Wigmore Mondays – Vilde Frang & Aleksandar Madžar play Bartók and Schubert

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Vilde Frang (left, violin), Aleksandar Madžar (right, piano)

Bartók Violin Sonata no.1 (1921) (33 minutes)

Schubert Fantasy in C major D934 (1827) (21 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 16 November

Arcana’s commentary

It is easy to see why Vilde Frang is held in such high regard. This contrasting program of Bartók and Schubert showed a steely side to her playing in the former, but also a purity of tone that could be easily appreciated throughout.

These qualities served her well in a powerful rendition of Bartók’s massive Violin Sonata no.1, but she could not have made this impact without Aleksandar Madžar’s superb piano playing, notable for its clarity and rhythmic precision.

Bartók and rhythm are inseparable, and the hold that folk music has on his compositions was all too clear in the syncopations and cross rhythms that Frang and Madžar exploited here. The angular tunes of the first movement (first heard at 2:07) had an assertive mood, brilliantly played.

Richard Bratby’s excellent program note reminded us how modern the music must have sounded in 1922, when Bartók himself played piano with violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, who became an important creative muse. Frang and Madžar powered through the first movement, making light of its technical difficulties, but in the second movement time stood still. Frang’s sweet but thoughtful tune, initially heard alone (from 14:26), was complemented by a solemn and mysterious chorale from Madžar (16:00), the two forces gradually aligning but still lost in a distant world.

The finale arrived with a flourish (25:15), both performers tackling it with some relish and achieving a remarkable unity of ensemble at the end (from 32:30), finishing with a terrifically spicy, bluesy chord.

Schubert’s Fantasy in C major can seem like a long piece in the wrong hands, but here it came alive. Completed in the last year of his life, it is conceived in a single span of four distinct sections, and is a very original piece of writing. Balance between the violin and piano is key, and this was spot on for the moving opening statement, where Madžar had a lot of work to do but was always responsive to Frang’s soft intonation (from 37:09)

A bracing Allegretto section (from 40:23) led to the centrepiece, a Theme & Variations (45:44) The origin of the theme, a Schubert song, was abundantly clear in this lyrical performance, while there was some sparkling playing from Madžar as the variations took hold (try 48:57) This flair and musicality continued to the return of the soft first movement theme, now shaping up in the finale (52:36), an emotional reunion in these hands before a convincing finish (from 57:40).

This was a superb concert, affirming Vilde Frang as one of the best violinists of her generation on the concert circuit, but also illustrating just what a fine pianist Aleksandar Madžar is too. Hear this if you can!

Further listening

You can hear more of Vilde Frang in an early album recorded for Warner Classics with Michail Lifits. Here she brings a sunny tone to violin sonatas by Grieg (no.1) and Richard Strauss, full of youthful exuberance, while there is more Bartók in the form of his Sonata for solo violin, a tour de force:

by Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen in Prokofiev, Schumann and Mustonen

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Steven Isserlis (cello), Olli Mustonen (piano) (both above)

Schumann 3 Romances, Op 94 (1849) (11 minutes); 3 pieces from Album für die Jugend, Op 68: Sheherazade; Winterszeit I & II (1848) (9 minutes)

Olli Mustonen Frei, aber einsam (UK premiere) (2014) (4 minutes)

Schumann arr. Isserlis Intermezzo from F.A.E sonata (1853) (3 minutes)

Prokofiev Cello Sonata in C, Op 119 (1949) (23 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 2 November

Arcana’s commentary

Schumann is arguably Steven Isserlis‘ favourite composer. The clues are there in the enthusiasm with which the cellist talks about his music, the affection he gives to each of the melodic lines, and in this concert the construction of an imaginative suite of works for cello and piano, where his natural and extremely intimate lyrical side was to the fore.

Schumann did not write a fully-fledged sonata for cello and piano, but he did complete a number of pieces either directly for the combination or in a form that could be naturally arranged. Such is the case with the 3 Romances, published for oboe and piano as Schumann’s Op.94 but making a seamless transition to the cello.

In this performance the first Romance (from 1:47 on the BBC iPlayer) is a little doleful, the second (from 5:22) is notable for a relatively stormy central section, while the third (9:13) brings the instruments together in thoughtful unison.

After this Isserlis sat head bowed, listening intently as Olli Mustonen performed pieces from Album for the Young as though he and the listener were the only two people in the room. The first piece is Sheherazade (from 13:19), finding the level of intimacy that Schumann’s pieces for the young so consistently achieve, then from 17:10 we hear Winterszeit I and then the changing moods of Winterszeit II (19:01)

Mustonen himself then turns composer, with Frei, aber einsam (from 22:06), a piece for Isserlis alone written with the grace and intimacy of Schumann. It also has a bit of his childlike mischief when it gathers confidence – rather like a bird emerging from the nest – and starts flying along.

Mustonen uses the notes F-A-E as his starting point – which offers a strong like to the next work, heard from 26:46 we hear a tender performance of an arrangement of Schumann’s Romance for the collaborative FAE Sonata, a work written in tandem with Brahms (who contributed the famous Scherzo) and Albert Dietrich. It uses the notes ‘F-A-E’ in the simplest possible way – but also the most personal.

Following this attractive suite is the Cello Sonata of Prokofiev. Typically for the Russian composer this is full of good tunes, and in this performance (from 32:26) Isserlis and Mustonen bring them all to life in a vivacious performance. Isserlis had his way with the audience in the hall, too, with a few glances that sent up the more humourous moments of the second movement perfectly (from 42:46). There is music of romantic power, too, whether in the powerful climax of the first movement (at 41:11) or in the big finale (from 47:27) which sweeps impressively through its return to the main tune at 51:47.

A wonderfully affirming concert ends on a sad note with a tribute to the late conductor and violinist Sir Neville Marriner, the face of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, who passed away the day before at the age of 92. Isserlis chose the second of Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style (from 56:42), and with Mustonen proceeded to give a touching and affectionate encore.

Further listening

For more music related to this concert, try the Schumann and the FAE playlist on Spotify below. This includes the whole of the collaborative FAE Sonata, the oboe and piano version of the 3 Fantasy Pieces in a wonderful recording from Heinz Holliger and Alfred Brendel and, to finish with, a rare recording of the Cello Sonata no.1 by Myaskovsky. He was the composer who raved about Prokofiev‘s Cello Sonata after its early performances – so here is his own moment in the sun:

by Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Doric String Quartet play Debussy and Bartók

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Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), John Myerscough (cello)]

Bartók String Quartet no.4 (1928) (26 minutes)

Debussy String Quartet in G minor (1893) (27 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 September

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 26 October

Arcana’s commentary

An intriguing clash of two of the twentieth century’s biggest composers, glimpsed at very different stages in their development. It was perhaps a surprise that the Doric Quartet chose to begin with the Bartók, with its more abrasive tones, rhythms and harmonic language, but it received an extremely fine performance here.

Bartók wrote the piece at a point where his use of ‘cyclical’ and ‘arch’ forms was prevalent in his work. The String Quartet no.4 works as an arch, its first and fifth movements big-boned compositions, while the second and fourth are flighty and elusive. The third is a typical example of the composer’s night music, supremely evocative and more than a little wary of the shadows.

If not perhaps as ‘rustic’ as some of the Hungarian quartets in performance, it was played with precision accuracy, the rhythms making themselves clear with plenty of cut and thrust. The rocking motion of the second idea in the first movement (from 3:50 on the broadcast) offered a nice contrast.

It was perhaps in the middle movements however where the Doric were strongest. The second movement, played with mutes (from 8:11) offered shadowy contours and elusive, silvery sounds – not forgetting the odd outburst – while the third, a slow movement (from 12:02), has lovely shady contours at the end (from 17:28). Best of all was the fourth movement (17:58), played pizzicato (plucked) and with some especially good snappy effects.

Bartók’s moments of simplicity were surprisingly moving, while the gritty determination on show elsewhere was very convincing – nowhere more so than the start of the last movement, a big ensemble section of terrific drive (21:08).

Debussy’s only String Quartet comes towards the start of his composing career, just as he was shaking off the overbearing influence of Wagner. It signals a conscious move towards the more ‘impressionist’ language he started using with orchestral works such as Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, but remains packed with extremely catchy tunes, enjoyable humour and rich textures.

The Doric performance was a very good one but did on occasion lapse towards a bit of fussiness with tempo variations. It certainly started rather smoothly (30:31), blunting the edges of Debussy’s humour a bit, but lovingly played. The less witty approach could also be felt in the second movement (from 37:10) – which, incidentally, is receiving a lot of exposure at the moment thanks to the Apple advertisement below:

The slow movement (from 41:21) was a beauty, notable for some lovely, elegiac sounds from the viola of Hélène Clément (at 44:22) and a beautifully judged climax. The finale felt a bit episodic, and it was difficult to always hear Alex Redington’s line at the very top of the texture where I was sat at the end of the hall. That said, its exuberance (from 49:47) could hardly be faulted.

Further listening

If you like the music in this concert, Ravel’s only String Quartet is a logical piece to hear next. It bears many similarities to the Debussy but is if anything even more exquisitely formed. For something a bit fuller for strings from Bartók, the Music for strings, percussion and celesta is a terrific orchestral piece, full of atmosphere and drama – so much so that Stanley Kubrick turned to it as part of his horror film The Shining. The playlist can be found here on Spotify, together with the music from this concert:

BBC Proms 2016 – Shostakovich, Rachmaninov & Emily Howard from Alexey Stadler, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

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Alexey Stadler pictured during his performance of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 53; Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The BBC Proms should be commended for their commitment to new music, though this does come with a caveat, for it is not often that a commission for the Proms makes it to a second or third performance. Hopefully that fate will not befall Emily Howard’s Torus, a joint commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave it a thoroughly committed and virtuosic first performance under Vasily Petrenko.

Torus is based on a mathematical phenomenon, but to Howard’s credit she did not make this the domineering feature of the piece – if she did, like all good composers, it was part of the essential framework rather than explicitly signposted. Instead we were able to enjoy the colours of the large symphony orchestra, and especially the percussion, the three players using bows on their cymbals to make the textures glint towards the end.

Though subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, there was no display of gravity defying, musical athletics for the sake of it. Rather we enjoyed the orchestra as an instrument, the melodic content taking on a distinctive falling motif as though the music were heading for a trap door.

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Shostakovich’s popular Cello Concerto no.1 followed, with a last minute substitute, Alexey Stadler, standing in for the unfortunately ill Truls Mørk. Any doubts about inferiority were immediately quelled, the young Russian cellist finding the soul of the music in a searching account of the slow movement and cadenza in particular. Petrenko and the RLPO, so attuned to this composer’s music in their award winning accounts of his symphonies for Naxos, were superb in support, especially horn player Timothy Jackson – but Stadler rightly stole the show, adjusting to the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall with commendable ease. His beautiful tone brought both pain and hope to the solo part in equal measure, and led to a gorgeous encore in the form of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite no.2.

Finally Petrenko led his orchestra in the music of another composer with whom they share great familiarity – Rachmaninov. There are several warhorses in his output that are arguably overplayed in concert, but the Symphony no.3 is not one of them – and how wonderful it was in this account, with soulful melodies, sleights of hand from Petrenko and sudden bursts of light from the orchestra.

The tricky syncopations of the finale were expertly handled, the orchestra delivering the suddenly loud snaps like the slamming of a door, a thrilling effect in the live arena. Yet they were also alive to the music’s lyrical and occasionally less certain undercurrents, where leader Thelma Handy was a superb soloist.

As an encore Petrenko brought out Shostakovich’s arrangement of YoumansTea For Two, and gave it a brilliant send-up, as though conducting the last night. It was a beautifully judged encore, and showed again just how much this orchestra and conductor enjoy working together – which is what it’s all about, surely!

Ben Hogwood

BBC Proms 2016 – Bluebeard’s Castle & Dvořák Cello Concerto with Alban Gerhardt

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Alban Gerhardt pictured during his performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 25; Royal Albert Hall, 3 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The course of this Prom ran true to the plot of the psychological drama that unfolded in the second half. Bluebeard’s Castle was a darkly lit tour de force, but before that we had the small matter of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto to attend to.

The best-loved of all cello concertos, this is a piece where the cello really sings, but has to come from within the orchestral sound to do so. Alban Gerhardt was the ideal vehicle, with probing insights and a wonderful, song-like delivery that brought out the best of Dvořák’s bittersweet lyricism. His duet with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra woodwind and brass, subtly but expertly managed by the seemingly ageless Charles Dutoit (now 80!) was sublime.

bluebeardThings took a much darker tone after the interval as Bartók’s first stage work exerted a chilling grip on the Royal Albert Hall. There was little to no coughing here, all eyes focused on the sonorous John Ralyea (Duke Bluebeard) and his latest ill-fated lover Judit (Ildikó Komlósi). Their exploration of the seven doors of Bluebeard’s Castle were vividly brought to life by Dutoit, using all his expertise with French orchestral music to bring out the parallels in the Hungarian Bartók’s own writing, but also finding the darkness beneath that really drives the work.

Komlósi was superb, every sleight of her eyes telling a thousand words, while harps, strings, horns, woodwind and brass all told the silvery tale in turn. Ralyea, meanwhile, brought his incredibly sonorous tones to the spoken introduction, setting the scene perfectly. Unsettling through the drama was – perhaps unwittingly anticipating The Shining, and the use of Bartók’s music in one of its crucial scenes – this was a performance holding the audience captive from the first dark note to the last.

Ben Hogwood