On record: Stephen Hough – Debussy: Piano Music (Hyperion)

Debussy Piano Music Stephen Hough (piano)

Estampes (1903)
Images Set I (1905)
Images Set II (1907)
Children’s Corner (1906/8)
La plus que lente (1910)
L’isle joyeuse (1903/4)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This centenary-year collection from Stephen Hough takes in Debussy’s best-known suites for piano, simultaneously offering an ideal introduction to the composer’s music.

What’s the music like?

This disc is a great illustration of the strides Debussy made in piano music in the first decade of the 20th century. Starting with Estampes, Stephen Hough immediately shows the listener how the added note chords, elusive melodic figures and watery textures still create pictures of deep emotional substance. Every note counts with Debussy, and his music uses some particularly alluring chord progressions, creating pictures and moods unlike any composer of the day.

So too with both books of Images, the style further developed, while making more obvious references to the composers influential in Debussy’s development (the Hommage a Rameau for instance). The mood becomes more playful with Children’s Corner, much loved for its characterisations of infant toys. The Golliwogg’s Cake Walk is a big part of this, its winsome syncopations and catchy tune both reasons for its place as one of the composer’s best-loved pieces. It is a great example of a tricky piece made to sound simple.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Stephen Hough clearly loves these pieces; he knows just how he wants them to go, and in Children’s Corner he is not afraid to bring out the inner infant. Estampes and Images are richly coloured and commandingly played, the piano sound offering clean and precisely shaded pictures. Hough’s masterly command of the phrasing in La soirée dans Grenade is especially impressive, while Jardins sons la pluie is also brilliantly played.

The Images are lovely. Reflets d’ans l’eau melts under Hough’s soft touch, while Mouvements shows off the technical ability he has in spades, with flawless octave playing giving clarity above the whirl of notes beneath. By contrast Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is exquisitely restrained, Hough paying particular attention to the colour realised in his slow picture painting.

The addition of short pieces La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse offer great space and colour, the icing on the cake of this recital.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If Debussy’s piano music is new to you, let this be the way in. If it is already familiar then these interpretations will bring it to life once more, exploring the composer’s love of the dance and also his ability to create sounds and textures placing the piano in a whole new context. Buy it and be transported away.

Wigmore Mondays: SCO Wind Soloists play Beethoven & Poulenc

Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists (above) [Robin Williams, Rosie Staniforth (oboes), Maximiliano Martín, William Stafford (clarinets), Peter Whelan, Alison Green (bassoons), Alec Frank-Gemmill, Harry Johnstone (horns)]

Beethoven Sextet in E flat major Op.71 (1796) (from 1:49-19:22 on the broadcast link)
Poulenc Sonata for clarinet and bassoon (1922, rev.1945) (22:30-30:30)
Beethoven Octet in E flat major Op.103 (1792-3) (33:02-54:09)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 12 February 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

There is something immediately comforting and inspiring about the sonorities of a wind ensemble, and in this debut Wigmore Hall concert from the SCO Wind Soloists we got to enjoy Beethoven’s way with those sounds, as well as some typically mischievous tricks from Francis Poulenc.

The late opus numbers assigned to Beethoven’s Sextet and Octet are misleading, for both are comparatively early works that were published much later in the composer’s life. The Sextet, written in Beethoven’s mid-20s, is however unusual in missing out flutes and oboes in its instrumentation, presumably due to those available at the time.

Writing for a pair each of clarinets, bassoons and horns, there was a lovely deeper sound on offer, and this was fully exploited by the SCO Wind Soloists, with the bonus of the slight rasp Alec Frank-Gemmill and Harry Johnstone added with their natural horns. A thoughtful Adagio introduction (from 1:49 on the broadcast link) was soon replaced by a good natured Allegro (2:42).

The music of greatest depth could be found in the Adagio (8:56), with some lovely harmonies and intimate dialogue between the instruments. A brief but nimble Menuetto (13:00), horns in the lead, led to a charming, march-like Rondo (15:34) which wrapped up the piece in good spirits.

Poulenc wrote brilliantly for wind instruments throughout his life, usually with a spiky piano part adding a bit of extra punch to proceedings, but here we heard his music stripped back to just clarinet (Maximiliano Martín) and bassoon (Peter Whelan). This was a brilliant, fun performance, and in the first movement it felt as though the bassoon part had been written specifically to derail the clarinet’s flow. Whelan failed in this aim – but only just! A soft-hearted Romance (24:39) still had some deliberately awkward writing for the bassoon, but it set up a mischievous and perky finale (27:34), crowning a small gem of a piece lasting just eight minutes.

Beethoven’s earlier Octet – early-20s this time – builds on the instrumentation of the Sextet by adding two oboes to the treble end. It is more adventurous in musical content and form, and began with a lovely Allegro (33:02), which gave way to a touching second movement Andante (40:57), led off beautifully by oboist Robin Williams and shadowed equally lyrically by Peter Whelan.

The third movement, a lively Minuet (47:07), is in fact more of a Scherzo, a sign of how Beethoven was upgrading this movement to something much more assertive and energetic. The ensemble here was crisp and incisive, while in the quick finale (50:29), led off by the gurgling clarinet figures, the group enjoyed the close interplay of Beethoven’s writing.

The SCO Wind Soloists clearly relished their Wigmore Hall appearance, and have a distinctive rapport – lots of smiles, subtle encouragement and teamwork in evidence throughout the concert. It fitted the function of Beethoven’s music perfectly, and also suited the humour of the encore, an arrangement by Josef Triebensee of Fin ch’han dal vino from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (55:20). It crowned a thoroughly enjoyable concert.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the below Spotify playlist:

The SCO Wind Soloists will be releasing a disc of Beethoven works for wind instruments shortly on Linn Records, further details of which can be found here You can watch an excerpt from their previous release of Mozart, also on Linn, below:

Mozart and Beethoven were among the first to properly exploit the wind ensemble as a form for communal playing. Mozart wrote several Serenades for different combinations of wind instruments, the best-known of which is the lovely Gran Partita of 1781-2. In seven movements, it is one of his very finest works:

On record: Peter Donohoe – Stravinsky: Music for Piano Solo and with orchestra (Somm Recordings)

Stravinsky Music for Piano Solo and with orchestra Peter Donohoe (piano), Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra / David Atherton (Somm Recordings)

3 Movements from Petrushka (1921)
4 Études Op.7 (1908)
Piano Sonata in F sharp minor (1903-4)
Piano Sonata (1924)
Serenade in A major (1925)
Piano-Rag-Music (1919)
Tango (1940)
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-4, rev.1950)
Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1958-9)
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929/1949)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Stravinsky’s output for piano is, perhaps not surprisingly, overshadowed by the blockbuster ballets. Yet, as recent collections from Steven Osborne and Jean Efflam-Bavouzet have shown, there is plenty to wonder at and enjoy here. Peter Donohoe takes up the mantle and goes one step further, providing an extra disc of the composer’s music for solo piano.

What’s the music like?

Extremely varied, and often spiky, exploring the piano’s capabilities as a rhythm instrument as well as a melodic one. Some of the solo works have a relatively dry musical palette, but all have interest and the earlier ones work especially well here.

The Four Études are virtuoso pieces with their roots in the language of Romantic Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and early Scriabin. The two Piano Sonatas are a great illustration of the difference between early and middle period Stravinsky. The first, an expansive half-hour piece in F sharp minor draws inspiration from the composer’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov as well as the Grand Sonata of Tchaikovsky. The composer had no time for it, declaring it ‘fortunately lost’ – unaware it was under lock and key in the National Library of Russia.

The Piano Sonata of 1924, a third of its length, inhabits a different world, ‘neo-classical’ Stravinsky compressing his music into forms derived from the 18th century. The perky Serenade and the short Piano-Rag-Music and Tango make a nice, sprightly contrast to the bigger works, as do the death-defying Three Movements from Petrushka. Always a spectacular experience, these sections from the ballet faithfully reproduce the colour of the orchestra and are a technical summit that pianists cannot resist conquering.

The works for piano with orchestra are fascinating. The Concerto for Piano and Wind has a stern face and is on occasion a bit caustic – the composer contrasting ‘sounds struck and blown’ in driving rhythms. In its slow music however there is a more intimate, even vulnerable heart. Movements, a set of five postcards dating from Stravinsky’s move away from conventional tonality, remain full of interest in their syncopations, tonal movement and snapshots of humour. Finally the three-movement Capriccio is a refreshing burst of energy in its outer movements, the last movement especially turning into a riot.

Does it all work?

Yes. Peter Donohoe is an expert guide to this music, his pedigree in Russian piano music almost unrivalled among his contemporaries. Those recordings of Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich serve him in good stead to present a consistent and illuminating portrait of Stravinsky in his very different phases.

He is a model of clarity in the trickier contours of the more modern works, making the most of the composer’s rhythmic impetus and bringing in humour when the chance allows. In the slow movement of the Concerto he sets the mood with a calming simplicity, enjoying heartfelt dialogue with the chorales of the Hong Kong winds.

In the more overtly Romantic music he is a model of virtuoso performance. The flurry of notes in the fourth Etude are superbly delivered, while in the grand Sonata in F sharp minor Donohoe makes a compelling case for the work despite its massive structure. The shorter pieces work well too, the spiky side to Stravinsky coming to the surface.

David Atherton, also a seasoned interpreter of the composer, secures excellent playing from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra wind in the Concerto especially, their block sounds beautifully rendered. Those sonorities are also beneficial to the Capriccio and Movements, which are suitably punchy. These are slightly older recordings, from the mid to late 1990s, but hold up extremely well.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The musical contents may not be as immediately appealing as the ballets, maybe, yet this is a collection rewarding closer inspection. Spending time with this music gives a greater insight into Stravinsky’s development as a composer, and even if you love the more Romantic side of Russian piano music the solo works bring their own rewards.

Talking Heads: Huw Watkins

It may not yet feel like it (in the UK at least!) but Spring is just around the corner. With a timely intervention, Huw Watkins (above) has not long had the first performance of a piece with that very title, given by the orchestra of which he is Composer-in-Association, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. When Arcana catches up with him, however, his thoughts are with a boyhood favourite, the Britten Piano Concerto – centrepiece of a concert he has curated for the orchestra.

Immediately Watkins is enthusiastic about the Britten performance, and the orchestra’s prowess. “I have to say the orchestral parts are sounding brilliant, and touch wood it’s gone pretty well. It’s a really fun piece to play, and I don’t think the orchestra have ever played this piece before. They are so quick to learn though, and the rehearsal we have just done was done in two hours rather than three!”

The Britten brings its own particular challenges. “I do play concertos but I’m a composer and chamber musician really, so I’m not on the regular circuit. It is always a bit nerve wracking playing with an orchestra again, but this is a work that I am familiar with and have known since university. I did it with the orchestra there, so got to know it very well. It’s a lovely, youthful piece, and the conductor Martyn Brabbins, who I’ve been working with, has done it a lot and knows it very well. He was really excited about this performance, and it was lovely to work with him. I play a lot of chamber music so you have to listen in a different way with the orchestra, leading rather than following.”

Watkins recalls for Arcana his first ever encounters with classical music. “It’s difficult to remember exactly, because music was always around. Paul was already playing the cello and piano, my dad was an amateur viola player, and mum was teaching in school. Before my teenage years I loved playing the piano but I had become a bit bored with it. Then I listened to Stravinsky’s Petrushka and it blew me away when I first heard it – and so did the Britten that I’m about to play! It’s so immediately likeable and fun.”

He then recalls the first meeting he had with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. “I remember that I’d written a piece in 2000, a Sinfonietta-type piece that they did with Grant Llewellyn. I’ve withdrawn it from publication now but it was a great learning piece. As a composer it’s hard to get access to an orchestra regularly so that was a really big thing. Shortly after I wrote my Piano Concerto, which I played myself with tonight’s conductor Martyn Brabbins. We go back a long way!”

How would he describe Spring in the form of a program note? “I didn’t really want to do what was just an aural picture, but the opening felt like that moment just before spring starts. A lot of pieces of music do that but it had a pregnant feel to it. Giving a title to a piece of music is really hard, because if you think of something poetic you become chained to it, but it’s nice to have something to think about in the audience. With this piece I think there is a sense of something blooming and broadening out. That was in my mind, and the idea of looking forward to spring.”

You can listen to Spring here

What are his own personal reflections on the season? “When spring comes you notice it getting lighter, and getting energy back. It would be nice to be able to have a break but the trouble with composing is that the deadlines come through thick and fast. I do need to plan a bit of a break, you can’t just keep churning it out. I do want to find time to listen to other pieces, it can be distracting to hear other people’s work when you’re writing so I generally choose not to. I’m lucky with the demand there is at the moment, the BBC NoW is a source of three commissions and writing for the orchestra is very enjoyable, if time consuming!”

Watkins divides his time between composition and the piano, and over recent years has shown himself to be an extremely quick learner. This has enabled him to record several discs of lesser-known British repertoire for cello and piano for Chandos. In partnership with cellist brother Paul Watkins, this was an experience he clearly enjoyed. “A lot of that repertoire was new to us, and I think the John Foulds Cello Sonata in particular is an absolute masterpiece. The York Bowen Cello Sonata was good too. We were lucky to do those discs. I find I’ve always been a quick sight reader but I can’t always rely on that as I get older! I want to spend more time on new pieces, but I want to concentrate on doing pieces more than once, to really get to know them.”

The challenge with such a busy schedule on both fronts is achieving balance between work as a performer and a composer. “My piano playing feeds into my creativity and my compositional life”, he says. “I think you lose a perspective if you’re not involved in live performance as a musician, and with how audiences respond.”

Some opportunities are just too good to pass though, including last year’s commission for a carol for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. “It was an incredibly inspiring thing to be asked to do. I wanted to write something simple, to write something pure and plain. The atmosphere in that service on Christmas Eve is amazing, and that’s probably my only chance to go to the service as well!”

You can discover more about Huw’s contribution to the service here

Later in the year Watkins the pianist will step forward as soloist in the Piano Concerto by Philip Cashian, an eagerly awaited world premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival. “Yes, that’s something we were preparing to do this time last year with the BBC Symphony Orchestra,” Watkins recalls. “We had three days rehearsing it with Oliver Knussen and he sadly became ill on the morning of the concert, and it had to be rescheduled. It’s a really good piece, energetic and athletic. Philip is great at writing fast and rhythmically lithe music.”

Knussen is a conductor Watkins has worked with before, and who has had a considerable influence on his life as a performer and composer to date. “I find him completely inspiring”, he gushes. “I’ve been lucky to do a couple of concertos with him, the Tansy Davies and Helen Grime (Huw’s wife). He’s brilliant to hang out with too, he knows and knew so many people. I hope he writes it all down! It would be great to read a book by him eventually, especially as he’s also hilarious and very good company. He wrote a piece for the violinists Tamsin Waley-Cohen and I recently. It was the first new piece he had written since 2010, so that was really special. I think this has started him back to regular writing, and it is a truly gorgeous piece. It was a real honour. We were getting e-mails with a page a day of this amazing, handwritten score.”

Watkins counts Knussen as a lasting inspiration. “He really is one of the towering figures of the last 50 years in the music of this country, a composer with such a brilliant ear. With him it’s really important that you play the right notes, because he has thought out the harmony so thoroughly. It is so beautiful to listen to. He is definitely very high up my list, and I’ve been very lucky to work with a lot of contemporary composers. Gerald Barry is another I have really enjoyed working with, and I played in his opera The Importance of Being Earnest. I admire it greatly, although it is hugely difficult to play!”

There is plenty for Watkins to explore on the instrumental front, and for now he has plenty to get his teeth into with this relatively ‘traditional’ approach. “I don’t think instruments are ‘tired out’ yet, there is still so much you can get out of it. There was a Thomas Adès piece Seven Days, a kind of video ballet, and I thought that was absolutely brilliant. I wouldn’t rule it out in my own writing but there is still so much to do!”

His own music has a tonal base, with melodic points of reference, but continues to look forward int is approach, drawing a little on the past in form and function but introducing new melodic and harmonic thoughts. “That’s a nice way of putting it”, he says approvingly. “I don’t want to go back to something safe and cosy, I want to write fresh things. I’ve immersed myself in some out there music but I am now writing the music I really want to write. I get some writers who say it’s conventional but I don’t care to be honest! I think someone like Britten still did things with tonality that still make it new and fresh. If everything is self-consciously new it can be fake! It’s no good denying the tonal audacity and the hierarchy of the intervals with Britten – and shows that there are still things you can do. That’s not to say the other developments are not valid, but I wouldn’t dismiss it.”

We move on to discuss the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, now 90 years old. Watkins is hugely appreciative of their achievements and function. “I think the part I know is since the 1980s, when they became a fully fledged Symphony Orchestra. I can only speak from my own experience in the St David’s Hall, which was new then. It has become an incredibly good orchestra, but they also make an effort to go around Wales which I think is extremely important. Places like Abergavenny and Bangor would not always have a symphony orchestra near them, so it’s very important. They don’t have to worry quite so much about full houses so they can do stuff that’s off the beaten track, and it’ll also be on the radio.”

“That’s a very healthy thing. It’s good for composers to think a little bit commercially when writing, but also good that people like the BBC NoW commission these pieces. At the end of February I’m doing a workshop with young composers, and Martyn Brabbins is doing conductor masterclasses. That’s a real services because it’s hard for people to learn their craft. The orchestra does get better and better, we were so impressed with the Britten and I know that tomorrow it will be better still. Cardiff’s lucky to have the Welsh National Opera too, it improves the life of a city. I feel very lucky to be Composer in Association here, it’s been a very nice experience for me.”

Watkins will perform Philip Cashian’s Piano Concerto at the Aldeburgh Festival, part of a concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Oliver Knussen that will include Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Music For A Great City. For more details you can go to the Snape Maltings website

Wigmore Mondays: Golda Schultz & Jonathan Ware – Mozart, Schubert, Amy Beach & John Carter

Golda Schultz (soprano, above) and Jonathan Ware (piano, below – credit Kaupo Kikkas)

Mozart An Chloe, K524; Das Lied der Trennung, K519 (both 1787)
Schubert Heimliches Lieben, D922 (1827); Romanze (Rosamunde, D797 No 3b) (1823); Suleika I, D720; Suleika II, D717 (both 1821)
Amy Beach Three Browning Songs, Op 44 (1900)
John Carter Cantata (1964) (40:33-53:30)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 5 February 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

It is always welcome to see a singer make their debut at a venue like the Wigmore Hall with a less than usual recital programme in tow. South African soprano Golda Schultz did just that, giving with pianist Jonathan Ware a concert ranging some 200 years and crossing from Europe to North America as it progressed.

Europe first, and two songs from Mozart. While known as a vocal composer, Mozart’s songs are relatively rarely heard in the concert hall, and it was nice to hear two substantial, more mature examples, from around the time of Le Nozze di Figaro. An Chloe made a relatively graceful start, Schultz exhibiting a full voice with a lovely bright top end to the soprano voice, but the more substantial Das Lied der Trennung (6:49-11:30) told a story of greater angst.

The Schubert selection (from 19:32-29:28) was a quartet of the composer’s settings of women poets, beginning with the late (for him, anyway!) song Heimliches Lieben. Written when the composer was still only 29, it is a deeply passionate affair, and Schultz involved herself completely. Then we heard the lovely Romanze (16:20), with its deep longing, persuasively phrased in accompaniment by Ware.

Both Suleika songs followed, often wrongly attributed to Goethe but with words by Marianne von Willemer. The first, initially an edgy affair (19:32), was described by Brahms as ‘the loveliest song ever written’, and here benefited from Schultz’s poise and Ware’s telling shifts from major to minor key before evening out for a radiant coda. The second (25:16) included the same shifts, but danced lightly on its feet.

Amy Beach was one of the first women composers to really make a lasting impression in classical music, terrible as that sentence sounds. Some of her songs are well known, in particular these three short settings of poetry by Robert Browning (31:02-33:50 on the broadcast). The first, The Year’s at the Spring! (31:02), was a rapturous picture postcard with which to throw open the doors, while Ah, Love, but a Day! (32:13) grew gradually higher in range, Schultz making the most of this with an exquisitely floated delivery. Finally I Send My Heart Up To Thee (33:50) was a joyful ray of light.

Ending the program was a real curiosity, the Cantata by little-known Afro-American composer John Carter (1932-c1981). Written for and premiered by Leontyne Price in 1964, it is based on settings of Negro spirituals, but adds some particularly vivid descriptions in the piano part, heroically played here by Jonathan Ware. His Prelude (40:33) set out an impressive stature for the piece, which Schultz built on with Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells (41:23). This developed into a tour de force, increasingly fervent with peals of bells in the right hand and a soaring top B flat from Schultz, brilliantly delivered.

After this a step backwards was needed – and found – in Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child (45:12), a solemn utterance, before the contemplative Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Knees (48:02). From the silence came a tumultuous final movement (51:22), the Toccata Ride On King Jesus. Both performers gave it everything, capturing the mysterious power of Carter’s music.

There were two encores – an affectionate account of Somewhere Over The Rainbow (54:48), vibrato beautifully controlled, and then, closer to home for Schultz, an Afrikaan song entitled Homesickness (1:00:28).

Further listening

You can watch an intriguing interview with Golda Schutz below, in which she candidly discusses her own stage fright – which certainly was not on show at the Wigmore Hall!

Meanwhile to hear recordings of the music from this concert you can use the Spotify playlist below:

Listening to the John Carter Cantata I was reminded of Copland’s Old American Songs – and you can hear them in their choral versions below, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas: