Wigmore Mondays: Tai Murray & Silke Avenhaus play Grieg, Philip Glass & Saint-Saëns

Tai Murray (violin, above); Silke Avenhaus (piano, below)

Grieg Violin Sonata no.2 in G major Op.13 (1867)
Glass Pendulum (2010)
Saint-Saëns Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.75 (1885)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 November 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was an imaginative and invigorating recital from two instrumentalists at the very top of their game. It also brought forward two of the lesser lights in the violin and piano repertoire, giving exposure to composers for whom melody came naturally.

Edvard Grieg’s three sonatas for violin and piano are consistently rewarding. Three weeks previously at the Wigmore Hall we heard Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova in the Violin Sonata no.3; now Murray and Avenhaus gave a passionate performance of its predecessor.

Of a largely sunny disposition, the Violin Sonata no.2 in G major is one of the first works to introduce home-grown folksong into the Norwegian composer’s output. Tai Murray seized the opportunity for drama with an assertive introduction, countering Silke Avenhaus’s thoughtful opening in the minor key (1:49). From 3:17 they moved to the first movement proper, enjoying the attractive, dance-like melodies in a bright exchange, though this was countered by a more reflective, minor-key theme (heard again at 8:19).

Grieg used this key for the slow movement, which began in dreamy, reflective mood (11:09). Soon however the violin was soaring higher and faster, before subsiding to a beautiful, airy second theme, back in the major key (12:47). The third movement once again suggested the outdoors with the piano drone (16:55) and another folksy melody, the violin stepping in exuberantly – and another dreamy episode from 19:02. After a recapitulation of the drone material at 20:18 Murray and Avenhaus led us to a grand coda, a passionate finish in a similar vein to the soon to be published Piano Concerto.

Philip Glass’s Pendulum, originally written for piano trio, appeared here in a duo version sanctioned by the composer. Even when Glass is at his most delicate, great demands are placed on the performers, especially when set the kind of athletic arpeggio figures Murray and Avenhaus had here (from 24:30). They responded with an energetic performance but also took great care with the subtleties of Glass’s writing at the start of the piece, with a steady tread on the lower notes of the piano. The nervous energy was never far from the surface, growing as the oscillations became ever wider, leading to a sweeping finish at 31:47.

The mystery that Saint-SaënsViolin Sonata no.1 is not more often performed is solved by its fiendishly difficult but utterly exhilarating finale. Until then, the work – completed in 1885 – had already made a strong impact, thanks to the composer’s clever grouping of the four movements into pairs of two, and the irregular but strangely effective phrasing of the melodies.

From the start of the first movement (34:02) Murray and Avenhaus set a tense, nervy atmosphere, the violin and piano shadowboxing each other. The second theme (35:37) was equally nervy, despite the flowing piano’s suggestions of the Organ symphony. The recapitulation in this dramatic movement reached a climax at 39:55 with some concerto-esque playing from the piano before the flowing theme returned, Saint-Saëns moving us seamlessly into the second movement (from 43:25)

This respite, a rather beautiful reverie, was broken by the third movement Scherzo (from 48:00), a throwback to the composer’s Danse macabre, with irregular phrases and the instruments mirroring each other again. There was a flowing trio section (from 49:58) but before long we were back to the Scherzo (50:58). Another seamless transition set up the finale (from 52:05), scampering out of the blocks with some remarkable playing from both players, responding to the technical demands with apparent ease and bringing back the second theme from the first movement in a beautiful passage of playing from 56:08. Then the music built for the final time, surging into the major key where a cascade of bells rang out from the piano (57:03), before the emphatic finish.

A terrific concert, this, with no need for an encore. At its best Saint-Saëns’ music can be breathtaking, and this was one such wholly enjoyable occasion!

Further listening

Tai Murray has yet to record any of the music played in this concert, but the playlist below contains some of the best available versions:

If you particularly enjoyed the Grieg, I wholeheartedly recommend a disc bringing together all three of the composer’s sonatas for violin and piano, played by Augustin Dumay and Maria-João Pires:

It remains a mystery as to why the Saint-Saëns sonatas are not performed more often. If you listen to the collection below you will find some persuasive accounts of the Second Violin Sonata, the Cello Sonatas and works for clarinet, oboe and bassoon:

Live review – CBSO Weinberg Weekend: Symphony no.21 & Shostakovich: Symphony no.15

Freddie Jemison (treble), Maria Makeeva (soprano), Gidon Kremer (violin, above), Kremerata BalticaCity of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Grazinyte-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 24 November 2018, 11am

Weinberg Symphony no.21 op.152
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major op.141

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Weinberg Weekend being held in Birmingham reached its culmination tonight with this uncompromising yet rewarding symphonic double-bill. Those unfamiliar with the composer’s music may have been disconcerted by what they heard. Whereas the early Violin Concertino (heard at the previous concert) feels not so far removed from comparable works by Malcolm Arnold, the Symphony no.21 breathes an air of stark fatalism. Written at a time which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and dedicated to the memory of those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto (the ‘Kaddish’ subtitle is found in his catalogue but not the actual score), it ranks among Weinberg’s deepest statements. At almost an hour it is also among his longest symphonies, so making its predominant sparseness and concentration the more remarkable.

The single movement falls into several continuous sections – an initial Largo’ introducing the plangent hymn that pervades the work then the chorale whose presence Weinberg traced back to his First Symphony, their alternation making way for the opening theme of Chopin’s First Ballade intoned somnolently on piano. An Allegro draws a theme from Weinberg’s Fourth Quartet into its reckless orbit, while a further Largo similarly utilizes one from his Double-Bass Sonata – the latter’s sepulchral tones sounding more bizarre given the ensuing klezmer-like passage with clarinet, which persists through a tensile Presto then plaintive Andantino that brings the principal climax. A final Lento unfolds with increasing introspection – violin, piano and harmonium adding their spectral sonorities until the music fades out of earshot.

The work went unheard in Weinberg’s lifetime, with its undoubted technical and emotional challenges having made revivals rare. Yet its formal cohesion and expressive consistency are undoubted – in the conveying of which, Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla took especial credit for rendering the epic structure as an inevitable yet cumulative entity whose febrile outbursts were held in check by that encroaching vastness which extends right across the whole. She was abetted by an assured response from the City of Birmingham Symphony, bolstered by members of Kremerata Baltica (Gidon Kremer taking the violin solos), and if dividing the vocalise between eloquent Maria Makeeva and plaintive Freddie Jemison slightly disrupted continuity in the closing stages, it hardly distracted from the stature of this reading overall.

Shostakovich‘s Symphony no.15 made a pertinent coupling, with Grazinyte-Tyla having its measure right from her purposeful take on the opening Allegretto. The Adagio’s ominous tread was finely sustained, its numerous solo passages having ample room to unfold prior to an anguished climax then desolate coda, while the brief scherzo fairly crackled with barbed irony. Nor was there any lack of focus in the finale, emerging from its miasma of allusions through to a spectral passacaglia whose seismic culmination never pre-empted the subdued recollection of earlier ideas or, above all, the transfigured conclusion with its evocation of ‘voices overheard’ over simmering percussion. It set the seal on an impressive performance and a memorable concert: one which certainly warrants the proposed commercial release.

Sunday morning saw a lecture in the Recital Hall at the recently-opened Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. As presented by Prof David Fanning (Manchester University) and Dr Michelle Assay (Huddersfield University), Exploring Weinberg offered a selective though consistently informative overview of the composer’s life and career: from his formative years in Warsaw, via his arrival in Moscow following periods in Minsk then Tashkent against the background of war; the dark years of the anti-formalism campaign then his incarceration during the final months of Stalin’s increasingly paranoid rule, then to the decades of growing acclaim from colleagues and public alike during the 1960s and ’70s, before a period of increasing neglect as a new generation of Soviet composers came to the fore and the Soviet Union neared its end.

The lecture was illustrated with numerous visual and musical examples, but it was archival recording of Weinberg playing and singing extracts from his opera The Passenger to the Moscow Union of Composers – in a futile attempt to secure its performance – that riveted attention. Hearing a composer’s actual voice is seldom less than revealing and so it proved here, setting the seal on an event which was certainly worth attending despite the absence of a selection of chamber works from Conservatoire students that was to have followed.

Summing up, the Weinberg Weekend fairly succeeded in terms of introducing Birmingham audiences to music by a composer whose importance continues to increase and as a prelude to what looks set to be a deluge of UK performances over the course of his centenary year.

Further information on the Weinberg Weekend can be found here

Live review – CBSO Weinberg Weekend: Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica

Gidon Kremer (violin), Georgijs Osokina (piano), Kremerata Baltica (above)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Saturday 24 November 2018, 11am

Bach-Busoni (arr. Kremer) Chaconne in D minor BWV1004/5 (c1720)
Weinberg Concertino for Violin and Strings in A minor op.42 (1948)
‘Schubert meets Silvestrov’:
Schubert Five Minuets and Six Trios D89 (1813) and Der Musensohn D764 (1822) interspersed with
Silvestrov Five Pieces for violin and piano (2004)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Having launched the Weinberg Weekend with his impressive transcription of the 24 Preludes for cello, Gidon Kremer this morning bought Kremerata Baltica to Birmingham’s Town Hall for a programme that placed Weinberg within a typically stimulating and unexpected context.

Few who have heard Weinberg’s opera The Passenger could have been left unmoved by that climactic moment when the opening of Bach‘s Chaconne is intoned by unison violins as the symbol of an enduring German culture. Disappointing, then, that Kremer’s own arrangement of Busoni’s mighty piano transcription (as referenced at the opening) should have proved so underwhelming; or was it more the demands of synchronization when not conducted that led Kremerata Baltica to neuter textural and emotional contrasts in this immaculate yet unresponsive rendering.

Kremer then joined his ensemble for Weinberg’s Violin Concertino, a product of late-1940s Soviet culture when accessibility was not just desired but proscribed. While there is little in its melodic content of real memorability, the deftness and subtlety with which the composer unfolds his ideas across an ingratiating Allegretto, ruminative Adagio (whose cadenza-like introduction brings the most arresting music) then an incisive final Allegro is nothing if not resourceful. Even then, this attractive piece waited almost half a century for its first hearing.

Kremer and his ensemble made the most of these attractions, as they did in the final piece – a curious though effective dovetailing of miniatures from Schubert and Silvestrov. The former was heard in transcriptions (by Kremer?) of an early sequence of minuets and trios for string quartet, his teenage gaucheness outweighed by melodic poise and rhythmic brio. In between these, Valentin Silvestrov’s Five Pieces proved suitably elusive – Kremer and pianist Georgijs Osokina teasing myriad subtleties from a subdued elegy, wistful serenade, poetic intermezzo, limpid barcarolle and haunting nocturne. The sequence was rounded off with an arrangement (by Christoph Ehrenfellner) of Schubert’s song Der Musensohn, one of a handful of Goethe settings that mark the onset of his full maturity; here working its bewitching charms in full.

A bewitching way, indeed, to conclude a typically provocative programme by this always enterprising ensemble. Kremer’s and Kremerata Baltica will also be taking part in tonight’s concert which features a very different piece by Weinberg, his valedictory 21st Symphony.

Further information on the Weinberg Weekend can be found here

Live review – CBSO Weinberg Weekend: Gidon Kremer – Preludes to a Lost Time (Imaginary Dialogues)

Gidon Kremer (above, violin), Antanas Sutkus (photographs)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 23 November 2018

Weinberg (arr. Kremer) 24 Preludes op.100 (1968)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

His centenary may be over a year away, but the City of Birmingham Symphony has set the ball rolling with a weekend centred upon the music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-96), the Polish-born Soviet composer who has latterly (in terms of recording) come in from the cold.

The weekend opened with a performance of the 24 Preludes written for, but never played by, Mstislav Rostropovich and unheard publicly until 1995. These have now been transcribed for violin by Gidon Kremer, whose recent commitment to Weinberg’s cause has been typically unstinting, and it was he – in his capacity as the orchestra’s artist-in-residence for this season – who gave this evening’s performance in the clear though never clinical acoustic of CBSO Centre. His playing was accompanied throughout with overhead projections from Antanas Sutkus, the Lithuanian photographer whose images afford an overview of life in the latter decades of the Soviet bloc such as seems the more affecting for its starkness and restraint.

Just like Weinberg’s music, in fact – the Preludes finding their composer in combative mood as he neared his fiftieth year. Unlike Chopin and Shostakovich, he tackled the sequence not as a circle of fifths but as an arc of 12 ascending then 12 descending semitones – implying a two-part structure complemented by the three ‘waves’ as discerned by Yosif Feigelson (who gave the premiere). Equally plausible is a four-movement format with pivotal roles assumed by the stealthy sixth, confiding 12th, stately 18th then wistful 24th preludes. Throughout the sequence, pieces rich in allusion offset others which focus upon primary musical essentials.

A fascinating and expressively wide-ranging opus, then, to which Kremer did full justice in his skilful and idiomatic transcription; his taut and incisive tone only adding to the plangency of this music. A pity, perhaps, that Sutkus’s photographs could not have ‘bled’ from one to the other in a visual continuity rather then changing (as was often the case) mid-prelude, but this hardly hindered appreciation of the music overall. Kremer received an enthusiastic response from a near-capacity audience, so launching this Weinberg Weekend in impressive fashion.

Further information on the Weinberg Weekend can be found here

Wigmore Mondays: Roberta Invernizzi – Songs from the Early Italian Baroque

Roberta Invernizzi (soprano, above); Rodney Prada (viola da gamba), Craig Marchitelli (lute, baroque guitar), Franco Pavan (lute)

Caccini Dolcissimo sospiro (1601) (1:54-4:37), Dalla porta d’oriente (1614) (4:39-6:35)
Kapsberger Passacaglia (unknown) (6:45-10:38)
Monteverdi Ecco di dolci raggi (1623) (11:49-14:28), Disprezzata Regina from L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642-3) (14:29-19:25)
Bassani Toccata per B quadro (21:05-22:18)
Frescobaldi Canzone a basso solo (22:20-24:43)
Merula Folle è ben che si crede (1638) (24:58-27:40)
Rossi La bella più bella (27:53-30:42)
Kapsberger Toccata Arpeggiata (31:51-34:27)
D’India Intenerite voi, lagrime mie (1609) (34:56-, Cruda Amarilli (1609) (37:31-40:10)
Monteverdi Si dolce è’l tormento (1624) (41:22-43:33), Voglio di vita uscir (43:37-48:20)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19 November 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

If – like me – you know rather less about the music the Italian Baroque than you feel you would like to, this is a great place to start. In the course of a very nicely balanced concert of vocal and instrumental music, soprano Roberta Invernizzi showed off the extent of harmonic daring at work in the 17th century. She did so in a very unfussy way, her voice superbly controlled but also allowing herself plenty of room for expressive freedom, enhanced by gestures to the audience that spoke of nothing but pure involvement.

From left to right looking at the Wigmore Hall stage was the stylish trio in accompaniment – Rodney Prada, with the wonderful sound of his six-string viola da gamba (essentially an early cello), and then the lutenists Craig Marchitelli – a long time accompanist of Invernizzi – and Franco Pavan. They switched between lutes and baroque guitars.

The quartet began with the florid vocal display of Caccini‘s Dolcissimo sospiro (1:54 on the broadcast link), a wonderfully airy rendering, which gave way to the fluid dance of Dalla porta d’oriente (4:39). There followed a surprisingly introspective but harmonically rich Passacaglia from Girolamo Kapsberger (6:45), the lute and baroque guitar down in the lower regions but making an attractive, mellow sound in a superb account from Marchitelli and Pavan.

The flexibility of Invernizzi’s voice was immediately apparent at the start of Monteverdi’s madrigal Ecco di dolci raggi (11:49), a bright song with subtle pointing from the lute and guitar, the viola da gamba joining a little way in. A more dramatic text took hold at 12:55 to the open-stringed twang of the lute. Then at 14:29 we experienced a further dramatic turn, and a more obviously operatic setting for an aria from Monteverdi’s opera ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’, laden with dramatic tension, with both fret players transferring to theorbos (also a type of lute)

The Bassani Toccata (21:05) began with a lovely, throaty low melody on the viola da gamba, before the Frescobaldi Canzone arrived and took us through more dance-like sections, still in the lower range, and ending in the major key. Invenizzi returned for another beautifully uplifting song where purity of tone and well-judged vibrato mixed freely, Rossi’s La bella più bella a rapturous dance in her hands.

It is amazing how modern some very old music can sound sometimes (to use a huge generalisation!) but Kapsberger’s Toccata Arpeggiata (34:11- could almost be from a recent electronic musician, such is its inventiveness with harmony and texture within the lutes playing it. Although a display piece it also serves as an effective meditation, and the sounds of baroque guitar and lute were mesmerising in the hands of Marchitelli and Pavan.

Two madrigals from Sigismondo d’India followed (34:56), and there was suddenly a very serious tone to Invernizzi’s vocal. These two laments were deeply felt, and again deliberately strained against conventional harmonic resolution so that the tension was heightened throughout. The second, Cruda Amarilli (37:31) had the twang of the lute to accentuate its impact.

Finally we turned to Monteverdi and Si dolce è’l tormento (So sweet is the pain) (41:22), a song with higher notes of striking clarity. This was followed by the distinctive ‘hook’ applied to Voglio di vita uscir (I want to leave this life behind) (43:37), a song that despite its persuasive lilt had a dark side.

For a well-deserved encore, the four performers offered the Caccini song Amarilli mia bella (My Beautiful Amaryllis) (50:37-53:14), capping a performance that, as BBC Radio 3 presenter Andrew McGregor remarked, gave ‘a masterclass in ornamentation’.

Further listening

The music from this concert – most of it available in recordings by Invernizzi herself – can be heard on the playlist below:

Invernizzi has completed a number of discs of Italian song, of which two are below – Songs from Early Baroque Italy:

and Music for Harp and Soprano in early Baroque Rome: