Live review – Hugh Bonneville, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: The Art of Storytelling – The Ugly Duckling

Hugh Bonneville (narrator), Wanda Sobieska (illustrations, above), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Thursday 19 November 2020 (online)

Kenneth Woods The Ugly Duckling (after H.C. Andersen)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra has demonstrated its versatility over these past few months with studio concerts of themed programmes. This latest offering takes up a line of pieces for storytelling that its conductor Kenneth Woods has pursued so ingeniously on past occasions.

Although The Ugly Duckling has retained its prominence as a children’s tale ever since Hans Christian Andersen first published it in 1843, its message has tended to be watered down with repetition. While it departs in numerous details, this retelling certainly restores those qualities of fear and anger, mixed with indignation, which remain central to the original’s conception. It helps when the bare bones of the story are conveyed so directly, with no attempt to soften or sentimentalize a narrative in which the notion of social acceptance should be paramount.

In this respect, there could hardly be a more sympathetic narrator than Hugh Bonneville, who relates the story with thoughtfulness and compassion. He is aided in this by illustrations from Wanda Sobieska as (rightly) suggest a setting far removed from comfortable domesticity; one emphasizing that harshness and struggle for survival pertinent to the natural world. Woods’s score ably sustains itself over the 18-minute whole, evoking Copland in innocent wonder but also Shostakovich in its sense of vastness and alienation – prior to a headily affirmative close.

The ESO musicians (shots of whom alternate with the illustrations) play with their customary verve and finesse, and this whole production should prove congenial for children and adults alike. As usual with ESO, a range of supporting material helps enhance the total experience.

You can watch the concert on the English Symphony Orchestra website here

For more information on the English Symphony Orchestra you can visit their website here

For information about Auricolae, visit Kenneth Woods’ website here

Listening to Beethoven #94 – Variations on ‘Ich hab ein kleines Hüttchen nur’

Ludwig Gleim, author to the melody Ich hab’ ein kleines Huettchen nur (portrait by Johann Heinrich Ramberg) and the young Beethoven

Variations on ‘Ich hab ein kleines Hüttchen nur’ WoO Anh.10 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 6′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Bright and quite breezy. A memorable tune that could easily have been whistled while walking down the street!

Background and Critical Reception

Another 1795 set of variations…but there is a little more doubt over the authenticity of these ones. If they were indeed from Beethoven’s pen they were not published until 1830 – and are thought to have been written in 1795.

The Unheard Beethoven website gives a characteristically detailed and involving commentary to the work, deducing the original tune to have been a popular melody that was ‘frankly a little creepy to a modern reader’!

The esteemed Beethoven scholar Willy Hess classed the piece as ‘doubtful’ rather than ‘spurious’, with no helpful evidence for or against its authenticity.

Thoughts

Beethoven or not, the eight variations are quickly despatched. Arguments in favour of Ludwig’s authorship would be the by now familiar pattern of a minor key fourth variation and a vigorous fifth, and a coda which allows itself to roam free in both mood and tempo.

The variations fit snugly alongside the other three sets we have heard so far from 1795, with passages suitable for the amateur pianist but others – the fifth especially – that are much more demanding. The soft end is a nice touch too.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Rudolf Buchbinder

Rudolf Buchbinder clearly enjoys his time with these variations, bringing the tune out nicely and applying some impressive virtuosity where required.

Also written in 1795 Hummel Piano Sonata no.8

Next up Sextet in E flat major Op.71

Listening to Beethoven #93 – 6 Variations on ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’

The  Portaits of Giovanni Paisiello (left) and the young Beethoven

6 Variations on ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’ WoO 70 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 6′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Paisiello’s theme has a nice lilt to it, with a softly undulating accompaniment set in the left hand of the piano. The mood is amiable, set in G major. Beethoven pauses deliberately near the end, creating some very valid, stage-derived tension!

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven operated with a remarkably quick turnaround for these variations, which explains their instinctive feel. Barry Cooper, writing in the booklet notes for DG’s Complete Beethoven Edition, tells of how ‘a lady whom he greatly admired once told him she used to own a set of variations on this theme but had lost them’. Beethoven ‘promptly composed his set for her and delivered them the next morning! He could, when necessary, compose extremely fast despite his reputation as a slow and painstaking worker’.

Thoughts

The six variations have an easy flow, the left and right hands often exchanging their melodic lines to keep things on the move. Beethoven’s first three variations move along effortlessly, before a slightly sorrowful fourth in the minor key, where the pronounced pause is really evident. Throughout the emphasis is on a vocal line, staying true to the context of Paisiello’s original.

As he often does Beethoven provides a direct contrast immediately after this, with an effervescent fifth variation and similarly bright sixth. The stream of consciousness, which works as a whole rather than six parts, is wrapped up very quickly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Rudolf Buchbinder

Cécile Ousset

Pletnev takes these variations at quite a lick, showing off his technical prowess but occasionally constricting the phrasing. Buchbinder and Ousset feel more natural in this respect, and again it is Ousset who has the most natural application, staying true to the theme’s origins as a vocal melody.

Also written in 1795 Hummel Piano Sonata no.8

Next up Variations on ‘Ich hab ein kleines Hüttchen nur’

Listening to Beethoven #92 – 9 variations on ‘Quant’e piu bello’

The young Ludwig van Beethoven (left) and Giovanni Paisiello

9 variations on ‘Quant’e piu bello’ WoO 69 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is relatively simple but attractive, and a little playful towards the end.

Background and Critical Reception

This is another set of variations from Beethoven using a contemporary source for the theme. In this case it is an aria, Quant’e piu bello (How much more beautiful) from Paisiello’s opera L’amor contrastato (Doubtful Love). It is a bright theme in the key of A major.

Thoughts

These variations trip along very naturally, with more than a hint of play in each. Beethoven creates an illusion of the fingers of the right hand falling over each other in the first variation, but cannot resist the temptation to open up the accelerator for the second!

The fourth variation takes a serious countenance and moves to the minor key, but no sooner has it done that then the smile is back and the music is tripping along.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)

Rudolf Buchbinder (Warner Classics)

Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Three excellent versions. Ousset’s recordings of Beethoven variations are some of her finest achievements, and her poise here is enviable. Ronald Brautigam offers a direct contrast on the fortepiano, though he suffers a little from a very roomy acoustic.

Also written in 1795 Hummel Piano Sonata no.8

Next up 6 Variations on ”Nel cor piu non mi sento”

Listening to Beethoven #91 – 12 variations on a Menuett à la Vìganò


The young Ludwig van Beethoven (left) and Maria Sophia Weber, wife of the composer Jakob Haibel, for whom no picture could be found

12 variations on a Menuett à la Vìganò WoO 68 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Despite being called a Menuett, and having a triple time lilt, the theme actually has four beats in the bar. This creates a bit of tension but some intriguing cross rhythms too.

Background and Critical Reception

It has been a little while since we heard from Beethoven in the ‘Variations’ discipline, for piano at least. He had certainly not forsaken the form, however, this set being one of at least four he completed in 1795. The theme is from a Menuet from the successful ballet Le nozze disturbate, written by Jakob Haibel (1762-1826) in the same year. Haibel was an Austrian composer, tenor and choirmaster.

Jean-Charles Hoffelé, writing in the booklet note for Cécile Ousset’s superb Decca recordings of variations by Beethoven, gives out plenty of compliments. For him, the variations ‘apply a piquant inventiveness to this dance, popularised at Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden, beyond the city’s fortifications. Beethoven transforms the ternary rhythm of the dance into an astonishing scherzo’.

Thoughts

Another terrifically entertaining set of Beethoven variations. The first variation is like a peal of bells, then a flurry of right hand activity takes us into a thrilling second variation, Beethoven really pressing down on the accelerator. The tempo choices vary wildly as we progress, moving through a solemn but quite stilted minor key variation (no.4) and a brisk march (no.5).

The eighth variation has an attractive lilt, but no.9 could hardly be more different as it hits some really gruff, bass heavy chords that feel like pure Beethoven – and which are further emphasised by the pause written by the composer to make them last longer.

Sparkling interplay between the hands characterises variation no.10, before the twelfth and final variation plays out between two very different voices, one serene and the other impatient. The coda settles to a quiet and rather moving conclusion

Recordings used and Spotify links

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)

Rudolf Buchbinder (Warner Classics)

Mikhail Pletnev (Deutsche Grammophon)

All three of these recordings are excellent, but Ousset just has the extra magical touch, the listener hanging on every note of her 1975 Decca recording.

Also written in 1795 Hummel Piano Sonata no.8

Next up 9 Variations on ‘Quant’e piu bello’