Wigmore Mondays – Nicolas Angelich plays Bach / Busoni, Brahms & Beethoven

Nicolas Angelich (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 9 December 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A concert of the three ‘B’s, all of them greats of keyboard literature – with a fourth, Busoni, added for good measure.

J.S. Bach and Busoni make a winning combination, the Italian 20th century composer having discovered a strong affinity with his ‘ancestor’s’ work in transcribing his organ and harpsichord works for piano. These were always done in a reverent way, and the famous Advent chorale prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the heathens) is no exception. Nicolas Angelich ensured all was still before beginning this account, and once started he left plenty of room for musical thought and variation of tempo and phrasing. Although at times it was a little too mannered, it was a nicely gauged start to the concert.

Angelich continued without a break into Brahms 7 Fantasien, hailed by Clara Schumann as ‘a true source of enjoyment, everything, poetry, passion, rapture, intimacy, full of the most marvellous effects’. The seven pieces work well as a whole, with three Capriccios placed 1, 3 and 7 in the group, interspersed with four Intermezzi. The relatively ambiguous labels mean Brahms has plenty of freedom for expression, and beyond the Capriccios being faster and stormy, and the Intermezzi slower, intimate and experimental, there is little to confine his work.

The performances here were well-informed, Angelich having recorded these works for Virgin Classics back in 2006. The first Capriccio in D minor (9:51) exhibits power and authority, with the composer’s beloved triplet rhythms in evidence, and is complemented by the first Intermezzo in A minor (12:11), one of several moments where Brahms’ thoughts turn wholly inwards – apart from the slightly sunnier middle section. The third piece, a Capriccio in G minor (16:23) has arpeggios tumbling downwards, and has a central section anticipating the tonal area (E) of the three Intermezzi to come. These are the fourth piece in E major (19:23), full of subtle but noticeable questioning in its melody, and the longest piece of the set. It is followed by the thoughtful fifth piece in E minor (23:59) and a sixth, mostly chordal piece back in E major (26:56) which quickly moves away from its harmonic base. Finally the power and passion returns for the seventh piece, a Capriccio in D minor (30:21). Brahms again is in his favourite two-against-three rhythmic figuration, and this signs off the set in the major key with some aplomb in Angelich’s performance.

Fantasy is also a theme for Beethoven’s most famous piano work, his Moonlight Sonata. In truth this piece sits between a fantasy and a sonata (hence the composer’s subtitle, Sonata quasi fantasia), and the first movement, though static in the profile of its arpeggios, is pure and magical imagery, Beethoven intentionally or not evoking moonlight over Lake Lucerne as perceived by his friend, the poet Ludwig Rellstab.

Angelich brought the stillness of the moment to the Wigmore Hall (35:30), reflective and deep in a reverie, only rousing slightly for a Scherzo of relatively downbeat thoughts (41:35). Those sentiments were well and truly blown away by the Finale (44:12), the only one of the three movements written in true ‘sonata form’ by Beethoven. This was a terrifically played account, carefully thought through and played with feeling rather than a need for technical prowess – though that was present too.

Angelich returned to late Brahms for his encore, the Intermezzo in E flat major Op.117/1 (54:02) Another late work, this one is based on an old Scottish ballad, Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament – and brought the mood and chronology of the concert full circle.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

J.S. Bach arr. Busoni Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659 (c1748, arr.1898) (4:36)
Brahms 7 Fantasien Op.116 (1892) (9:51)
Beethoven Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Moonlight’ (1802) (35:30)
Encore: Brahms Intermezzo in E flat major Op.117/1 (1892) (54:02)

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard in leading available versions on Spotify below. These include Angelich’s recording of the Brahms pieces, with Murray Perahia playing the Bach / Busoni and Beethoven:

Angelich can be heard in a double album of late Brahms that includes the composer’s piano pieces published as Op.117-119. They hold a unique place in the piano repertoire, written by Brahms in the knowledge that his compositional career was nearly over and looking forward to innovations by composers such as Mahler, Berg and Schoenberg:

Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach organ works repay further exploration, especially at this time of year. This album from Kun-Woo Paik brings together some of the more famous examples, including the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue:

Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas remain one of the wonders of his output, but even a listen to the four published after the Moonlight sonata reveal a composer striking out for new shores. The Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28, known as the Pastoral, is similarly magical – before the group of three works published as Op.31 reveal humour in the first, stormy Romanticism in the second (nicknamed The Tempest) and an openness of expression in the beautiful third. The playlist below brings together leading recordings from Emil Gilels:

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