On record: Soloists, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin / Gabriel Bebeşelea – Enescu: Strigoii

*Rodica Vica (soprano); *Tiberius Simu (tenor); *Bogdan Baciu (baritone); *Alin Anca (bass); Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin / Gabriel Bebeşelea

Enescu
Strigoii* (1916)
Pastorale-fantaisie (1899)

Capriccio C5340 [55’53”]

Producer Jens Schünemann
Engineers Eckehard Stoffregen, Susanne Beyer

Recorded December 11-14 5-6 2017 at RBB Sendesaal, Berlin

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Capriccio issues the first recording of a major discovery by George Enescu. Strigoii (Ghosts) sets the epic ballad by Mihai Eminescu, Romania’s national poet whose words the composer utilized in two major works (the other, his Fifth Symphony, also remained tantalizingly unfinished)

What’s the music like?

The period between his Second and Third Symphonies (1914-16) saw Enescu writing several major works utterly different from each other. To these can now be added Strigoii, composed at the end of 1916 and left as a detailed draft that was unknown until the 1970s, when Cornel Tăranu realized a version for voices and piano. This duly served as basis for the orchestration by Sabin Păuţa, adhering closely to the draft’s indications and resulting in a substantial piece such as extends the scope of Enescu’s creativity at a crucial point in his compositional career.

How to categorize Strigoii? This release describes it as an oratorio, though the absence of any chorus makes it more akin to a scenic cantata. Eminescu’s text offers numerous opportunities for theatrical treatment, but these are seldom taken – hence the restraint and inwardness that characterizes this work overall. The 45-minute whole falls into three parts which portray the coming together of the ill-fated lovers, redolent of Edgar Allan Poe in its aura of existential doom though with an acceptance of the inevitable as overrides its frequently lurid incidents.

Of the four vocalists, Tiberius Simu and Bogdan Baciu make the most of their minor roles as Arald and the Magus, while Rodica Vica brings lilting eloquence to that of the Queen. By far the most significant is the Narrator, and here Alin Anca excels in his handling of a part whose deploying of a highly personal ‘Sprechgesang’ acts as a thread of continuity over a score most notable for sustaining atmosphere through motivic and textural means; qualities such as Păuţa (who should now consider orchestrating the Op.19 Gregh songs) emphasizes in full measure.

The Pastorale-fantaisie is a delightful makeweight. Premiered in Paris in the wake of Enescu’s ‘breakthrough’ with Poème roumain, it sank without trace then went unheard until relocated by the present conductor and afforded its second hearing after 118 years. Drawing equally on Saint-Saëns and Franck, its eliding of the winsome and ominous is audibly that of the teenage composer whose Symphony in E flat from the previous year would surely have consolidated his reputation had it been performed at this time – pathos and elegance alluringly intertwined.

Does it all work?

Yes. Gabriel Bebeşelea has the (very different) measure of each work, securing a disciplined and committed response from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, and marking him out as a conductor to watch (he has a concert with the Royal Philharmonic at Cadogan Hall on May 1st). The sound has spaciousness with no lack of detail, while there are detailed notes on both pieces, but it could have been made clearer that verses 22-27 of the Eminescu poem were not set by Enescu. The English translation is idiomatic for all its smattering of grammatical errors.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The Enescu discography is the richer for the inclusion of Strigoii, the last major work from Enescu’s maturity to be rescued from the limbo of incompleteness. Hopefully Bebeşelea will go on to record more music by this composer – he clearly has an innate feel for the idiom.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Capriccio website, and more on the conductor Gabriel Bebeşelea here. Details of his concert at the Cadogan Hall with the Royal Philharmonic ORchestra on 1 May are on the venue’s website

Wigmore Mondays – Juilliard Quartet play Lembit Beecher & Dvořák ‘American’ string quartets

Juilliard String Quartet: Areta Zhulla, Ronald Copes (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Astrid Schween (cello) (photo: Claudia Papapietro)

Lembit Beecher One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time (2018) (2:25-23:52 on the link to BBC Sounds below)
Dvořák String Quartet in F major Op.96 ‘American’ (1893) (26:42-54:11)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 14 January 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The Juilliard String Quartet are a very different proposition now to when they were formed in 1946. In the analogue recording years string quartets were almost wholly formed of white male players, and it has been very satisfying to see the trend broadening in the last couple of decades. The Juilliards themselves appear to have hit on a perfect blend of youth and experience, with first violinist Areta Zhulla joining their ranks for the 2018/19 season. On this evidence it has given them a real shot in the arm, helped by their willingness to bring with them a new work from Lembit Beecher. This gave their Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert a symmetrical feel, for Beecher’s new work for string quartet draws from Europe and more specifically Estonia – while Dvořák’s most celebrated ‘American’ String Quartet finds him writing in America but using a melodic style common to both the USA and the Czech Republic.

Beecher first, and the European premiere of One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time. The intriguing title takes as its lead an Estonian melody, a waltz written by Beecher’s grand uncle Ilmar Kiiss, now in his mid-90s. This meaningful piece of music puts its head above the parapet in the first two of the three movements making up the quartet, before fully revealing itself in the third. The movements themselves represent different generations and their telling of the same story, which becomes less detailed as one generation passes to the next. As a result the first contains more definitive incidents, the second is more shadowy and less focussed in detail but poignant in mood, and the third, while recalling the attractive waltz in charming detail, is slower in its movements.

In concert this is a very effective piece of music not just to listen to but to watch. The busy conversations of the first movement (2:25 on the broadcast link) feel as though Beecher had set words to music, removing them just before performance, and making the first violin the loudest voice. This reaches a natural apex through Zhulla’s faultless higher register playing (from 5:10), before subsiding in volume and intensity, to some unusually emotional figures around 7:15 that simply dies on the string.

The second movement (from 11:51) uses subtle but effective techniques such as harmonics to create the shadowy effects, while from 14:51 a sudden injection of pace and volume gets an excitable conversation going again. The tender waltz theme would seem to be from 16:58 on the viola, before the violin ascends to the heights.

The third movement (from 18:39) has mottled textures and a slight lethargy, as though the memories are more difficult to place. Again the violin’s voice is loudest, but the shady movements of the others and the closing tremolos (from around 22:25) give a fragile and autumnal air to proceedings. All these elements were superbly marshalled in performance by the Juilliard Quartet, and made you want to hear more of Beecher’s music.

The Juilliard’s performance of the Dvořák, meanwhile, was a joy. This much-played work – one of the most popular string quartets there is, together with the Debussy and the Ravel works – rediscovers its freshness here. This is thanks in part to Zhulla’s clear affection for the piece. After Roger Tapping’s viola gives a silvery exposition of the first tune, she leads with a beautiful tone once again (26:57), enjoying the outdoor nature of the pentatonic melodies – which, as Gerald Larner’s programme note helpfully point out, seem to be equal parts Bohemia and Iowa. (The pentatonic scale, as its name implies, is made up of just five notes – in this case F (the home key), G, A, C and D). Although Dvořák was on a lengthy vacation when he wrote the string quartet, and was doubtless influenced by the melodies he heard in America, there is never the feeling that his Czech heritage is far away. The sentimental second theme (28:21) bears this out.

Meanwhile Zhulla and cellist Astrid Schween capture the bittersweet main melody of the slow movement to perfection (37:18) and (38:03), the rocking motion of its accompaniment acting as a lullaby. The ensemble enjoys the scampering figures of the Scherzo (44:47) before a brief Trio section (46:58) brings forward what the composer believed to be the song of the scarlet tanager in the first violin. The Scherzo resumes shortly after at 47:44.

The finale (48:52) is bold and positive in this performance, the quartet enjoying the abundance of tunes available to them – most of them taking in the pentatonic scale once again, with a rustic, outdoor feel.

With the bonus of a Haydn encore in the same key and mood (the Minuet from his Op.77/2 quartet at 56:06), this was the ideal January concert, an inspiring and optimistic pairing of works that celebrate the diversity of culture but also look at the heritage of each and bring them together. A lesson for the future in this country, perhaps?

Further Listening

Lembit Beecher’s One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time is not currently available online; however you can listen below to his previous work for string quartet, Small Infinities:

The Juilliard String Quartet recorded Dvořák’s American string quartet all the way back in 1968 – yet that version does not appear to have yet reached Spotify. The below link is to a recent disc from the Škampa Quartet, coupling the quartet with the String Quintet in E flat major published immediately after. It is similarly free-spirited:

Further Reading

Lembit Beecher’s composer website contains detailed information on his output, with a healthy dose of videos and audio tracks. Meanwhile you can read more about the Juilliard String Quartet at their website. For a biography of Antonin Dvořák, this dedicated site to the composer is recommended.

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics II: Brahms, Mendelssohn & Schumann

Nash Ensemble: Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), Lawrence Power, Timothy Ridout (violas), Adrian Brendel (cello), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford, Marie Lloyd (clarinets), Ursula Leveaux (bassoon), Richard Watkins (horn) / Martyn Brabbins (conductor, Brahms Serenade)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2018 7.30pm

Schumann Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (1853)
Brahms String Quintet no.2 in G major Op.111 (1890)
Mendelssohn Song Without Words in D major Op.109 (1845)
Brahms, reconstructed Alan Boustead Serenade no.1 in D major Op.11 (1857/58)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The second of the day’s concerts in the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall presented some of the finest 19th century chamber music to come from the country, picking up where the earlier concert of music by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn left off.

We began with late Robert Schumann, his Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (Fairy Tales), written for the appealing combination of clarinet, viola and piano that Mozart had pioneered in his own Kegelstatt trio of 1786. Schumann’s approach was formally less rigid, preferring to give his trio a quartet of character pieces, unlabelled in meaning but clear in tempo. Richard Hosford, Lawrence Power and Ian Brown were the perfect foil for these pieces, where the second especially stood out for its questioning harmony. The first and third pieces were songlike and romantic, while the fourth felt like one of Schumann’s celebrations of life itself. It is difficult to imagine a better performance than this one, the beauty of tone from clarinet and viola in particular a joy.

BrahmsString Quintet no.2, his last of seven chamber works for strings, is if anything even more positive and life affirming. While writing the piece in 1890 Brahms thought it would be his last work altogether, before going on to enjoy an unexpected Indian summer thanks to the inspiration of clarinettist Richard Mühlfield. The opening bars of the quintet are some of the very best in chamber music, and the tricky theme here was tackled heroically by cellist Adrian Brendel, the melody rising through the heady accompaniment of the others. The second theme of this movement was beautifully and soulfully rendered, setting the tone in the process for the second movement, an Adagio of heartfelt and profound utterance. The third movement, a silvery Intermezzo, was light on its feet while the finale recaptured the positive spirits of the first movement and pressed forward with impressive urgency. The Nash played brilliantly, communicating Brahms’ congested textures with apparent ease and enjoying the exchanges of ideas right to the end.

The second half of the concert, given to a packed Wigmore Hall, began with one of Mendelssohn’s most enjoyable trifles. His last work for cello and piano, the Song Without Words has at its heart a wonderful tune, which Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown clearly enjoyed. Brendel’s tone and forcefulness in the contrasting middle section were ideal.

This made an ideal prelude for early Brahms, the Serenade no.1. This wonderfully positive piece is usually heard in orchestral form, but here we heard Alan Boustead’s recreation of the original instrumentation of the piece, for nine solo instruments. With the combination of flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, we were taken into the sound world of Beethoven’s Septet, written for a similar combination. Musically we were not far off either, and Martyn Brabbins joined the Nash Ensemble to conduct a highly spirited performance. Richard Watkins’ horn was the star of the show, projecting Brahms’s outdoorsy tunes with rustic charm, but in reality all nine players were superb, enjoying the relative lightness of texture and abundance of melody. The slow movement was placed second – not third, as the program said it would be – but this was an effective placement with some gorgeous textures. While this music was more thoughtful the Minuets and Scherzo returned us to the open air, while the Finale positively threw open the shutters for another winsome horn tune. This was Brahms at his most carefree, and Brabbins ensured the Nash Ensemble were too.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall visit their website

Further listening

The below Spotify playlist compiles the music used in both of the evening’s German Romantics series from the Nash Ensemble, using their recordings where possible:

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics I: Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn

Nash Ensemble: Stephanie Gonley (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), Ian Brown (piano)

Clara Schumann 3 Romances for violin and piano Op.22 (1853)
Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes for cello and piano Op.17 (1829)
Fanny Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor Op.11 (1847)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2019 (5.30pm)

Review by Ben Hogwood

As part of the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics season at the Wigmore Hall, it was gratifying indeed to find a concert paying tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as composers in their own right rather than simply inspiration for their more frequently performed husbands.

Clara was the muse for Robert Schumann, and even after his death sacrificed her own career as a composer to ensure his music was best heard. Here we heard her last published work, the 3 Romances of 1853, written when Robert was still alive. Using a method of presentation her husband often employed in chamber music, she wrote these three attractive pieces for great violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom Clara gave the first performance in Germany. Stephanie Gonley and Ian Brown gave a thoughtful and rather beautiful account here, Gonley’s tone and phrasing ideally suited to the longer romantic melodies. The first piece was tender and expressive, the second thoughtful but with glimpses of sunshine, and the third a flowing account with an attractive, long-phrased melody.

There followed the Variations concertantes Op.19, the first of several works by Felix Mendelssohn for cello and piano. Written for his younger brother Paul, they are a virtuoso collection of far reaching interpretations of a theme, and were brilliantly played here by Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown, whose eager dialogue caught the energetic approach of the early Mendelssohn. The music moved from affirmative major key to tempestuous minor, but its return was a beautifully realised shift in mood.

We then heard Fanny Mendelssohn’s final published work, a Piano Trio to place alongside – if not even slightly ahead of – the two great works in the form by her brother. With the unison opening from violin and cello, presented above flowing piano figurations, she immediately ensures the audience are held in the drama of a piece that picks you up from the outset and doesn’t let you go.

Gonley, Brendel and Brown were ideal vehicles to present the piece, revelling in the exchanges of the first movement and the warmly romantic themes when the music became more affirmative. The middle two movements, effectively Songs Without Words in the Mendelssohn tradition, were beautifully presented with lyricism and charm, the third becoming distinctly chilly towards its close, leading to a cadenza from Brown to resume the drama in the final movement. The considerable struggles here were played out with thrilling virtuosity, distilling even the most complicated counterpoint before a glorious closing section that swept all before it.

It is to be hoped Clara Schumann’s 200th anniversary year – together with festival’s such as Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place – will raise the profile of women composers, which it has to be said could hardly have been lower in previous years. Concerts such as this help immensely, bringing forward the quality evident from both Clara and Fanny, with the pertinent reminder that neither Schumann nor Mendelssohn – nor indeed Brahms – could have achieved their musical goals without these creative forces.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble and their German Romantics series, visit their website

Further listening

You can listen to the music from both concerts of the latest German Romantics evening on the Spotify playlist below:

In concert – Alberto Portugheis: My Favourite Schumann

Alberto Portugheis (piano)

Schumann
Papillons Op.2 (1831)
Toccata in C major Op.7 (1836)
Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1839)

St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London
Friday 11 January 2019

Review by Ben Hogwood

What do you want to be doing at the age of 78? A strange question with which to begin a concert review, you might think, but have a think about your answer before reading on. If you are blessed with the faculties of Argentinian pianist Alberto Portugheis, you will be able to give a recital of Schumann in a central London church, a free concert with which you can illustrate your clear love of music.

There is a steady twinkle in the eyes of this particular pianist, which was clear as he modestly took the applause for three of his favourite pieces by one of the piano’s very best 19th century composers. He began with the early Papillons Op.2, a collection of postcard-sized illustrations full of melody and character completed in Schumann’s twentieth year. Its main theme is a Chopinesque waltz, which Portugheis played with clear affection, before the music goes on to pay clearer homage to Schubert. The ear took a while to adjust to the relatively reverberant acoustic of the church, but the phrasing was clear. Perhaps inevitably there were some technical issues with the most congested and loudest writing, the pianist occasionally missing his octaves and higher notes, but the level of expression invested in the playing more than compensated for this. The final moments, the Grandfathers’ Dance – where Schumann combines the end of the dance with the chimes of six o’clock in the morning – were magical, Portugheis fading the dynamic with beautiful control.

The Toccata in C major Op.7 was next, a very busy piece whose relentless, motoric figuration stayed throughout – and eventually provided great inspiration to a young Prokofiev for his own Toccata of 1912. Some of the detail of Portugheis’s figuration was lost in the bigger acoustic of St James’s but the energy and drive were beyond doubt, with a lovely articulation of the softer second idea.

Finally there was a relatively rare chance to enjoy Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (Carnival Scenes from Vienna), begun by the composer in the Austrian capital in 1839. In formal terms it is a lopsided work, with a first piece that lasts almost the same length of time as the next four combined, but its characterisation of the busy festival season is vivid and fulsome. The refrain of the first piece (simply marked Allegro) becomes something of an earworm, and Portugheis clearly enjoyed its reappearances, but he was careful to characterise each slight diversion and also stressed the dissonances towards the end.

The sombre Romance followed, then a playful Scherzino, where you could almost feel the nudge in the ribs, before a deeply felt Intermezzo. The Finale has a torrent of notes which presented a much greater challenge, but while he may have struggled a little more obviously Portugheis met these head on, the twinkle in the eye visible once again. Such an approach is ideal for Schumann’s character pieces, and these carnival pranks were very much enjoyed as a result. Happy birthday Alberto…if we’re half as lively as you at the age of 78 we will have done well indeed!

For more information on the St James’s Church lunchtime recital series, visit their website

Further listening

Alberto Portugheis has not committed any Schumann to record, but you can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below: