In concert – Tier3 Trio play Tchaikovsky – In Memory Of A Hero @ St Giles’ Cripplegate, London

Tier3 Trio [Daniel Grimwood (piano), Joseph Wolfe (violin), Jonathan Ayling (cello)]

Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A minor Op.50 (1881-2)

St Giles’ Cripplegate, London
Friday 9 June 2023

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Summer Music in City Churches is a week-long festival in London’s Square Mile, bringing a wide range of classical music to the capital’s audiences in a format that brings fond reminiscences of the much-missed City of London Festival.

For their fifth year, the City Churches concerts run under the theme Legends & Heroes, inspiring creative programmes from solo piano (Mark Bebbington’s Liszt-themed hour) through to a centenary performance of Walton’s Façade and a welcome pairing of Haydn’s Nelson Mass and Bliss’s Pastoral: Lie Strewn The White Flocks, closing the festival on Thursday 15 June.

St Giles’ Cripplegate played host to the Goliath of piano trios, the Tier3 Trio bringing us Tchaikovsky’s sole but very substantial essay in the genre. The composer had tried his hand at the format within the confines of his Piano Concerto no.2, writing the slow movement almost exclusively for violin, cello and piano. Here, he seems to go the other way, writing music for trio that sounds orchestral both in concept and sound. The piece is a sizeable memorial, the subtitle ‘À la mémoire d’un grand artiste’ a recognition of Tchaikovsky’s great friend and mentor, pianist Nikolay Rubinstein.

The challenge facing Tier3 – named after the pandemic conditions in which they were formed – was to get their sound to fill the roomy acoustic of St Giles without it losing detail, and this they commendably achieved. The balance between the instruments was ideal, thanks to Daniel Grimwood’s sensitive and clear phrasing at the keyboard, as well as careful attention to dynamic detail from violinist Joseph Wolfe and cellist Jonathan Ayling.

This is such a passionate piece that it would be easy to peak too soon, but this interpretation was borne of experience and a clear love for Tchaikovsky’s music. The sizeable first movement, clocking in at over 20 minutes, was ideally paced and compelling throughout. A sense of sorrow pervaded the soulful opening, with a profound solo from Ayling, but gradually chinks of light began to show, especially in Grimwood’s heroic second theme, block chords pealing like bells.

Despite its orchestral outbursts the trio does contain music of great tenderness, and these were found in sweetly toned violin and doleful cello, set against arpeggiated chords from Grimwood’s piano – a telling episode before the return of the main theme, radiating great sorrow.

The second and third movements effectively merge into a huge finale, Tchaikovsky presenting a Theme with 11 variations and a vast coda of boundless invention and variety. Here they kept the audience on the edge of their seats.

Early on there was brilliant virtuosity from Grimwood, the tumbling variations of the third variation giving it a balletic quality. These led into a passionate cello solo from Ayling, immediately contrasted by celesta-like sonorities from the upper range of the piano. An appropriately heroic seventh variation led to a fugue of impressive clarity and dexterity, before the figurations of the ninth variation unexpectedly conjured the vision of flowers falling onto a coffin.

A quirky tenth variation and relatively serene counterpart led us to the coda, an emphatic and exuberant theme surging forward. Here the players were at the limit but rose to the occasion magnificently, emotions close to the surface, before the final twist when the music returned to the minor key. Here there were parallels to the funeral march from Chopin’s Piano Sonata no.2 before the music gradually and respectfully subsided to silence.

This was an extremely fine performance of a piece whose impact remains considerable, an outpouring keenly conveyed to the St. Giles’ audience by players relishing the experience. As an encore Tier3 made a most imaginative and suitable choice, giving us a the fourth of Widor’s short Pieces en Trio. Titled Sérénade, it was a charming complement to the sunshine outside.

You can read more about Summer Music In City Churches at the festival website – and click on the artist name to read more about Tier3 Trio.

Online Concert: Orsino Ensemble at Wigmore Hall – Britten, Reicha & Janáček

Orsino Ensemble [Adam Walker (flute), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Matthew Hunt (clarinet), Amy Harman (bassoon), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Peter Sparks (bass clarinet)]

Britten Movement for wind sextet (1930)
Reicha Wind Quintet in E flat major Op.88/2 (1811)
Janáček Mládí (1924)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 5 June 2023 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

This attractive programme of works for wind ensemble began with a rarity.

Benjamin Britten seldom wrote for wind – a shame, since his writing for the instrumental family as soloists or in an orchestral context is remarkably assured. The Movement for Wind Sextet performed here by the Orsino Ensemble is thought to have been a response to Janáček’s Mládí – and is scored for the same forces. This account was shady and elusive to begin with, reflecting its elusive melodic and harmonic figures. There was beautiful control from Nicholas Daniel’s oboe solo before a quicker section featured some lovely ‘burbling’ sounds from the clarinets, oboe and flute pushing for the higher reaches. Ultimately this piece remains beyond reach, an intriguing if slightly frustrating sign of what might have been had Britten committed more wholeheartedly to the wind ensemble.

It made a welcome change to hear the music of Anton Reicha. Born in Bohemia in 1770, Reicha – a flautist – soon found himself leading the court orchestra in Bonn, where his musicians included a certain viola player named Beethoven. Moving on to Paris, Reicha taught at the Conservatoire, where his pupils included Berlioz, Franck and Liszt. In spite of these big-name links, his own music is not heard as often as it should be. He did however write prolifically for wind ensemble, completing 24 accomplished quintets, which are among his most-heard compositions.

The Wind Quintet in E flat major is a particularly attractive example, and received the ideal performance here. The Orsino Ensemble began with a brightly voiced Lento, with the added plus of Amy Harman’s characterful bassoon in the lower register as the ensuing Allegro began. This provided the impetus for the ensemble to exchange attractive melodies, enjoying the beautiful sonorities a wind ensemble can create. The Menuetto had a lovely lilt to its triple time, with busy inner parts to support the genial melody. The third movement also had a winsome lilt to its rhythmic profile, albeit a good deal slower – and with lovely operatic solos from oboe and clarinet. The perky last movement added humour to the mix, with some thoroughly enjoyable interplay, delivered here with virtuosity and style.

Janáček’s sound world is immediately different to those around it – as is the case with the intriguing wind sextet Mladi. Written as a ‘memoir of youth’, and composed around the same time as his masterpiece The Cunning Little Vixen, the work looks back to a childhood in Hukvaldy. Premiered in Brno in 1924, it was first performed in Britain – at the Wigmore Hall in front of the composer – in 1926.

The conflicting accounts of youth, refracted through the mind of a 70 year-old composer, are fascinating to the ear, with joyful moments tempered by unexpected, melancholic asides. There is however an underlying positivity running through the music.

The Orsino Ensemble enjoyed the raucous folk-based tunes along with the doleful asides that are such a characteristic of his work. The rich shades of colour were ideally exploited. Shadows lengthened over the second movement, depicting the composer and his mother parting at a train station. The third movement had the vigour of youth, with some sparky themes, while there was a motoric element to the last theme, generated by the horn – before more complementing aspects of joy and melancholy.

This was a very fine concert, with an encore dedicated to the recently passed Kaija Saariaho. Nicholas Daniel introduced the second of Oliver Knussen’s 3 fantasies for wind quintet, preceded by the poem How Sweet To Be A Cloud, part of the composer’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh. The sonorities we heard here were unexpectedly true to Saariaho’s sound world, and formed a characteristically striking memorial.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

On Record: The Tippett Quartet – Steve Elcock: Chamber Music Volume Two: String Quartets

Steve Elcock
String Quartets – The Girl from Marseille, Op. 17 (2010); The Cage of Opprobrium, Op. 22 (2014); Night after Night, Op. 27 (2017); The Aftermath of Longing, Op. 36 (2021)

Tippett Quartet [John Mills & Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Božidar Vukotić (cello)]

Toccata Classics TOCC0688 [80’31”]

Producer Michael Ponder Engineer Adaq Khan

Recorded 6-8 October 2022, Studio TQHQ, Ruislip, London

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its survey of Steve Elcock (b1957) – arguably its most important ongoing project – with this collection of his four (to date) string quartets, performed by the enterprising Tippett Quartet and reaffirming his stature among composers of his generation.

What’s the music like?

Elcock is not the first composer to eschew numbering his quartets (Daniel Jones, for instance, differentiated his eight by date), with The Girl from Marseille preceded by at least four such works (one of these refashioned into his Eighth Symphony). Coming after weighty pieces as the Second and Third Symphonies (the latter on TOCC0400), these eight diverse variations in search of a theme – its identity in the title – find his music at its most playful and entertaining, though the fractious final variation pointedly invokes the brutal origins of its source material.

It was the location of this work’s first performance that provided ‘inspiration’ for The Cage of Opprobrium, namely a 16th-century metal pillory used to incarcerate women found walking unaccompanied after dark. Its five continuous sections graphically evoke the imagined victim through alternate slow and fast sections – building towards a violent culmination (its alluding to a famous quartet less striking than the way in which this music is transformed into Elcock’s own), before subsiding into a postlude where mourning is informed by emotional exhaustion.

Emerging in a relatively long gap between Elcock’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (TOCC0445 and TOCC0616), Night after Night takes its cue from the poem in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Songs of Travel. The first of its six continuous sections, entitled ‘Somniloquy’, evokes those unbidden thoughts of a chronic insomniac then returns between episodes of a more volatile nature. Its climax comes in the aggressive final ‘Incubus’ (later extended into an autonomous orchestral piece), which elides between sleep and wakefulness without hope of reconciliation.

Elcock’s most recent quartet, The Aftermath of Longing is likewise in six continuous sections but is very different in mood. It is also the most inherently abstract of these works, moving fitfully between varying degrees of emotional ambivalence to a penultimate episode whose releasing of the pent-up intensity results only in a desolate recollection of the initial music. Something of its character can be sensed in the composer’s subsequent symphonies, notably the Ninth that is his largest such work to date and may well prove to be his most impressive.

Does it all work?

Indeed, it does and not least because Elcock has put his formative years of playing the violin to profitable use with his idiomatic and resourceful writing for strings. For all their technical demands, nothing is left to chance in these quartets which are evidently building into a cycle scarcely less involving than that of the symphonies. Suffice to add the Tippett Quartet, which premiered Night after Night, proves an assured and persuasive exponent while the running order, of 2-1-4-3, makes for a programme well worth experiencing as a continuous sequence.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Sound is vivid and detailed, if a little confined in more tumultuous passages, while the composer’s notes are informative without prejudicing the response of each listener. Hopefully these quartets will be taken up by other suitably equipped and inquiring ensembles.

Listen & Buy

For buying options, and to listen to clips from the album, visit the Toccata Classics website. Click on the names for more on composer Steve Elcock and the Tippett Quartet

Online Concert: Alina Ibragimova & Cédric Tiberghien at Wigmore Hall – Schumann: Violin Sonatas 1 & 2

Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

Violin Sonata no.1 in A minor Op.105 (1851)
Violin Sonata no.2 in D minor Op.121 (1853)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 15 May 2023 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

It is only in relatively recent years that the violin sonatas of Robert Schumann have begun to get their proper dues. Schumann wrote three such works, sitting at the mature end of his output, and each is shot through with concentrated feeling.

The Violin Sonata no.1 was written in an unfortunate climate, Schumann admitting that it was reflecting a period when he was ‘very angry with certain people’. Certainly its beginning here, with Alina Ibragimova deep in concentration, had a furrowed brow and a darker mood. Yet it was not long in this performance when shafts of sunlight appeared, especially when the harmony moved into the major key. A period of intense reflection was followed by a drive to the finish, propelled by Cédric Tiberghien‘s flowing piano.

The second movement, effectively a slow movement and a scherzo combined, had an appreciably lighter mood with which to begin but cut to a more agitated frame of mind for the scherzo, its contours ideally negotiated by these two fine performers.

The relatively short sonata finished with a busy and determined third movement, digging in but also drawing back to reveal lighter colours and moods. Schumann’s dispute, it seems, was resolved.

The Violin Sonata no.2 is almost twice the length of its predecessor, and is perhaps beginning to reach the status its musical content deserves. To begin with it is an imposing proposition, and Ibragimova brought a granite-like surety to the double stopping, revealing hints of Bach in the responding recitative. In spite of the first movement’s substantial dimensions, it was consistently compelling in this performance, with passionate violin and flowing piano responding really well to each other and maintaining a really satisfying balance. The opening theme coarsed with drama but the broad phrases of the later theme became assertive and ultimately dominant.

The scherzo showed typically energetic Schumann figure, but remained anxious around the edges until its final acclamation. Meanwhile the third movement presented an opportunity for reflection in the plaintive but highly expressive pizzicato with which it began, both performers enjoying the hymn-like nature of the theme even in its loosely strummed form. Gradually the substance of the theme revealed itself, beautifully expressed in natural phrasing, especially in the second variation, with double stopping from the violin.

The finale pushed forward with great urgency, Ibragimova pushing the relentless theme forward while Tiberghien gave a substantial and weighty supporting voice. The two finished each other’s sentences as Schumann’s motifs passed between the instruments, before an emphatic and rapturous finish in the major key.

The musicians were not quite finished, treating us to a beautifully weighted account of Schumann’s song Abendlied as an encore.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

In appreciation – Menahem Pressler

by Ben Hogwood

Yesterday the sad passing of pianist Menahem Pressler was announced, at the ripe old age of 99.

Pressler was a true great, a founding member and ever-present in the great Beaux Arts Trio. The playlist compiled below can only give a glimpse of his greatness, but it hopefully gives an idea of his musicality, technical ability and awareness. The trio by Haydn included here is a delight – the Beaux Arts recorded all of his trios – but elsewhere there is much to enjoy: