Wigmore Mondays – Louis Lortie plays Chopin

Louis Lortie (piano)

George Benjamin Shadowlines (6 Canonic Preludes) (2001)

Chopin 24 Preludes Op.28 (1839)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 24 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Louis Lortie has a long-held affinity with the music of Chopin, and that was abundantly clear in the affection with which he played the composer’s 24 Preludes.

Completed in 1839, they are an extraordinary set of pieces that travel through each of the conventional Western tonal centres in the course of just 40 minutes. Chopin structures them cleverly, pairing them up so that each prelude appearing in a major key (for instance the first one in C major) is followed by its closest relative in a minor key (in this case A minor). The series proceeds using the ancient ‘cycle of fifths’, so that after ‘C’ we move to ‘G’, then ‘D’, and so on until a complete circuit is reached.

Previous exponents of this sort of cycle include Bach, whose famous ‘48’ also uses all the keys, but moves in a stepwise movement from C to C sharp, then D. In visiting the form Chopin was clearly aware of Bach’s efforts in the previous century, for he took the music with him on holiday to Majorca, where some of the preludes were written.

Lortie brought the cycle to life (from 18:06 on the broadcast link provided), with some of the shorter pieces reeled off at dazzling speed. The quick ones, for instance those in G major (21:02) or a particularly stormy affair in F sharp minor (27:29) were on occasion a bit too swift for the phrasing to be abundantly clear, but when he spent time over the melancholic no.4 in E minor (21:57), or the serious no.6 in B minor (24:37), the melodies were beautifully shaped, the depth of feeling immediately evident.

The natural centrepiece of the cycle is no.15 in D flat major, known as the Raindrop (from 36:27). It is at least twice as long as any of the others but also contains at its heart a very strong reference to plainchant, the speculation being that Chopin was capturing a haunted abbey in his writing. It looks forward to Debussy in this sense, and Lortie played it with the grandeur it deserved. Following it with the whirlwind B flat minor prelude (41:50) was the storm after the calm, the whirlwind superbly energised.

A beautifully crafted finish included the delicacy of the F major prelude from 51:35) and the stern countenance of the final D minor prelude (52:25), carrying its head high to put a cap on a superb performance of 24 strongly characterised pieces.

A little less effective were the 6 Canonic Preludes by George Benjamin, written so that whatever is played in one part has to be shadowed by the other. Some of the pieces were effective characterisations, not a million miles from Schoenberg’s mysterious piano pieces, but others felt emptier emotionally. Lortie played them superbly, but perhaps repeated hearing on the broadcast will bring them to life.

Further listening

Lortie is in the process of recording the complete piano works of Chopin, and his first album in the series for Chandos is a great next step after the Preludes, containing as it does the great Piano Sonata no.2.

Arcana at the opera: Madama Butterfly @ ROH

Puccini Madama Butterfly

Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London

Saturday 22nd April, 2017

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Productions of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera are notable for their longevity. That by Robert Helpmann held the stage over three decades until 1983, while the current production from Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier has now reached its fifth revival in barely 14 years.

Notions of the balance between Japanese tradition and American imperialism have inevitably changed much since Puccini’s day (though aren’t the music’s frequent allusions to The Star-Spangled Banner more than a little ironic?), but this Leiser/Caurier production continues to strike a plausible balance between social comment and an archetypal Japanoise which skirts without descending to cliché. Enhanced by Christian Fenouillat’s plain though unfussy sets, Agostino Cavalca’s unexceptional if appropriate costumes and Christophe Forey’s subdued yet pertinent lighting (the silhouette strategy paying dividends in Act Three), it makes for a presentation which avoids subversion while also underlining those provocative elements in Puccini’s music too often sacrificed when his score is rendered as a sentimental tear-jerker.

Vocally this ‘second cast’ is anything but second rate. Reprising the role from 2015, Ana María Martínez brings ardour and eloquence aplenty to Cio-Cio San; besides an edginess to her sending-up of Yamadori’s pretensions in Act Two then a deft pivoting between elation and desolation, before the fateful denouement, which only adds to the range of a character made wise beyond her years. With notable Royal Opera roles in Mozart and Verdi already behind her, Martínez is clearly an artist as versatile vocally as she is arresting dramatically.

As also is Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincai, previously heard as Rodolfo at the ROH and here harnessing his natural richness and resonance of tone to a portrayal of Pinkerton that, if not making him exactly sympathetic, contextualizes his shortcomings to a degree that avoids the callous or mean-spirited. His plangent Act Three aria is the more affecting for its absence of false emoting, while his vocal elegance elsewhere works admirably in those numerous duets which throw into relief his shortcomings – resulting in a striking and resourceful assumption.

The secondary roles are hardly less successful, not least Scott Hendricks as Sharpless whose desire to do the right thing is always outdone by his inability – even unwillingness – to alter the course of events. Elizabeth DeShong exudes warmth and compassion as Suzuki, and her masterly acting makes appreciably more of this part on-stage than is evident from the score alone. Carlo Bosi is a cunning and deceitful Goro, Jeremy White summons all his vocal and dramatic presence for a riveting cameo as the Bonze, while Yuriy Yurchuk brings the right sardonic touch to that of Yamadori. Emily Edmonds does what she can with the overly brief role of Kate Pinkerton, while Gyula Nagy is a properly portentous Imperial Commissioner. The roles of Butterfly’s family seem as well-contrasted in vocal as they are in visual terms.

A further plus is Renato Balsadonna’s conducting, superbly geared to this opera’s emotional contrasts and dramatic pacing while securing a committed response from the ROH orchestra. It sets the seal on this revival of a production by no means at the end of its natural life-span.

Pascal Bentoiu: A London Homage at the Romanian Cultural Institute

Enescu Concerts Series 2016/17 – Ioanna Bentoiu (soprano, above) and Lena Vieru Conta (piano)

Romanian Cultural Institute, London; Friday 6th April, 2017

Schumann Frauenliebe und Leben Op.42 (1840)

Bentoiu Eminesciana II, Op.8 (1958)

Enescu Sept Chansons de Clément Marot, Op.15 (1908)

The death – in February last year – of Pascal Bentoiu robbed Romania of its finest composer after Enescu, as well as a musicologist and cultural polymath of stature. Save for a broadcast performance of his comic opera Doctor Cupid in 1969, little of his music has been performed in the UK – making this recital and talk at London’s Romanian Cultural Institute a welcome redress. The talk, given by this author and musicologist Mihai Coma, provided a context for three song-cycles given by Bentoiu’s daughter Ioanna and regular pianist Lena Vieru Conta.

Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben was evidently Bentoiu’s favourite lieder cycle and while the overt sentiment of Adelbert von Chamisso’s verse may now seem cloying, the symphonic integration achieved during this telling of a relationship from the female perspective retains its innovatory impulse. Taking care to convey this sequence as a formal and cohesive totality, Bentoiu and Conta were yet mindful of the subtly varying emotional nuance between each ‘movement’ and that sense of resigned fulfilment such as permeates the touching final song.

Although orchestral work latterly came to dominate Bentoiu’s creativity, his output of around 30 songs is a significant and no less typical facet of his composing. The three sonnets which comprise Eminesciana II finds him marshalling the ardent rhetoric and imaginative flights of fancy in which Mihai Eminescu writing abounds. No less distinctive are the piano interludes that not only connect these three settings but also point up musical as well as semantic links between them. Clearly, they need to be explored in the context of the wider song tradition.

For their final offering, Bentoiu and Conta turned to Enescu, and the best known of his song collections. Modest in dimension yet abounding in pointers to the music of his maturity, the Sept Chansons de Clément Marot (of which Bentoiu latterly made an insightful arrangement for chamber orchestra) ranges from ribald humour to searching pathos; the formalized texts yielding an emotional acuity that was tangibly realized by singer and pianist. Enescu, as with Bentoiu after him, was nothing if not penetrating as to his insights into the human condition.

The evening was enhanced by photographic exhibition Pascal Bentoiu: His Life and Works, as curated by Irina Niţu and produced by the George Enescu National Museum in Bucharest. This is at the Romanian Cultural Institute until April 27th, then in part at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens on Saturday 29th April at a concert by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper which includes the UK premiere of Enescu’s Fourth Symphony – completion of whose orchestration was among the most significant of Pascal Bentoiu’s later endeavours.

Richard Whitehouse

For further details on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra’s forthcoming concert of the Fourth Symphony, head to their website

On record: Kyung Wha Chung – Bach: Sonatas & Partitas (Warner Classics)

Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV1001-1006

Kyung Wha Chung (violin)

Summary

After 15 years out of the recording studio and a similar absence from concert halls in the West, Kyung Wha Chung begins a new chapter of a career dating back almost five decades with this first integral take on the Sonatas and Partitas for violin by Johann Sebastian Bach.

What’s the music like?

Written around 1720, when Bach was attached to the court of Anhalt-Köthen (a period giving rise to the many of his most important orchestral and instrumental works), these Sonatas and Partitas are to the violin what The Well-Tempered Clavier is to the keyboard.

They set a level of compositional and artistic achievement seldom equalled in almost three centuries. The alternation between forms enables Bach to pursue a clear-cut while never inflexible trajectory, with the formal clarity of the sonatas thrown into purposeful relief by the more diverse yet no less integrated layout of the partitas. Allied to this is an expressive range which extends from the poise and vigour of those movements adhering to dance measures, to the cumulative power of those appropriating more abstract models in proto-symphonic terms.

Recorded around the time of her 68th birthday, these accounts confirm that time spent out of the limelight has been to the benefit of Chung’s interpretative insight and conviction. No-one who comes to these pieces for the first time could doubt the intensity of her commitment, and while her playing betrays occasional signs of tentativeness or imprecision, there is never any sense of her technique being inadequate for this music (as, for instance, was that of Mstislav Rostropovich when he recorded Bach’s Cello Suites towards the end of his seventh decade).

Nor is there any doubt that these recordings are suited to the concentrated listening necessary for taking in this music at a single, two-and-a-quarter-hour sitting. Those who might wish to sample individual movements should head to the wistful Siciliana from the First Sonata, the incisive Corrente of the First Partita, the winsome Andante from the Second Sonata, or the nonchalant Gavotte en rondeau of the Third Partita. These interpretations are at their best in the two most imposing works: hence the Second Partita, its closing Ciaccona rendered with implacable momentum; and the Third Sonata, its imposing Fuga rendered with unflagging energy. Comparison with Chung’s 1973 recordings (Decca) confirms that any falling-off of technique is more than outweighed by the sheer intellectual control here evinced throughout.

Does it all work?

Yes, inasmuch that Chung’s approach is always commensurate to the stature of the music at hand. Music which, of course, can take a variety of interpretations – though the present set is notable for the skill with which Chung navigates between the poles of authenticity and that more subjective approach often associated with earlier generations.

The point remains that she secures a cohesion and consistency across all six of these endlessly diverse pieces as is achieved by precious few exponents, and this can be felt to override all other considerations.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The two discs are logically presented as a chronological sequence, with succinctly informative booklet notes from Julian Haylock and a brief statement of intent from Chung. Among recent accounts, hers needs to be heard for its formal rigour and expressive insight.

Richard Whitehouse

Listen here on Spotify:

Live review – CBSO with Oliver Janes & Andrew Gourlay: Strauss, Copland & Rachmaninov

Oliver Janes (clarinet), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Thursday 6th April, 2017

Richard Strauss Don Juan Op.20 (1888)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 in A minor Op. 44 (1936)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

An ear infection meant that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla had to withdraw from this concert, which provided a welcome opportunity for Andrew Gourlay (now into his second season as Music Director of the orchestra in Valladolid) to make his debut at Symphony Hall with the CBSO.

A pity the Fourth Suite from the ballet The Golden Key by Mieczysław Weinberg had to be dropped from the programme, but that will hopefully be rescheduled (and if Gražinytė-Tyla could tackle one of this composer’s symphonies as his 2019 centenary approaches, then so much the better). Instead, Gourlay directed an account of Strauss’s Don Juan which, while it rather failed to ignite in the earlier stages, evinced some suitably enticing playing during the amorous central episode and then a rousing culmination prior to those fatalistic closing bars.

Hardly a natural complement to Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, but the latter piece works well in a variety of contexts. It also provided an impressive showcase for Oliver Janes, now into his third season as principal clarinet of this orchestra and a player whose elegant while never unduly soft-grained tone was admirably suited to the first movement, with its limpid backing for strings and harp. Janes tackled the central cadenza with no less security – necessarily so as, in addition to its technical virtuosity, it functions as a formal and expressive ‘bridge’ into the second movement. This latter, substituting piano for harp and focusing on the jazz idioms often to the fore in Copland, was a little too reined-in over much of its course with the final pages failing to lift off, though there was never any doubting Janes’s identity with the piece.

The highlight of the concert came after the interval with a perceptive and involving account of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. Although it lags well behind its predecessor in terms of performance, this piece has moved from the periphery of the repertoire as earlier tendencies to dismiss it as a rerun of past glories have yielded to a recognition of just how subtly while effectively it overhauls the composer’s thinking for the inter-war period. Not for nothing was Nikolay Medtner alarmed by what he heard as the ‘modernization’ of Rachmaninov’s idiom.

In terms of textural balance and formal continuity it poses more problems than any other of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works, but Gourlay was never fazed by these potential pitfalls. The unworldly ‘motto’ launching the first movement was hauntingly rendered, and the only error in what followed was the omission of an exposition repeat necessary to balance an extensive development whose crisis-riven denouement was acutely realized here.

Neither did Gourlay misjudge the integration of slow movement and scherzo in what follows – the outcome being a developing variation as seamless as it was affecting. If the finale then unfolded at slightly too relaxed a pace, this enabled Gourlay to characterize detail in as resourcefully orchestrated a movement as Rachmaninov ever penned – with the closing accelerando vividly brought off.

A convincing take, then, on this engaging symphony and a fine marker for Gourlay to have laid down in what should prove an ongoing association with this orchestra. Those unable to attend Saturday’s repeat can hear it being broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 18th April.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website