Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Bach, Janáček, Messiaen, Martinů & Edmund Finnis @ Wigmore Hall

Britten Sinfonia soloists [Thomas Gould (violin), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Emer McDonough (flute), Huw Watkins (piano)]

J.S. Bach Violin Sonata no.1 in B minor BWV1014 (1720)
Janáček Pohádka (1910)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1952)
Finnis Five Trios (world premiere tour) (2019)
Martinů Trio for flute, violin and piano (1936)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 13 February 2019

Photo credit Harry Rankin (Britten Sinfonia)

Review by Ben Hogwood

For years now Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series has been a steady delight, a way to discover the new and rediscover the old in chamber music. Using interesting combinations of instruments and building consistently innovative programs around them, the group offer a very accessible way in to discovering classical music’s treasures of the small scale.

This latest series, given in Norwich, Cambridge and London, is no exception, exploring 300 years of chamber music for flute, violin, cello and piano. Pianist Huw Watkins was the one constant for the whole concert, which at London’s Wigmore Hall gave off the unmistakeable aroma of spring.

Watkins and Thomas Gould began proceedings with a very tasteful account of Bach’s Violin Sonata. It is always good to hear Bach with piano accompaniment, for the music is so versatile that it suits the colours available. In a work like this particular sonata, where the piano plays much more than the role of a traditional accompanist, the textures were ideal. The violin, too, had more notes than normal thanks to Bach’s ‘double stopping’ writing, and Gould played these passages beautifully.

Janáček’s Pohádka represented quite a step forward stylistically but the transition was natural, and the fierce lyricism so often associated with the Czech composer was brought to the fore. Caroline Dearnley enjoyed the song-like passages and Watkins gave great clarity to the busy accompaniments, neither musician stinting on the intensity of Janacek’s writing as the plot of the fairy tale took hold.

The same could be said of Le merle noir, Messiaen’s only published work for flute and piano. An important work that signals his intent to accurately reproduce birdsong on traditional instruments, it is a remarkable piece – and Emer McDonough brought to it a wide range of colour. Most importantly she made it sound natural, for while the notes are all written out the intention of the piece is to sound as instinctive as possible. Again Watkins was the catalyst with some carefully voiced and wholly complementary thoughts.

Each ‘At Lunch’ concert features a new work on its world premiere tour, and the springlike atmosphere was ideal for Edmund Finnis and his Five Trios, for the conventional piano trio grouping of violin, cello and piano. Finnis finds an unusual amount of space in his music, and here his blend of quick movement over slow, drone-like figures opened out the textures very attractively.

There was very little bass in the five trios, notable for their translucence and bright textures. The first introduced softly oscillating figures, while the second spread shafts of light from spread piano chords and string harmonics. The dappled sunlight streaming through the Wigmore Hall roof was the ideal companion for the rippling textures of the third piece, but then in the fourth we enjoyed a bolder statement from the cello, its fuller sound ringing through a haze of sustained piano and glassy violin. To finish, the prayerful fifth piece completed a meditative ten minutes from a composer whose rarefied textures are well worth further investigation.

The Britten Sinfonia members closed their generous concert with Martinů’s Trio for flute, violin and piano. So prolific was the Czech composer that it is easy to overlook his achievements, particularly in the chamber music field. While it can on occasion be tricky to recall some of his melodies after the first hearing of a piece, the overall feel of his writing is uniformly positive and, in this case, capable of making the audience smile and clap spontaneously.

The third of four movements was responsible for the clapping outburst, a wonderful piece of effervescent writing betraying his Parisian location when writing it. The outer movements were a little grittier but still charmed with their syncopation, colour combinations and piquant melodies. The tender second movement was heartfelt too.

The standard of musicianship in this concert was extremely high. Particularly memorable moments include Emer McDonough’s final movement cadenza in the Martinů, where Watkins held the performance together admirably despite the tricky rhythms, the graceful playing of Thomas Gould in the Bach and Caroline Dearnley’s rich cello tone in the fourth of Edmund Dinnis’s trios, not to mention the expressive Janáček.

Once more from this source, an enlightening hour of music in an imaginative context. If you live in London or the East of England you really should catch them live soon!

Further listening

You can listen below to an interview with Edmund Finnis, talking with Dr Kate Kennedy about Five Trios ahead of the Wigmore Hall concert://embeds.audioboom.com/posts/7174837-edmund-finnis-talks-about-his-new-work-five-trios/embed/v4?eid=AQAAACp5ZVy1em0A

You can also hear a new release of Finnis’s music for orchestra here:

Meanwhile the remainder of the program is grouped together on this Spotify playlist:

Wigmore Mondays – François-Frédéric Guy plays Debussy, Tristan Murail & Brahms

François-Frédéric Guy (piano)

Debussy Préludes, Book 2 (1912-13): Brouillards (1:27-4:25 on the broadcast link below); La puerta del vino (4:31-7:41); Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (7:46-10:37); La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (10:42-15:00; Feux d’artifice (15:03-19:07)
Debussy Images, Set 1 (1901-05): Reflets dans l’eau (20:47-25:37)
Tristan Murail Cailloux dans l’eau (2018, UK premiere) (25:40-32:30)
Brahms 4 Piano Pieces, Op.119 (1893) (34:35-48:23)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 February 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

If last year saw a surfeit of Debussy’s music in the composer’s centenary year, it was for a good reason. The composer is rightly revered as one of the leading lights of early 20th century music, and brought with him new approaches to melody and harmony, not to mention sound worlds and textures unlike anything that had been heard before.

His writing for the piano is indispensable and of a consistently high and original quality, whether taking inspiration from older forms or creating new ones. In his Préludes for the piano he builds on an approach perfected by Chopin, who used each key to create 24 such works. Debussy, however, made 24 character pieces, painting portraits either of specific or deliberately vague imagery.

In this lunchtime recital François-Frédéric Guy fully immersed himself in this revolutionary writing, showing a clear affinity with five of the Préludes from the later Book 2. The swirling mists of Brouillards (Mists) (from 1:27 on the broadcast link) are vividly portrayed, with a notable attention to detail on the weighting of the notes. The swagger of the Habanera inhabits La puerta del vino (The wine door) (4:31), with its exotic harmonies matched to a free rhythmic approach.

The parallel chords of Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) (7:46) are also beautifully weighted, while La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace of moonlit audiences) (10:42) grows from its introduction with a masterful crescendo. Finally Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), 15:03) is captivating, and during it you can practically see sparklers being waved around, thanks to the twinkling figurations in Guy’s right hand.

Reflets dans l’eau, taken from Debussy’s Images Set 1, is another watery wonder (from 20:47), played here with exquisite control from both fingers and feet – the use of the sustain pedal being of great importance in Debussy’s music. The rippling sounds act as the inspiration for Tristan Murail’s tribute to the composer, Cailloux dans l’eau (25:40)

His response begins at a more measured tempo than Debussy’s, savouring the colours for longer and effectively making his water slower moving. Soon, however, the ripplies become much more pronounced and twist upwards to the higher pitches on the piano (c30:00), with frothy trills that gradually subside towards silence. Guy played this with absolute control, fully immersed in Murail’s writing.

To finish, the final works for piano by Brahms. These four pieces were written as the composer reached his 60s, and mark the end of a late creative flowering including a number of chamber works for clarinet and intimate pieces for the piano. Three of Op.119 are classed as Intermezzos, a title essentially giving the composer free rein.

No.1 feels the most free of all, with a soaring right hand line beautifully floated by Guy in this performance. A real song without words, it carries deep emotional impact here. Guy moves straight on to the second piece (38:20), a flowing piece with greater urgency and a sunnier theme in the centre.

Then at 42:27, the short third piece, with repeated notes using the ‘classic’ Brahms triplet rhythms. Guy missed a couple of notes here but gauged the piece just right leading to the heroic Rhapsody (43:51) This piece is a triumphant way to end any concert, but does finish on a darker note. Until then, Brahms develops the theme, moving by 46:30 to a mood that recalls the previous Intermezzo. Then the main tune returns with great force (47:37), and just as it looks like a sunny ending Brahms plunges us into the minor key, signing off with great fire and brimstone.

To calm the waters after this, Guy returned to Debussy, and the first book of Préludes – with the most famous excerpt of all, Clair de lune (49:52-53:55).

Further listening

François-Frédéric Guy has not yet recorded any of the music heard in this concert – however the below Spotify playlist includes some leading versions of the repertoire heard:

Unfortunately the Tristan Murail is not available anywhere yet; however his complete piano music up until 2013 can be heard here in recordings made by Marilyn Nonken:

For more Debussy, Mitsuko Uchida’s album of the Études, another extension of a form pioneered by Chopin, can be heard here in an award-laden disc:

Late Brahms is one of the pinnacles of the Romantic piano repertoire, and few recorded it with the authority of Steven Kovacevich, heard here in a wonderful album for Philips:

Timothy Ridout & Frank Dupree – Bridge, Britten & Bowen @ Wigmore Hall

Timothy Ridout (viola, above), Jack Dupree (piano, below)

Bridge Pensiero; Allegro appassionato (1908)
Britten Lachrymae: Reflections on a Song of John Dowland Op. 48a (1950)
Bowen Viola Sonata No. 1 in C minor Op. 18 (1907)

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 5 February 2019

Photo credit Kaupo Kikkas (Timothy Ridout)

Review by Ben Hogwood

The first Tuesday in the month usually brings with it a lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall from an artist on the YCAT roster. YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust) is a charitable organisation looking after the development of emerging classical artists. A snapshot of its alumni (Alison Balsom, Simon Haram, the Belcea Quartet and Sean Shibe) bears testament to the success of their program and the longevity of the careers they boost.

On this evidence, viola player Timothy Ridout is another who looks set for great things – as does German pianist Frank Dupree, with whom he gave this recital. Dupree was demonstrating his versatility with a second appearance at the hall in nine days (previously appearing with BBC New Generation artist, trumpeter Simon Höfele)

The pair began with two compositions by Frank Bridge, himself a viola player – but one who seemed reluctant to write anything substantial for his own instrument. The Pensiero and Allegro appassionato are the only works that survive. Written in 1908, they fall into Bridge’s late Romantic period and make a very satisfying double. Ridout played the Pensiero affectionately and with a beautiful tone, which opened out for the surge of the Allegro appassionato that followed.

Bridge and Benjamin Britten enjoyed an inspirational creative partnership, the elder man a lasting influence on his pupil. Britten’s Lachrymae is his major work for viola and piano, though is more commonly heard in its orchestral arrangement. It is a masterful set of variations on a song by John Dowland, If my complaints could passions move, and reverses the variation format so that we hear all the variations first and the tune right at the end. He also refers to a second Dowland song, Flow my tears, in the course of the piece.

Ridout and Dupree gave a superb performance, atmospheric right from the start with a commendable attention to detail and a brooding passion which was unleashed in the fifth and sixth variations. The dynamic shadings were exquisitely realised, Ridout’s tone was beautifully judged, and Dupree’s punctuation marks were ideally clipped in the seventh variation.

Finally a very different form of Englishness was heard in the form of York Bowen’s Viola Sonata no.1. Bowen wrote this at the age of 20, and it shows an early command of the required form, as well as melodic invention, which both players clearly enjoyed. There was humour, too, in the coda parts of the first movement, and in the closing pages, which felt like a race to the finish between the two.

The sonata’s dimensions are considerable – 29 minutes in this performance – but the work did not outstay its welcome, thanks to the energy of the outer movements. These drove forward with great enthusiasm and lyrical input. Ridout’s tone was consistently strong and rich in the low register, his phrasing ideal – while Dupree matched him note for note in the tricky accompaniment. The slow movement found the emotional heart of the piece, but the sweeping optimism of the last movement stayed with the audience the longest.

As a nicely chosen encore Ridout introduced Bowen’s Melody for the G string (1917), its title a lightly humourous take on Bach’s Air but also rooting the viola player to the same string for the whole five minutes. With a charming tune, it provided a winsome finish to a very fine concert.

More music

You can watch Timothy and Jack in York Bowen’s Romance below, also at the Wigmore Hall:

Meanwhile to hear the music in this concert, the Spotify playlist below includes all the works performed, in versions currently available:

Timothy has not yet recorded any of the works featured, but his debut disc for Champs Hill is well worth hearing – the complete works for viola and piano by Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps:

Links

You can find out more about the work of YCAT and their artists on their website

Wigmore Mondays – Sophie Pacini plays Chopin, Wagner & Schumann

Sophie Pacini (piano)

Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op.66 (c1834) (1:27-6:18 on the broadcast link below)
Wagner, transcribed Liszt Overture to Tännhauser S442 (arr.1848) (7:25-22:33)
Schumann Carnaval Op.9 (1834-5) 24:25-47:13

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 4 February 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Sophie Pacini’s Wigmore Hall recital began with a fast, flowing performance of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. As the name implies this is an extremely free piece but there is structure too, with two distinct themes. From 1:27 on the broadcast link above you can hear the main material, then at 2:31 a contrasting and relatively settled theme in the major key. A short development section brings us back to the main material at 4:33, and then Chopin spins a beautiful coda from the second theme at 5:35.

Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s overture to the opera Tannhäuser (from 7:25) is something of an Everest for pianists; one that Sophie Pacini appeared to have scaled with commendable ease. This was a towering performance but also one that allowed the detail of the parts to come through – only rarely did the tunes threaten to become subsumed by the massive textures, and that certainly wasn’t the fault of Pacini – just a case of Liszt trying to accommodate so much of the orchestra!

In the broadcast the overture builds steadily from soft but noble beginnings, reaching what sounds like a mighty peal of bells at 9:27. This majestic theme dominates the music, coming back at 18:42 with an extraordinary accompaniment of what sounds like circling birds in the right hand part, leading up to a massive statement towards the end.

Carnaval is a favourite among the Schumann piano output, a series of character pieces that present a masked ball. Schumann himself is there, together with wife Clara – and not only that, Schumann invents several characters to depict the very different strains of his personality. There is a grand total of 20 different sections making up this attractive and colourful suite of pieces, and they run as follows (with approximate descriptions):

The very lively Préambule (24:25) begins the piece, cutting to Pierrot (26:36), whose repeated three-note figure reminded me of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Arlequin (27:47) is a short, playful number, leading to a charming Valse noble (28:32), then Eusebius (29:39), one of the ‘selfies’ in Carnaval that depicts composer’s ‘calm, deliberate’ side. By contrast Florestan (31:26) depicts the composer’s fiery, impetuous nature, and Schumann quotes the main waltz theme from his earlier work Papillons, Op. 2.

The Coquette (32:15) follows, depicting a flirtatious girl, before Réplique (33:18) acts as a reply. There would then be a freely-written section called Sphinxes, which Sophie Pacini chooses not to perform here. Instead we move on to the quick fire Papillons (33:48, no connection to Op.2), then A.S.C.H. – S.C.H.A (34:31), another form of self portrait. Chiarina (35:09) is a depiction of the composer’s wife Clara, while the spacious arpeggios of Chopin (36:03) depict the composer.

Estrella (36:46) depicts Ernestine von Fricken, before Reconnaissance (37:23), a brilliant musical portrayal that is thought to depict Schumann and Ernestine recognizing each other at the ball. Pantalon et Colombine (38:54) are from the commedia dell’arte, then we hear the charming Valse allemande (39:38)

An extremely active Intermezzo: Paganini (40:14) leads into a reprise of the Valse allemande. Then Aveu (41:30) initally feels a bit bashful in its depiction of a confession of love. A Promenade (42:20) moves directly to a Pause (43:58), written out in musical form. After an almost identical reprise of a passage from the opening Préambule, we lead without a break into the final section, the Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins (The March of David Against the Philistines) (44:16) It is a rousing finish to a cycle full of character.

Sophie Pacini’s performance is a fast one – most versions clock in just under half an hour, whereas hers is under 23 minutes. This shows the quick tempo choices she makes, and the short pauses between musical numbers. On occasion the music feels a bit too hasty and some of the softer moments and dance scenes could do with a bit more space and charm, some time to breathe between the sections perhaps. That said, a very enjoyable performance of characterful music that ends triumphantly.

As a suitable footnote to the concert, Pacini returned to the key of C sharp minor for Saint-Saëns (48:26-53:33) and his Allegro appassionato.

Further listening

Sophie Pacini has recorded all of the repertoire given in her recital. Her encore piece, the Saint-Saëns Allegro Appassionato, is added in a new recording from Bertrand Chamayou:

Quite where Liszt found the time to transcribe loads of orchestral pieces for piano is a mystery, but he did – including all nine Beethoven symphonies! This collection from Glenn Gould includes the Fifth, as well as more Wagner:

Schumann’s character pieces for piano are greatly loved. Carnaval is one of the most popular, but there are plenty of others – and on this album from Wilhelm Kempff you can enjoy three collections – Kinderszenen (for children), the wonderful Kreisleriana and the Waldszenen (Forest Scenes):

Wigmore Mondays – Simon Höfele & Frank Dupree in 20th century works for trumpet and piano

Simon Höfele (trumpet, above) & Frank Dupree (piano, below)

Enescu Légende (1906) (2:07-8:20)
Takemitsu Paths (In Memoriam Witold Lutoslawski) (1994) (8:39-14:48
Hindemith Trumpet Sonata (1939) (16:56-33:30)
Savard Morceau de Concours (1903) (35:20-41:05)
Gaubert Cantabile et scherzetto (1909) (41:33-46:20)
Charlier Solo de Concours (1900) 47:39-54:26)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 28 January 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Photo credits Sebastian Heck (Simon Höfele)

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

There is more music for the combination of solo trumpet and piano than you might think – and how gratifying for the BBC New Generation Artist Simon Höfele to remind us of that on his debut at the Wigmore Hall. Forming a most impressive partnership with pianist Frank Dupree, he gave us four works from the first decade of the 20th century, three by composers new to Arcana pages – and a masterpiece of the century’s repertoire.

Initially playing a trumpet ‘in C’ (that is, calibrated to sit naturally in the key of C major), Höfele listened to Dupree solemnly intoning the opening chords of the Enescu Légende (from 2:07 on the enclosed BBC Sounds link). A competition piece written by the Romanian composer for the 1906 trumpet competition (concours) at the Paris Conservatoire, it begins in a deceptively languid mood, the trumpet low in its register, but soon begins to stir, Höfele hitting a faultless top ‘C’ around 5:50. Then the thoughtful mood returns, the trumpet using the mute at the very end.

From this soft dynamic comes the beginning of the next piece, Takemitsu’s Paths (8:39). The paths in question are very separate – soft, ruminative phrases using the mute, answered by much bolder and generally higher writing. The piece ascends to the relative heights, the piercing rasp of the mute-inflected phrase brings it towards earth, but it ultimately ends in mid-air contemplation.

Hindemith was an incredibly versatile composer, in his career writing sonatas for no fewer than 16 of the instruments of the orchestra. His Trumpet Sonata is one of the finest examples of this canon, and betrays its 1939 origins with frequent references to the actions of his ‘home’ country Germany. At this point the composer was an exile in Switzerland, and this work effectively shows both his horror and sorrow at the annex of Austria, the occupation of Czechoslovakia and ultimately the invasion of Poland.

Turning to a trumpet ‘in B flat’, Höfele leads a brisk and busy start (from 16:56), though signs of the composer’s tongue-in-cheek writing are never far from the surface, peeking through at 17:50. Once reasserted, however, the main thematic material is impossible to shift.

The second movement (22:26) has a spirit of soft-hearted lazy play about it initially, with light hearted piano comments (ideally voiced by Dupree here) that are punctuated by the trumpet. From 29:19, the last movement, the piano distractedly accompanies the long trumpet phrases in lamentation, using as their source a chorale. Then the music builds to a resentful peak before fading away.

Very little is known of the French composer Augustin Savard – though he did win the coveted Prix de Rome with his oratorio La Vision de Saül in 1886. This Morceau de Concours is a competition piece for the trumpet that shows an impressive grasp of the instrument, not to mention drama in the slow introduction (35:20). By 39:06 the music has worked its way round to a genial theme for the faster section, after which trumpet and piano enjoy some light hearted exchanges.

Philippe Gaubert’s Cantabile et scherzetto, published six years later, enjoys a similar profile. Gaubert’s output is mostly directed towards the flute, but he too wrote a competition piece with a serious introduction (41:33) and a playful counterpart (44:20), packed with repeated triplets.

For the Solo de Concours by Belgian composer Théo Charlier (47:39) a slow introduction is not necessary, the piano firmly setting the scene before the trumpet’s arrival. An attractive slower theme (50:15) gives the other side of the story. A poignant aside from the muted trumpet follows before all the shackles are cast off in the final section (52:44) Just occasionally here Höfele felt as though he was overreaching with some of the more complicated phrases, but this – as with all the other pieces – was brilliantly handled.

The encore was a great choice, a Song Without Words by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (56:03-58:30), a solemn tune spiced with the odd ‘wrong’ note in the piano accompaniment, almost in the manner of Charles Ives.

Further listening

Simon Höfele and Frank Dupree have not yet recorded any of the repertoire performed in this concert. However the playlist below assembles the music in a number of different recordings, headed by Alison Balsom and Tom Poster in the Hindemith Trumpet Sonata:

Höfele does however have an extremely impressive disc of modern works in the bag, including music by HK Gruber, Takemitsu, Jolivet and Iain Hamilton:

Hindemith’s sonatas are intriguing pieces that combine flair and depth with concise writing structures. This disc, commonly linked by pianist Alexander Melnikov, is a winner: