Online Concert: Doric String Quartet & Brett Dean @ Wigmore Hall – Haydn & Beethoven

Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington, Ying Xue (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), John Myerscough (cello)], Brett Dean (viola)

Haydn String Quartet in F major Op.50/5 ‘The Dream’ (1787)
Beethoven String Quintet in C major Op.29 (1801)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 23 January 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

Is there a better musical tonic on a grey Monday in January than a Haydn string quartet? Not in this case, as the Doric String Quartet built on the solid foundations of their recent recordings of the composer’s music for Chandos with a well-crafted and nicely weighted account of one of the composer’s middle-period works.

Haydn wrote so many symphonies, string quartets and piano trios – to name just three disciplines in which he was prolific – that nicknames are helpful in identifying the works. Some of them can be quite spurious, but in the case of The Dream the label describes the serene slow movement of the quartet, and its carefree violin fantasies. The work is placed fifth work in a set of six quartets written for King Frederick William II of Prussia, and finds Haydn making further strides in the development of this new form.

The Doric captured that sense of discovery, although they took just a little while to settle, with a couple of relatively coarse moments at the start. This was however a beautifully played account, with an enjoyable lightness of touch in the outer movements and an airy account of the ‘dream’ movement itself. The players were clearly sticking to the first principles of chamber music, enjoying the conversational exchanges between the instruments but bringing the audience in on their enjoyment too. This was most evident in a lively third movement Menuetto and Vivace finale.

Brett Dean is one of the most-performed living composers, but he also has a formidable CV as a viola player, playing in the Berlin Philharmoniker for 14 years. While composing is his primary discipline these days he remains active as an instrumentalist. The Doric Quartet’s current tour includes his String Quartet Hidden Agendas, while welcoming Dean as a notable addition to the ensemble for Beethoven’s String Quintet.

The five have an easy musical chemistry, Dean effortlessly slotting in to play a work that is beginning to get the recognition it deserves, both within Beethoven’s output and in context as a fine continuation of Mozart’s innovations in the form. This performance got to the heart of Beethoven’s energetic writing in a flowing first movement, enjoying the melodic exchanges, while the second movement explored the richer mid-range colours available in music of elegiac quality, as well as enjoying the composer’s excursions to further flung keys.

In the third movement Scherzo there was a notable raising of the stakes, and an upsurge in kinetic energy. The demands were comfortably matched by the five players here, who built on this with a finale of high drama and stormy countenance.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

In Concert – Martin Fröst, Roland Pöntinen & Sébastien Dubé @ Wigmore Hall: Night Passages – A Musical Mosaic

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Roland Pöntinen (piano), Sébastien Dubé (double bass)

Debussy Première rhapsodie (1909-10)
Chausson Andante and Allegro (1881)
Poulenc Sonata for clarinet and piano (1962)
Night Passages – A musical mosaic (with arrangements by the performers)
Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in D minor Kk32
Chick Corea Children’s Song no.15 (1978)
Rameau Les Indes galantes: Air pour les Sauvages (1735-6)
Purcell Incidental music for Oedipus, King of Thebes Z583: Music for a while (1692)
J.S. Bach Sinfonia no15 in B minor BWV801 (c1720)
Chick Corea Armando’s Rumba (1976)
Purcell Hornpipe in E minor Z685
Handel Menuet in G minor (1733)
Traditional Polska från Dorotea
Göran Fröst Klezmer Dance no.2 (2011)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 21 December 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

In 2019, Arcana was at the Wigmore Hall to see Martin Fröst and Roland Pöntinen give a concert of largely French music for clarinet and piano. Their encore hinted at an intriguing sequence of arrangements exploring connections between classical music and jazz. Three years on, that sequence has grown in stature, realised in recorded form as the Sony Classical album Night Passages, and given meaningful content by personal and world events.

Through lockdown, Fröst experienced intense bouts of Ménière’s disease, whose symptoms include unexpectedly severe bouts of vertigo and tinnitus. The clarinettist experienced one such bout while driving his car, which he thankfully negotiated without injury, but which bred a number of accompanying fever dreams. Expressed in the program notes, they lent a vivid written complement to the music.

Since 2019 the double bass of Sébastien Dubé has been added to the instrumental thinking, an essential musical component taking the arrangement style towards Jacques Loussier without ever resorting to parody. Unexpectedly, the group’s colourful arrangements did not always include the piano, allowing Fröst and Dubé the chance to explore the rewarding combination of clarinet and double bass through imaginative techniques and compelling improvisation.

The course of Night Passages led from a solemn sonata by Domenico Scarlatti to a Klezmer dance from Fröst’s brother Göran, by way of arrangements exploring the versatility of Baroque music. These were matched by jazz-inflected work from Chick Corea, with Armando’s Rumba presenting some vibrant syncopations, along with a celebration of the Swedish polska.

Frost’s artistry was almost beyond criticism, the clarinettist able to make even the most demanding technical passages appear nothing more than a walk in the park, airily improvising or running through sharply edged cadenzas. Dubé was no less impressive, and a remarkably wide range of colours issued from the double bass, whether bowed or plucked. His chemistry with Fröst was compelling, and the occasional use of vocals added to the mix. Roland Pöntinen also made the most of his chances to shine, providing the rhythmic verve to the dances but also a welcome, cleansing clarity which ran through the Baroque arrangements, tastefully and affectionately realised.

Prior to the interval we heard three short pieces by French composers for clarinet and piano. Debussy’s Première rhapsodie tells its story through a set of contrasting thoughts, initially set out in a humid atmosphere but becoming more outward facing as it gains in confidence. Fröst and Pöntinen had its many twists and turns instinctively under their fingers, finishing each other’s sentences as they did in the romantic, lyrical writing of Chausson’s Andante and Allegro, played with evident affection.

Yet it was Poulenc’s Sonata for clarinet and piano, completed in the year before his death, that made the most lasting impression. What a profound work this is, paying tribute to his friend and fellow composer Arthur Honegger. The slow movement holds the emotional centre of the work, with melancholy on occasion spilling over into outright sadness. Fröst’s quieter asides encouraged the audience to lean closer to the music, but these intimate thoughts were swept away by the exuberant finale, throwing caution to the winds. Fröst and Pöntinen played with great feeling throughout, typifying the approach of a concert that may not have been generous in length but which amply compensated through musical quality.

Arcana’s best of 2022

by Ben Hogwood

How has 2022 been for you? It has been a difficult year for so many, and I don’t know about you, but I find music takes on an even more important part of our lives when the going gets tough. This year we have been able to rely on a consistently strong line of releases, giving us extra resolve and relief from the day-to-day.

Arcana has reviewed a lot of music this year. What we tend to do on these pages is concentrate on music and artists that we know are likely to be good – and we assemble our thoughts on them so you can then make your own investigations. Classical music is usually our starting point, but from there we travel afar to the outer reaches of electronica, dance and contemporary music.

It was another strong year for electronic music of an ambient dimension. Switched On is the area of Arcana concentrating on new music in this area, and without putting too many musical names on these albums, we really enjoyed a good deal of slower stuff. Starting with a single instrument, Vanessa Wagner’s Study of the Invisible (above) made an understated but lasting impression, particularly with Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Grey at its heart. Vanessa plays with poise and expression, and this wonderfully curated selection worked so well.

Meanwhile long term favourite Erland Cooper charmed with his pure, still music written to soundtrack the Superbloom installation at the Tower Of London, Music For Growing Flowers (above). Speaking of earthy sounds, Sonic Cathedral gave us twilight wonders from Pye Corner Audio and, with a little more country in the mix, Sunset Dreams from Mark Peters.

At the hottest part of summer, Arthur King’s music was extremely evocative in Changing Landscapes – as was that of Deepchord, making a return to the long player from Detroit with Functional Designs. Steve Davis, meanwhile (yes, that Steve Davis!) was busy enhancing his reputation as part of the electronic trio Utopia Strong and their excellent album International Treasure

More studied electronica gems should also be shouted from the rooftops – we are lucky to have British artists of the calibre of Bibio, Gold Panda and Plaid, each returning with excellent new albums. Meanwhile Clarice Jensen took her cello as a starting point on new album Esthesis, making music of great colour and descriptive power to counter the onset of lockdown. Also facing the elements head-on was Daniel Avery, whose new album Ultra Truth was a powerful statement indeed:

There were some very strong releases on the classical side of things, as record companies dusted themselves down and started to include orchestral recordings again on their release schedules post-pandemic. Leading the way were the Sinfonia of London under John Wilson, a throwback to the golden age of orchestral recording in their challenging schedules for Chandos. With Hollywood, British and French music all covered, one in particular stood out, with the orchestral music of John Ireland given its rightful place in the spotlight:

Speaking of French music, a charmer from the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire and Pascal Rophé proved the ideal hot weather soundtrack as it explored orchestral versions of Debussy keyboard works. Their accounts of the Petite Suite, La boîte à joujoux and Children’s Corner were full of colour and character.

This year saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the finest British composers of the 20th century. Somm Recordings made a memorable tribute by way of the undervalued string quartets, these lovely autumnal works given vibrant performances from the Tippett Quartet.

Contemporary classical music put in some very strong appearances this year, and few more than Stuart Macrae, showing off the quality of his chamber music on an album from the Hebrides Ensemble on the excellent Delphian label. We enjoyed a number of online and in-person concerts from the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods, which were capped by an outstanding recording of Adrian Williams’ Symphony no.1, a commendable raising of the flag for new British music

During 2022 we made a couple of visits to the outskirts of jazz, in the company of super group Flocktheir excellent self titled debut – and a triumphant and experimental return from Szun Waves.

On the dancier side of things, Heavenly Recordings excelled themselves this year with no fewer than six collections of remixes! We loved the first two instalments, which acted as a prelude to the utterly essential third and fourth volumes which brought together remixes from the much missed Andrew Weatherall.

The Haçienda celebrated 40 years since its inception with a handsome package from Cherry Red, while the best DJ mix honour goes to Cinthie – her contribution to !K7’s DJ Kicks mix series really was a thing of pure dancefloor enjoyment. So, too, was a John Morales-edited compilation devoted to the art of Teddy Pendergrass, vocalist for Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes.

Cultured music for the discerning dancefloor came our way from Au Suisse, a welcome reunion for Morgan Geist and Kelley Polar, and also from Hot Chip, who further explored their emotions with an excellent and heartfelt eighth album. Moderat, returning after a long absence, went more for the jugular with the thrilling More D4ta

With all that said and done, what would an Arcana album of the year look like? Something like this…the most listened to long player of the year in these parts, Fleeting Future – a vibrant offering from Akusmi which channelled all sorts of intriguing influences into something wonderfully original:

We will have a few more reviews to come over this week – but for now, we thank all our readers for your visits and wish you a happy, peaceful and regenerative Christmas holiday season. Oh, and a Happy New Year for 2023!

In Concert – Pavel Haas Quartet @ Wigmore Hall: Haydn, Prokofiev & Haas

Pavel Haas Quartet [Veronika Jarůšková, Marek Zwiebel (violins), Karel Untermüller (viola), Peter Jarůšek (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in G major Op.76/1 (1979)
Prokofiev String Quartet no.2 in F major Op.92 (1941)
Haas String Quartet no.2 Op.7 ‘From The Monkey Mountains’ (1925)

Wigmore Hall, London
Thursday 24 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The Pavel Haas Quartet often cause a stir on their visits to the Wigmore Hall, and this concert was no exception for the Czech ensemble.

Many of Haydn’s mature string quartets begin with a trio of chords effectively designed to hush the audience and guide their ears towards the performance getting underway. The first in his crowning set of six quartets published as Op.76 is no exception, though in this red blooded account the Pavel Haas Quartet pinned the audience back in their seats, such was the vigour with which this performance began.

There were some ragged edges to their interpretation, and less evidence of the genial Haydn that makes himself known with the conversational melody of the first movement. We did however get more exposure to his experimental side, through an interpretation pointing the music forward towards middle period Beethoven. The quickstep third movement, very much a scherzo rather than a minuet, pointed up Haydn’s daring harmonic excursions and dalliances, as did the finale, based mostly in the minor key and featuring a number of brisk about-turns. Stemming the tide was the second movement Adagio, a reverent account with a solemn air to its central section in particular.

There followed a superbly played account of Prokofiev’s String Quartet no.2. This attractive work is not often heard in concert, which is a shame for it has a good deal of spice and charm through its investment in folk tunes from the Northern Caucausian region, where the composer was evacuated in 1941. Encouraged by his new neighbours, Prokofiev achieved a very satisfying blend of the original tunes with spiky good humour and scrunched up harmonic dissonances, always in thrall to the highly melodic content.

The first movement revelled in the abundance of good tunes, bringing the Pavel Haas Quartet’s Slavonic instincts into play. The mood softened for a heartfelt cello solo from Peter Jarůšek, setting a thoughtful and delicately nostalgic tone for the Adagio. Here more time was taken for reflection, with a noticeable chill running through Prokofiev’s writing.

Within the folk references it is possible to discern the worrisome mood of the time, with World War Two underway. The third movement however felt like a show of resolution in the face of this threat, laced with humour that in this performance could have been exploited to greater effect. It was however a fine performance, with terrific ensemble playing.

The main event of the concert was undoubtedly a performance of music from the quartet’s namesake. Pavel Haas, born in Moravia, studied with Janáček between 1920 and 1922, completing his String Quartet no.2 three years later. Tragically in 1941 he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and died in Auschwitz three years later. Much of his work lay in neglect but has in the last thirty years enjoyed an extremely welcome renaissance, led by a number of enterprising recordings made in the 1990s, not least that of this work for Decca’s Entartete Musik imprint in the 1990s by the Hawthorne String Quartet. Since then the second quartet has gone on to gain a welcome foothold in the concert hall.

It would be difficult to contemplate a better performance than this one from the Pavel Haas Quartet. Led assertively by Veronika Jarůšková, they showed what an assured and imaginative piece it is, a travelogue giving the listener a tour of the sights and sounds of the famous Monkey Mountain range in Moravia.

The musical language is a curious but highly engaging hybrid of influences, drawing on the music of Dvořák and Smetana but in compressed melodic pockets of heightened intensity. Janáček, too, is an influential voice, but Haas’s unusual phrasing and distinctive rhythms make for a unique and enjoyable style.

The Pavel Haas Quartet enjoyed it greatly, the first two movements (Landscape and Coach, Coachman and Horse) enjoying the rarefied outdoor air and some crisply secured dance rhythms. The third movement, subtitled The Moon and I, was much colder to the touch, the muted strings taking time for introspection and creating some striking colours along the way. Their beautifully poised playing set up a riotous Wild Night finale where they were joined by percussionist Owen Gunnell (above), whose battery of instruments were expertly marshalled to bring the sounds of 1920s jazz into the fray.

The riotous closing pages brought the swaying Moravian dances and jazz rhythms to the foundations of the Wigmore Hall, brilliantly played and ideally balanced. So good was this section that the five performers gave us a quick reprisal as an encore, reminding us in the process of the fiercely original writing from a composer whose resurgence is to be greatly welcomed.  

On Record – Tippett Quartet – Vaughan Williams: String Quartets; Holst: Phantasy Quartet (Somm Recordings)

Tippett Quartet [John Mills, Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)]

Vaughan Williams String Quartet no.2 in A minor (1942-43)
Holst ed. Swanston Phantasy Quartet (1916)
Vaughan Williams String Quartet no.1 in G minor (1909)

Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0656
Producer Siva Oke Engineer Adaq Khan
Recorded 7-8 February 2022, St. Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

In case you have missed it, 2022 marks 150 years since the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams. A great deal has been made of his symphonic and choral output, and rightly so, but an added benefit of such an anniversary is the chance to look at other relatively neglected corners of a composer’s work. Chamber music is one such area that is infrequently explored, and there are some fine works ready for reappraisal.

The two published string quartets sit as principal examples. The String Quartet no.1 in G minor was written in Paris, during a period of study with Ravel, and reflects new influences at work in 1909. A great deal of water had past under the bridge by the arrival of the String Quartet no.2 in A minor in 1942-43. Written for the composer’s friend Jean Stewart, who played viola in the Menges Quartet, it gives great deal of prominence to her instrument.

Complementing the quartets is the Phantasy Quartet by Gustav Holst, a close friend and confidante of Vaughan Williams for many years. Their mutual love of folksong is perhaps their strongest musical link, though as the quartet shows Holst had a different way of expressing his sources. Claiming the work was ‘insufficient’, the composer withdrew it some years after its first performance in 1917, though his daughter Imogen saw its worth and published a version for string orchestra. On this recording the Tippett Quartet use an edition made by Roderick Swanston.

What’s the music like?

The Vaughan Williams quartets are a complementary pairing, and although starting with the later work may seem a curious decision it makes good musical sense in the context of this recording.

As described above, the viola takes an assertive lead in the first movement of the String Quartet no.2, pushing the source material forward with silvery tones that nonetheless have a strong autumnal shade. The harmonic writing is shot through with an anxiety reminding us of this work’s position in the Second World War and its proximity to the Sixth Symphony, a powerful yet haunted work.  The solemn second movement is deepened further by an almost complete lack of vibrato, while the viola takes charge again in the ghostly third movement, with the other instruments muted. The prayerful finale offers some solace, referring to the reverent calm of the recently completed Fifth Symphony, but the end is still shrouded in uncertainty.

The String Quartet no.1 is often talked about in the same breath as Ravel, but Debussy and Borodin are notable influences here. After a tautly argued first movement, the Scherzo is particularly successful, its motif recurring with just the right degree of playfulness. The third movement Romance is lovingly rendered, while the finale has a great deal of positive energy, Vaughan Williams showing great agility in his writing for four instruments that often sound like a small string orchestra.

Holst’s Phantasy Quartet is beautifully judged, celebrating its folk sources but also throwing context of light and shade that reflect another time of uncertainty during the First World War. The work has more than a little in common with the celebrated St Paul’s Suite for string orchestra, moving between energetic tunes and more thoughtful episodes, where a shadow passes over the face of the music.

Does it all work?

It does. These are fine performances from the Tippett Quartet, who understand the emotional and often anxious pull of the second quartet. Its urgency is compelling, and the harmonic tensions are finely judged here. Meanwhile the compositional promise of the first quartet is clearly shown, with its rich melodic content and the vigorous exchanges of the outer movements, which are extremely well played. The Holst is affectionately given, the quartet revelling in the folk melodies but also the composer’s imaginative harmonies. Swanston’s version works extremely well.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. There are already some fine recordings of the Vaughan Williams string quartets, but the Tippett Quartet join the very best with performances of spirit and deep feeling. The Holst is the ideal complement, and with excellent booklet notes (Robert Matthew-Walker) and a cover picture to match (Simon Palmer) this is one of the finest releases so far in the Vaughan Williams 150 celebrations.

Listen

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You can listen to clips from the recordings and explore purchase options at the Somm Recordings website