City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: First Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 17 & Sunday 18 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There are numerous commemorations this month of the centenary of Debussy’s death, but the Debussy Festival taking place in Birmingham over the weekends of 17/18 and 24/25 March is likely the most extensive mounted in the UK.

Together with chamber and song recitals, films and talks, there is a series of concerts by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as its related orchestras and ensembles, which between them offer an overview not only of Debussy’s major works but also those who influenced him and those who have been influenced by him in their turn.

Saturday evening focussed on Sensual Debussy, opening with the piece in which the composer effectively became himself. Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1894) began proceedings, its pervasive sensation of lazy eroticism palpably conveyed. This segued into Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898/1908) – a rare instance of Debussy’s acappella writing, its lithe alternation of solo and ensemble voices enticingly conveyed by the Birmingham University Singers. Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (above) then directed a perceptive account of La Damoiselle élue (1888), its Rossetti text inspiring a cantata whose luminous modality and ecstatic lyricism fairly define musical pre-Raphaelitism. Soprano Ilse Eerens was eloquent in the ‘title-role’ and mezzo Aga Mikolaj (below) searching in her narrative, with the CBSO Youth Chorus’s singing ethereal but never cloying.

Mikolaj returned for three of Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz (1914) and captured their capricious flights of fancy as made one wish the whole cycle of eight could have been given. This might have been preferable to the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) that rounded-off the concert – finely played and convincingly directed, save for a rather jarring accelerando toward the climax of the Prelude, but whose emotional intensity was rationalized by Debussy into something more oblique and understated. As had just been heard in the latter’s Nocturnes (1899), first of his orchestral triptychs and a marvel of shifting textures in Nuages, then ominous evocation in Fêtes. The diaphanous yearning of Sirènes was hardly less evident; less than perfect integration with its female voices the only real flaw.

Sunday afternoon brought Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a programme devoted to Debussy’s Legacy. Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) set the scene with its wave-like eddying of pithy motifs, then the music of Tristan Murail (above) took centre-stage with pieces from across three decades of his career. Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) is a reminder of how radical yet understated (à la Debussy) his music must have sounded in a French scene dominated by Boulezian serialism, harmonic overtones a constant around which the ensemble inhales then exhales its glistening timbres. How Murail got there was duly underlined by Couleur de mer (1969): almost his first acknowledged work, its five sections pit serial constructions against a more intuitive take on harmony and texture in music whose eruptive central span is almost as startling as its cadential sense of closure. Between these, Feuilles à travers les cloches (1998) is an evocative and eventful miniature anticipating the stark post-impressionism of Murail’s more recent music. Fastidious playing from BCMG, and perceptive direction by Julien Leroy.

The CBSO returned that Sunday evening for Modern Debussy, another hour-long sequence opening with a further account of Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune in the arrangement that Schoenberg’s pupil Benno Sachs made in 1921. With flute, oboe and antique cymbals left in place, and harmonium ingeniously filling-out the ensemble, this proved an appealing novelty and ideal complement to the Première Rapsodie (1910) in which Debussy transformed a test-piece into a minor masterpiece – CBSO principal clarinettist Oliver Janes as responsive to its melodic elegance as to its deft virtuosity.

Responsive in support, Graźinytė-Tyla then directed a bracing account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921) where some refined playing toned down the 1947 revision’s asperities. A pity Takemitsu’s exquisite Green had to be dropped (were the parts not received in time?), but Michael Seal presently took charge for a characterful reading of Jeux (1913) – confirming Debussy’s developing variation as no less crucial than Stravinsky’s mosaic-like construction to the evolution of music this past century.

Food for thought, indeed, over the course of this first weekend – not least for reminding one of just how central to modern Western music Debussy’s presence has been. Hopefully, too, the overall quality of interpretation will be maintained throughout next weekend’s concerts.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website


YCAT at the Wigmore Hall: Savitri Grier & Richard Uttley play Poulenc, Messiaen & Beethoven

Savitri Grier (violin, above), Richard Uttley (piano, below – photo credit Cathy Pyle)

Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3)

Messiaen Theme and Variations (1932)

Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor Op.30/2 (1803)

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 6 March 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

I cannot recommend the YCAT Lunchtime Concert series at the Wigmore Hall highly enough. It gives us a chance to see the professional classical performers of tomorrow, and allows appreciation of just how much young talent there still is, waiting to be discovered. The YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust) scheme gives an incredibly valuable service to classical music, giving young artists selected through a rigorous audition process the security of career guidance, a dedicated artist manager and a concert platform including appearances such as this at the Wigmore Hall.

This particular recital brought a current member of the scheme, violinist Savitri Grier, and an ‘alumni’, pianist Richard Uttley, who is building an impressive portfolio headed by contemporary music. This well chosen program showed the two have an extremely sound musical chemistry, and also showed Grier to be a formidable violinist of full tone and strong personality.

She immediately took command of the Poulenc Violin Sonata, so much so that even at the back of the hall it was easy to appreciate the depth and breadth of her phrasing. On occasion the artists were even a touch too loud, but that could hardly be considered a massive problem, especially with the virtuosity and crisp ensemble on display in the outer movements. The slightly resentful Adagio slow movement, written in the midst of the Second World War, showed the pair at their most sensitive, reigning in the volume to give some softly voiced thoughts that were truly touching.

Messiaen’s Theme and Variations occupy a rather singular place in the composer’s output, but show what he was to become – and convinced a young Pierre Boulez when he heard them that he had to study with the composer. The theme itself is mysterious, and both performers enjoyed this and the already expansive harmonic language adopted by the composer. Gradually the variations grew in intensity, reaching an impressive apex.

Mozart and Beethoven were the two composers to advance the Violin Sonata into the 19th century, writing as they were for the violin and piano as equal instruments. If anything Beethoven’s C minor example, the second of his game changing Op.30 trio of works, makes greater demands on the piano – but it is arguably the most ambitious work of its time for the combination.

The second Beethoven ‘C minor’ work in consecutive days at the Wigmore Hall (see Monday’s Leon McCawley recital for more), it exploded into life through an incredibly energetic and virtuosic performance. Both Grier and Uttley took a punchy approach to the first movement’s trade-offs, their ensemble particularly secure, but as the work progressed there was also room for humour (in the third movement Scherzo) and a greater elegance (the second movement Adagio cantabile, sensitively played).

Beethoven’s gruff exterior won out though, and in the finale, where Uttley rose to the demands of some fiendish scales demanded by the composer, there was a great tête-à-tête between the two players, an engaging game of cat and mouse where both were ultimately crowned the winners.

Further listening

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

Wigmore Mondays: Leon McCawley plays Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven & Hans Gál

Leon McCawley (piano, above – photo credit Clive Barta)

Haydn Piano Sonata in C minor, HXVI:20 (1771) (1:41 on the broadcast link – 18:08)

Hans Gál Three Preludes, Op 65 (1944) (19:34 – 28:12)

Chopin 2 Nocturnes, Op 37 (1838-9) (29:32-42:07)

Beethoven 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 (1806) (44:07 – 53:49)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 5 March 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

Leon McCawley is an enterprising pianist who looks to play both the familiar and the unfamiliar, as his intriguing discography for the Somm and Avie labels shows. This concert, carefully planned, distilled this approach into an engrossing hour’s music of darkness and light.

The darkness was present in the works of the program inhabiting minor keys, especially those by Haydn, the first by Chopin, and the towering Variations of Beethoven.

Haydn first (from 1:41 on the broadcast) – one of his many Sonatas for piano that helped revolutionise the instrument’s reach and capacity. This particular example had a first movement (from 1:41, marked Moderato) that was surprisingly reserved and doleful for its composer, as though he had something on his mind.

McCawley moved into an equally serious Andante con moto (from 8:53), but as this settled a more lyrical approach took hold, rather like an aria. Brightening as the movement progressed, its elegance was countered by the finale (marked Allegro, from 13:46), which was detached in its delivery from McCawley, becoming more worked up as the themes were developed before a darker end at 18:08.

The Hans Gál pieces were undoubtedly the curiosity of the program. Gál’s renaissance of recent years has unearthed some very interesting music. A Jewish composer, he had to flee the Nazi regiment in the 1930s for the UK. Tragedy took hold there also, in the form of his elder sister and one of his sons taking their own lives, before the family were able to settle more in Edinburgh, where he worked for Donald Tovey at the university.

Due to the prominence of tonal writing in his music, and the unfashionable stance of this approach at the time, his music was more or less forgotten – until recently, where the conductor Kenneth Woods has revived the four symphonies, Matthew Sharp the music for cello and McCawley the piano music.

This was essentially a taster of freeform pieces, the Three Preludes beginning with something of a whirlwind at 19:34. They descended into a mid-range cluster of notes before the busy-ness returned. The second prelude (22:13) had more private thoughts, and was more romantic, while the third (26:10) was playful and elusive.

McCawley then moved on to thoughtful Chopin, the first of the 2 Nocturnes Op.37 (29:32) darkly shaded and very sombre. It was a nice touch moving from G minor to G major (36:30) for a more carefree, triple time piece, subtly charming.

These served as the ideal lead-up to some tempestuous Beethoven. When the composer is operating in the key of C minor you can usually expect fireworks – the Symphony no.5, the Pathétique piano sonata and the Piano Concerto no.3 are just three examples of the brimstone we hear in this key. The 32 Variations (from 44:07) are close in date to the Fifth, and have similar qualities – though here Beethoven takes a small chord progression cell and works his magic with it.

From the start McCawley powered through some impressive pianistic feats, using a really strong sense of phrasing to give the music space when needed. From 47:01 the music effectively moved into a slow ‘movement’ in C major, but it soon returned with extra vigour to the home key.

This was a brilliant performance, capped by an inspired encore of the same composer’s Bagatelle in C major Op.33/2 (54:47) – McCawley careful to choose an appropriate key. This was enjoyably mischievous, Beethoven playing around with both pianist and listener.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below – which includes McCawley’s own recordings of the Haydn and Gál:

McCawley is the only pianist to date who has recorded the complete piano works of Hans Gál, and the album is also on Spotify:

Wigmore Mondays: Aleksandar Madžar plays Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata

Aleksander Madžar (piano, above)

Beethoven Piano Sonata no.29 in B flat major Op.106 Hammerklavier (1817-18) (2:35-48:14 on the broadcast link)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 February 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

Is there a more complete work for piano than Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata? Few pieces are bigger in scope, and yet at the same time few speak as intimately as this piece does, especially in the slow movement.

It therefore takes a special performance to communicate the strengths of the piece in full to an audience, but Aleksander Madžar went some way to doing that at the Wigmore Hall.

The name Hammerklavier comes from the German word, specifying the piece should be played on the more modern fortepiano and not the harpsichord. It also phonetically describes the opening phrase in the first movement (from 2:35-14:14 on the broadcast, marked Allegro) where it really feels like the piano is being used as a forceful rhythm instrument rather than for its melodic beauty. Madžar took a much more relaxed view of the opening statement, communicating the onset of the drama but bringing it in much more gradually. He did at times have a shrill ring to the top of his range, especially when the right hands were playing in octaves.

That said, it was clear how he wanted this performance to go, and the structure of the movement made sense under his hands, with the repeat of the first part of the first movement (the exposition) included.

The second movement Scherzo (14:15) had a considerable breadth of colour, and subtly pointed out Beethoven’s harmonic deviations, not least in the ‘trio’ passage where Beethoven briefly visits the minor key (15:18). Here the sound was uncommonly hollow, and try as I might I could not dismiss the notion of empty bottles or bones rattling in a cage. Very macabre!

The slow movement (from 18:05, marked Adagio sostenuto) surely holds the key to a successful performance of the Hammerklavier. It is one of those moments in late Beethoven where time seems immaterial, where each phrase has a great meaning and where the right hand, although slow, is purely melodic. It anticipates music that has been written more than a century since – Mahler and Schoenberg, to name just two – but is still recognisably of Beethoven’s time. We were hanging on each of Madžar’s notes here, as he slowly traversed each section to set himself up for the mighty fugue. The unhurried phrases unfurled with natural ease, and the thoughtfulness and deep seated feeling could be sensed just from watching his movements.

The last movement Introduzione (35:32) began with a strong sense of anticipation, leading up to the big fugue (38:14). This took a little while to straighten itself out – to be fair it must be an incredibly difficult switch in the mind to go from a period of such stillness to rapid movement – but once Madžar had settled on a tempo it gathered considerable momentum. The end, when it came, was fulsome and thrilling.

An encore in this context was risky but the choice was ideal – the Allemande from Bach’s Partita no.1 in B flat major (from 49:30-53:02). Carefully chosen in the same key, it shows to some extent the Hammerklavier’s past.

Further listening

You can listen to the music in this concert in a powerhouse of a recording from Emil Gilels, paired below with what is commonly regarded as the first of Beethoven’s ‘late’ sonatas, the A major work published as Op.101.

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: