a genuinely singing, sustained quality to the evening which the two sarod players could only suggest with their twanging notes. If Pike could only emulate their wildness and spontaneity the collaboration could really catch fire. IH

Hear these performers at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on January 26;

National Youth Orchestra/Bloch, Barbican ★★★★★

It wasn’t just the waltzing encore, The Blue Danube, that made this feel like a New Year concert: everything about this Barbican appearance by the National Youth Orchestra at the start of its four-city tour was a celebration. Not that the festive season meant much time off for these phenomenally talented teenagers, since presenting the NYO’s most serious programme in years will have involved an intense, hard-working holiday.

The National Youth Orchestra at the Barbican - Mark Allan
The National Youth Orchestra at the Barbican - Mark Allan

Three substantial scores were featured under the banner of “Odyssey”, and the concert opened with Britten’s moody Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The brass registered potently in the sombre Dawn, one advantage of the NYO packing in as many players as possible, certainly a bigger brass section than an opera house pit could accommodate. If this was not the most precise NYO playing ever, the musicians certainly responded to the conductor Alexandre Bloch, making a welcome return to the hall where just over a decade ago he won the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition. The final Storm interlude brought out the best in everyone.

Anna Clyne’s Rift, a symphonic ballet written in 2016, is partly a meditation on the state of our planet. Its three movements are titled Dust, Water and Space, and if its subject matter implies something rather melancholy it also represents a bittersweet journey towards hope. Clyne always has a knack for exciting textures and haunting yet never obvious tunes.

The opening is especially striking, with the violas tracing a lament over the oscillating hum of Tibetan bowls. Other strings soon pick up the theme and the music quickly becomes more complex without losing its emotional directness. The experience of the score’s pulsing, virtuosic close will surely remain with these young musicians for a long time. New music is indeed an important part of the NYO’s mission, and fittingly room was also found – by way of a curtain-raiser to the second half – for a brief presentation by the eleven-strong group of NYO Associates of their own music.

Before we reached the Johann Strauss encore there was Richard Strauss’s mighty tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, its tremendous opening going from the suspenseful to brilliantly blazing. Bloch proved himself a magician here, unlocking the secrets of the work and shaping a taut performance full of lively detail. The leader Isabell Karlsson’s violin solos were nimble, but everyone contributed to a highly accomplished performance of a work full of idealistic striving – and what could be better for a youth orchestra? JA

Further dates for NYO’s Odyssey tour:

Elias String Quartet/Osborne, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆

One signal of the New Year having really begun is that concerts are quickly shaking off their seasonal cheer, and nothing less than serious programming occupied the minds of the Elias String Quartet as they returned to the Wigmore Hall. In a cleverly focused concert, Beethoven was flanked by two great 20th-century Russian composers, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, with creative tension arising from their respective anti- and pro-Beethoven positions.

The programme’s centrepiece was Beethoven’s Quartet No 10 in E flat, nicknamed the Harp on account of the pizzicato (plucked) effects that permeate the first movement. Both its E flat tonality and compositional year of 1809 connect it to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, though it doesn’t have the same thrust as that celebrated work and instead shows Beethoven even in his middle period anticipating the musical barriers he would soon break.

Successful performances of this work depend on the interpretative cohesion of its players and here the Elias set up a sense of hushed expectancy in the stillness of the first movement’s opening before supplying surging warmth. The hymn-like slow movement was an intense, sustained outpouring, balanced out by the energy released in the scherzo and an almost playful finale.

Often overlooked on account of their brevity, the tiny masterpieces comprising Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet made a welcome opening to the evening. Again, the context of these 1914 miniatures, coming after Stravinsky’s three most celebrated ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring), explains the folk influences of the the first movement’s drones and some hard modernist edges, but they show new directions too. The Elias produced magnificently concentrated sound in the sombre murmurings – like  Russian Orthodox chant – of the final piece.

The Elias were joined after interval by the outstanding pianist Steven Osborne for Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G minor. Context tells us less about this 1940 score: despite the war, it sounds like abstract music – though you can never be quite sure with Shostakovich – and is full of Beethovenian striving. The piano anchors this work, literally so at the start where it sets everything in motion, and Osborne was central to this imposing performance.

That said, some of the most interesting textures involve the strings alone, especially in the disembodied fugue of the second movement and the stark, searing dialogues – first between violin and cello, then violin and viola – of the fourth movement. But piano and strings combined in the galloping scherzo and finale to brilliantly brittle effect. JA

Further details of season: