Wigmore Mondays: Apollon Musagète Quartet play Grieg, Puccini & Sibelius

Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski, Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)]

Sibelius Andante Festivo (1922) (1:55 – 6:00 on the broadcast link below)
Puccini I Crisantemi (1890) (6:25 – 13:45)
Grieg String Quartet in G minor Op.27 (1877) (16:00 – 52:46)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29 January 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was a well thought out and brilliantly played concert from the Apollon Musagète Quartet, bringing together three composers not normally associated with the idiom of the string quartet, and making a very strong case for their efforts.

The Andante Festivo dates from a period when Sibelius was struggling, inspiration arriving at the Finnish composer’s house only fitfully. This piece was written on one such day, with the same luminous scoring that would characterise the Sixth Symphony. Here it was given an appropriate, ceremonial air – apt given that it was written for the 25th anniversary of the Säynätsalo sawmills. The full chords were deeply resonant here, hinting at a suitability realised by the composer’s later arrangement for string orchestra.

Puccini‘s I crisantemi is if anything more familiar in the composer’s arrangement for larger forces, but it was also very affecting here. The recurring harmonies have a strong, nostalgic tug at the heart strings, and again the Apollon Musagète were as one, skilfully putting deep feeling over sentimentality.

Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor is, in my opinion, a neglected masterpiece. That is a phrase you will of course read all too often in reviews, but in my defence I have no less a figure than the composer Franz Liszt to back me up!

“It is a long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg.”

In this performance (from 16:00) on the broadcast link) the bold, solemn introduction quickly yielded to a fast movement that meant business and was already digging deep. Frequently the string writing is beefed up, and the impressive volume of this performance was balanced by a cleanliness of ensemble and attack. At 23:44, a brief pause between a big, sweeping statement and a very small response felt like the start of a new movement, so pronounced were the four players in their response.

From 28:56 the charming second movement Romanze made great appeal, with a lovely warm solo from cellist Piotr Skweres. The third movement Intermezzo (36:45) returned to the bold, assertive outlines of the first movement, resolutely sticking to a minor key – until, that is, its rustic second theme gave a jaunty alternative. This introduced a tension to the performance, as though Grieg himself was flitting between the two moods and unable to settle.

This battle of wills continued into the finale (from 43:59), the twisting lines of its brief introduction led by first violinist Paweł Zalejski until a nervy fast theme took hold. The quartet made much of Grieg’s daring harmonies, with some surprisingly bold dissonances, until finally the refuge of a major key was reached (from 51:46) Now the struggle – for performers as well as composer! – was more emphatically won, putting the seal on a really fine account of a piece that should be heard far more often.

As an encore the Apollon Musagète gave us a string quartet arrangement of Osvaldo Fresedo’s Vida mía (from 54:39), one of the Argentinian composer’s best-loved tangos.

Further listening

You can listen to recordings of the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Grieg’s String Quartet had a profound influence on Debussy, when he came to write his only work in the form sixteen years later. It is paired in a playlist here with Sibelius’ best known work in the form, his quartet known as Voces intimae:

BCMG – Celebrating Carter

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Elliott Carter (above)
Mosaic (2004)
Bariolage (1992)
Two Controversies and a Conversation (2010/11)
Two Thoughts about the Piano (2007)
Double Trio (2011)
Epigrams (2012)

Town Hall, Birmingham; Sunday 28 January 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Little of Elliott Carter’s music was heard in Birmingham during his lifetime, but an account of the then recent song-cycle In Sleep, In Thunder remains vivid in the memory 35 years on. That was directed by Oliver Knussen, who was latterly assiduous in the scheduling and even commissioning of the composer with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, which this afternoon devoted a whole programme to Carter and was conducted for the first time by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

A composer who not only lived to a great age but continued writing up until his death meant that BCMG had a sizable number of pieces from which to choose. It was an astute move to open with Mosaic, as this eventful piece is a paradigm for that ‘late late style’ Carter evolved in his 90s. Harp is the first among equals here, Carter having spoken of his desire to explore techniques developed by inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo. Not that these are deployed for effect; indeed, this piece evinces an almost continuous ‘through line’ from which emerges a discourse as inventive as it is diverting – with an incitement to disciplined virtuosity that the musicians, not least Céline Saout, seized on with assurance. The harpist took centre stage for Bariolage, taking its cue from Rilke in what is a scintillating exploration of those techniques.

Nor is humour at a premium in this music. Two Controversies and a Conversation finds the piano at first mediating precariously between ensemble and percussion (first marimba, then woodblocks), before more balanced and equable discourse is made possible.

Carter’s earliest musical mentor, Charles Ives, would have been impressed by this refracted recollection of a concept he himself pursued in his Second String Quartet and while he might have been less convinced by the abstraction of Carter’s writing for piano, there can be little doubting the effectiveness of the latter’s Two Thoughts about the Piano. Complementary pieces too – the preoccupied and silence-riven progress of Intermittences countered by the linear velocity of Caténaires; Pierre-Laurent Aimard tackling both these pieces with his customary poise and precision.

Back in the early 1980s, Triple Duo was one of Carter’s most effervescent and entertaining works – its stealthy ingenuity posited in far more gnomic ways by Double Trio with its often impulsive if ultimately resigned interplay between violin, trombone and percussion as heard against trumpet, cello and piano.

Gražinytė-Tyla’s direction was at its most perceptive here, though it was left for Aimard, Alexandra Wood and Ulrich Heinen to take the platform for what was Carter’s final work. Epigrams consists of 12 refractory miniatures for piano trio (designed by the composer so that their cohesion would be assured however many were completed) – their salient gestures constantly though unpredictably recurring such that their diversity is never achieved at the expense of their unity, however hard-won this may seem.

If there was anything predictable here, it was the conviction and technical finesse of tonight’s performance, rounding off a programme as compact and absorbing as the music itself. Those yet to do so should investigate BCMG’s disc of Carter’s ‘late music’ as a matter of urgency.

For more information about Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, visit the ensemble’s website

Further listening

You can listen to the BCMG’s disc of Carter that Richard refers to on Spotify below:

London Sinfonietta 50th Anniversary Concert

Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Simon Haram (saxophone), London Sinfonietta , London Sinfonietta Academy Alumni / David Atherton, George Benjamin, Vladimir Jurowski

Birtwistle The Message (2007)
Stravinsky Octet (1923)
Ligeti Chamber Concerto (1970)
Deborah Pritchard River Above (2018) (World premiere)
Samantha Fernando Formations (2018) (World premiere)
Abrahamsen Left, alone for piano (left hand) & orchestra (2015) (London premiere)
Various Encore! (14 Variations on a Hornpipe by Purcell) (2018) (World premiere)

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 24 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here (available until 22 February 2018)

With a bold slogan Unfinished Business – We’re 50, the London Sinfonietta illustrated at their birthday concert exactly why the ensemble remains such a vital cog in the musical life of the capital and the UK.

Their relentless drive for the new, the original, and the game-changing, is coupled with a level of musicianship that remains at the very highest in all they do. This concert reminded us of those things, while a couple of tactful presentations drew attention to the inspirations behind the music, as well as highlighting those who were sadly not able to experience the half-centenary birthday.

To the music – and a short fanfare to begin in the form of The Message, written for the Sinfonietta’s 40th birthday by one of the composers to help shape the ensemble, Sir Harrison Birtwistle (from 4:43 on the broadcast link above). It began proceedings with appropriate ceremony, brilliantly played and controlled by the spotlit trio of clarinettist Mark van der Wiel, trumpeter Alistair Mackie and percussionist David Hockings.

Stravinsky’s Octet followed (from 7:43-23:19), conducted by one of the ensemble’s founders, Sir David Atherton. This was a colourful account, enjoying the outdoorsy and often playful writing for the less-than-usual combination of flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone.

The short introduction ushered in the perky main theme of the first movement (from 9:12), but it was in the second movement (12:01) where the Sinfonietta really excelled, the flurries of notes brilliantly delivered by clarinets and bassoons. The third movement (12:10) enjoyed Stravinsky’s pointed interactions between the instruments, bassoons again dictating the rhythmic impetus.

The first half ended with Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, written in 1970 and continuing to dazzle with its innovations in tone and sonority (from 27:35-47:05). Atherton worked with the composer on the score, so this ‘first hand’ performance had real authority. It was a performance of exceptional detail, the atmospheric effects hushing the audience almost in to a stage of hypnosis in the quieter moments.

By complete contrast the harsher interventions had the power to make the listener jump, meaning a return to the state of hypnosis was needed for some nerves to be kept intact! The players were terrifically alive to the changes in mood and colour, and in those loud moments (e.g. 38:54) Clive Williamson’s piano added an edge of visceral power.

If the first half was a summation of the London Sinfonietta’s expertise with established 20th century repertoire, the second reaffirmed their commitment to the very new.

Deborah Pritchard’s commission River Above, a world premiere, gave us a marked change in sonority as we turned to the solo saxophone of Simon Haram. This was a brilliantly played piece, exploring the timbre of the instrument to good effect through long-breathed phrases (1:28:00-1:36:49 on the broadcast).

This was followed by a second world premiere, Samantha Fernando’s Formations (1:40:41-1:49:17) for an ensemble of 15 players. This was much more immediate in its impact, beginning with imposing block chords before moving to a section with sharp, barbed wire edges to the texture. Throughout there were fascinating and colourful sonorities and strong tonal associations, before the piece began to move forward with greater purpose towards the end, which if anything came too soon.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen has enjoyed a close association with the ensemble since the late 1960s, so the inclusion – and London premiere – of Left, alone, a Concerto for piano (left hand) and orchestra (1:58:30-2:19:00), conducted by George Benjamin, was wholly appropriate. The much larger orchestra and piano required a considerable break while the heroic front of house team expanded the, but the wait was worth it – for this was an apt choice.

Starting with a real show of strength, soloist Tamara Stefanovich had terrific energy, the piano outlining a bold rhythmic profile in the lower register but then moving higher, accompanied by the large ensemble. As Abrahamsen says in the interesting interview with Sara Mohr-Pietsch on the radio broadcast, the wiry tones of the large ensemble are essential to the overall sound, preferable to the fuller symphony orchestra approach. This was clear as the piece progressed, becoming less of a battle between left hand and orchestra; more an integration of the two different sound worlds, so that when twinned with the bassoons at the end the sound palette burbled like a hot spring.

Finally there was a collaborative commission, a collage of Variations on a Hornpipe by Henry Purcell (from 2:24:31-2:42:46 on the broadcast link), conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The variations were written by 14 composers with Sinfonietta connections, and were followed by an altered statement of the hornpipe itself written by 10 more. All contributions were woven together under the direction of John Woolrich, who composed the beginning and end.

The best advice here is to listen to the introduction on the radio, then to guess who might be the composer of each fragment as the piece proceeds! A stately, ceremonial air surrounded the piece at its start but gradually the variations moved it further from the source. Perhaps inevitably the fragmented approach led to a disjointed whole at times, with a short attention span – due to the number of composers involved rather than Woolrich’s sterling work in getting the music together.

It was however a suitable showcase for the Sinfonietta as an ensemble, proving beyond doubt once again that their virtuosity knows no bounds, and ended with a flourish – as though to say, “Here’s to another 50 years, at the very least”. And so say all of us!

A 50th anniversary tribute will follow on these pages soon.

Further listening

You can listen to an album of Hans Abrahamsen’s music made by the London Sinfonietta in 1997 on Spotify:

Wigmore Mondays: Inon Barnatan plays Bach, Franck & Barber

Inon Barnatan (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Toccata in E minor BWV914 (c1710) (6 minutes)
Franck Prelude, Choral et Fugue (1885) (18 minutes)
Barber Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op.26 (1949) (20 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

This was a fascinating hour in the company of American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, exploring the role of the fugue in piano music while showing off considerable artistry and technical control of his instrument.

He began with Bach, and one of the lesser heard Toccatas for keyboard. This fell into three parts (starting at 4:06 on the broadcast) and initially took on quite a serious tone before relaxing for the fugue (which begins at 5:04). Barnatan signed off expansively, in a sense preparing for what was to come.

This proved to be Franck’s three-movement Prélude, Choral et Fugue, surely written in homage to organ pieces such as Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, but working particularly well on the piano. Barnatan gave a performance of impressive stature, really getting to the nub of the deep and almost religious expression the Belgian composer achieves.

An expansive Prélude (from 12:40) was followed by a reverent statement of the Chorale in hushed tones (at 18:18), before this grew inexorably in stature, leading to a superbly controlled peak at 21:10. The Fugue was confidently delivered, gaining intensity from its initial statement (23:50) until the final peal of bells signalled its triumphant switch from B minor to B major (30:11).

The Barber Sonata was simply superb, and a timely reminder that this is a composer worth so much more than simply the Adagio for Strings. Good though that piece is, the Sonata explores much more aggressive and twisted musical thoughts, perhaps a surprising response to a commission from Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, in honour of the League of Composers’ twenty-fifth anniversary. As announcer Clemency Burton-Hill says in the radio introduction it is a formidable work, perhaps not surprisingly given its dedicatee, Vladimir Horowitz.

It is difficult to imagine a better performance than Barnatan gave here, setting the tone immediately with the jagged outlines of the first movement’s main material (marked Allegro energico, from 32:40). There was considerable drama as this tumultuous piece of music unfolded, with bits of occasional lyrical repose but ultimately big outbursts in the form of the inspiration behind the piece, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Piano Sonata.

All were given with the utmost clarity by Barnatan, who softened the mood for the second movement Scherzo (40:39), then the intimate slow movement (Adagio mesto, from 42:52) which nonetheless reached a hair raising climax some three minutes or so later. Barnatan was totally inside the music, this passage described by Barber’s biographer as ‘the most tragic’ of the composer’s slow movements. Finally a terrific final movement Fuga, brilliantly played and with some complex figurations made to look easy!

The encore (from 54:00) was wholly appropriate, Busoni’s transcription for piano of the J.S. Bach choral prelude Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, in which a sense of stillness returned.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. Inon Barnatan has not recorded any of this repertoire to date, so the versions chosen here are by established pianists Glenn Gould, Jorge Bolet and Joanna MacGregor:

You can also see for yourself what the fuss is about by watching Inon Barnatan playing the first movement of Schubert’s C minor Piano Sonata below:

Meanwhile if you want an introduction to the music of Samuel Barber, starting with the Adagio for Strings, look no further!

Wigmore Mondays: Fatma Said sings Schumann, Mendelssohn, Poulenc & Sherif Mohie El Din with James Vaughan

Fatma Said (soprano, above), James Vaughan (piano, below)

Schumann 6 Gesänge Op. 89 (1850); Singet nicht in Trauertönen Op.98a/7, Liebeslied Op.51/5 (both 1849), Requiem Op.90/7 (1850)
Mendelssohn Die Liebende schreibt Op.86/3 (1831), Ach, um deine feuchten Schwinge (Suleika) Op.34/4 (1837), Hexenlied Op.8/8 (1827)
Poulenc Les chemins de l’amour, from Léocadia (1940), 2 poèmes de Louis Aragon (1943)
Sherif Mohie El Din Three Poems by Amal Donqul (1989)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

As a demonstration of artistry, this was quite some Wigmore Hall debut for soprano Fatma Said, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. The Egyptian singer used four languages in the course of an hour, and showed an aptitude for contrasting musical styles in a cleverly constructed programme.

It was good to hear less familiar Schumann songs as a starting group (from 1:32 on the broadcast) The set of six, published as Op.89, were written in the composer’s second ‘year of song’, the productive 1850. They set words by Wilfriend von der Nenn (a pseudonym for Wilhelm Schöpf), and show off an economy and intensity of word setting, with none lasting more than two minutes.

Said caught the agitation running through Es stürmet am Abendhimmel (There are storms in the evening sky) (1:32), set up by a wonderfully turbulent introduction from the excellent James Vaughan. A flowing Heimliches Verschwinden (Stealthy departure) (3:07) led to the yearning harmonies of Herbstlied (Autumn song) (5:12), then the softer hearted Abschied vom Walde (Farewell to the forest) (7:38). Both performers threw wide the curtains for a bracing Ins Freie (Out in the open) (9:45), before Röselein, Röselein! (Rose, little rose) (11:54) began with a striking solo, setting its dreamy mood.

A group of three more Schumann songs followed, the bright and carefree Singet nicht in Trauertönen (Do not sing in mournful tones) (15:20) leading to Liebeslied (Love Song), where there was a nice rapport from both performers in the song’s ebb and flow (17:38). Requiem (19:46) had a restrained and respectful air.

Mendelssohn’s songs are less-often heard, but carry melodic invention along with often incredibly challenging piano parts! A thoughtful Die Liebende schreibt (The beloved writes) (24:55) and the more urgent Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen (Ah, West Wind, how I envy you) (27:51) were nicely done, but the Hexenlied (Witches’ song) (30:34) was something else, the high notes nailed impressively by Said while Vaughan handled the flurry of notes with apparent ease.

The pair then turned to Poulenc, whose songs are the jewel in the crown of his musical output. We heard three brief but meaningful numbers, Les chemins de l’amour (The paths of love) (34:44) caught the efforts to stay cheerful despite the approach of World War II in 1940, while C (38:51) dealt with the immediate and horrific aftermath. Fêtes galantes (41:40) was a bit too breathless, but maybe that was the point as it raised a laugh!

Said then turned to ‘home away from home’, introducing three songs by Egyptian composer Sherif Mohie El Din, a welcome move that introduced a new sound world to the Wigmore Hall as well as showing the soprano’s clear passion for music and words of her first language.

The musical depiction of The Rain (from 44:22) was vivid and featured well-placed silences, the piano part enhancing the effect of raindrops. Could the river flow forever (46:50) had darker shading, while the final Against whom?  (49:57) was a tortuous and anguished study of feelings felt during surgery.

The performers generously gave us two encores – a further Egyptian song, Daughter of the Sultan by Gamal Abdel-Rahim (54:41) and then, after the radio went off air, Old Sir Faulk by Sir William Walton, with accompanying gestures from the soprano.

This emphasised how at home she is on the stage, and capped an extremely impressive and enjoyable recital, where a blend of musicianship and communication of the messages behind the text was always the primary goal. Both performers succeeded comfortably.

Further listening

You can listen to recorded versions of the repertoire in this concert on this Spotify playlist, apart from the Sherif Mohie Eldin songs which are not on the streaming service:

Meanwhile here is a link to the Sherif Mohie Eldin official YouTube page, including the three poems performed in the concert: