In concert – Aris Quartet play Schulhoff, Kurtág & Mendelssohn @ Wigmore Hall

Aris 5

Schulhoff 5 Pieces for String Quartet (1924)
Kurtág Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky Op.28 (1988-9)
Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 3 in D major Op.44/1 (1838)

Aris Quartet (above, photograph (c) Sophie Walter) [Anna Katharina Wildermuth, Noémi Zipperling (violins), Caspar Vinzens (viola), Lukas Sieber (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 October 2021, 1pm

Written by Ben Hogwood (reviewed live from online stream below)

The Aris Quartet are part of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, and this was their first appearance at the Wigmore Hall. They presented themselves as a lively ensemble who clearly enjoy their music, and they played with sensitivity and panache

Also revealed was a strong instinct for programming. Schulhoff’s 5 Pieces for String Quartet are beginning to make themselves known more in the concert hall, presenting as they do a number of sides of this unique musical personality. The Czech composer was arrested in Prague before he could be issued with a visa to emigrate to Moscow in the Second World War, and died at the Wülzburg concentration camp at the age of 48. His music is still relatively young in its exposure because of this, only really coming through in the 1990s. Initial criticism from those sceptical at his integration of jazz and dance forms is giving way to more outright respect, and – as could be seen here – the 5 Pieces make a great start to a concert.

The Aris Quartet gave a vibrant account of the first movement, marked Alla Valse viennese, but soon a chill was forming as the Alla Serenata progressed, its ghostly presence reminiscent of early Shostakovich. The muted instruments danced over a distracted drone from the cello before biting hard in a sequence that was almost anti-lyrical. There was an impressive cut and thrust to the Alla Czeca, bringing out the composer’s heritage, then an attractive sway to the Alla Tango milonga, beautifully played but with an unexpectedly ominous finish. Finally the buzz of the lively Alla Tarantella set a strong unison violin melody against brisk viola and cello.

Officium breve by György Kurtág was next, a requiem to fellow Hungarian composer Andreae Szervánszky. By his standards it is a lengthy piece indeed, but with 15 sections in barely 12 minutes it was packed with compressed melodies of great intensity. Kurtág is a master in obtaining deep expression from the shortest of phrases, achieving this through carefully pointed melodies and highly imaginative quartet textures. Such a thorough knowledge of string quartet capabilities informs the many sides of grief felt here, and the Aris Quartet reveled in the nuances of the piece. The gripping account took hold from the distracted opening, where cellist Lukas Sieber effectively set out the pitches of the open strings of hit instrument, to savage chords wrought with pure anger later on. The composer’s use of microtones was deeply expressive, as were the ‘double stopping’ passages, the quartet playing as one instrument with eight or more voices. It was a moving and mind-expanding performance.

A wholesale change of mood took us to Mendelssohn, and the joyous outpouring of the first in his trio of quartets published as Op.44. Anna Katharina Wildermuth’s songful first violin was key here, but so were the quartet textures, with lots going on but impressive clarity to reveal the dialogue between the instruments. This was a lovely, fluid performance, with a sunny first movement giving way to a less excitable but equally persuasive Menuetto, showing off its rhythms and soft-hearted theme. Feelings ran deep in the slow movement, especially in the minor key episode, where Wildermuth probed deeper with her phrasing. The finale recaptured the mood of the first movement, good spirits bubbling over to cap an affectionate and energetic performance.

It was great to see an ensemble playing as one with such obvious enthusiasm and commitment for the music, and based on this evidence the Aris Quartet have a bright future indeed. Watch the concert stream and see for yourself!

You can also listen to the repertoire from the Aris Quartet’s concert on this Spotify playlist:

For more information on the Aris Quartet visit their website

In concert – Boris Giltburg plays Ravel, Schumann & Prokofiev @ Wigmore Hall


Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.6 in A major Op.82 (1939-40)
Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911)
Schumann Carnaval Op.9 (1834-5)
Ravel La valse (1920)

Boris Giltburg (piano, above)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 4 October 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

This review marks your correspondent’s first visit to the Wigmore Hall for 18 months – after weekly coverage of the hall’s wonderful Monday lunchtime series. It was so good to be back! In that time it seems the core audience has changed, dropping by a couple of decades at least. This could be due to understandable caution on the part of the older members of the audience to get back to the post-Coronavirus version of concert life, but it is more likely to be the regular streaming of concerts that has lured in a much younger generation. This concert was streamed (you can watch below) and, for the record, the audience were enthusiastic and immaculately behaved – in fact there was a celebratory atmosphere.

Boris Giltburg fully inhabited the positivity. The pianist was beginning a new, two-year look at the piano music of Ravel, and if this first instalment was anything to go by, we are in for a treat. Giltburg’s first selection concentrated on the waltz in its many forms – with two very different approaches to triple time from Ravel, complemented by Schumann and Prokofiev.

It was with the coruscating tones of the latter’s Piano Sonata no.6 in A major that Giltburg began, something of a shock to unaccustomed ears with its discordant language. This underrated work is first in a trilogy of sonatas written during World War Two. The impact was immediate and confrontational, delivered with impressive force but also control. The serrated edges of the first movement were complemented by a poetic second theme, and the tension relaxed a little further for the second movement’s witty march. The right hand of the piano drew parallels with the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, as the left hand ascended with a probing melody. The slow movement had a softer, yearning heart, though the dissonant harmonies lingered around the edges, before the runaway theme of the finale took hold. This could easily be a silent film soundtrack, but its cat and mouse nature was challenged and ultimately caught by the reappearance of the first movement’s angular melody. Giltburg staged a profound drama between these elements before bringing the sonata to a shattering conclusion.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales was next, providing a relatively controlled contrast to the Prokofiev’s unwieldly ways. Giltburg enjoyed the music greatly, swaying to the rhythms as he played. His control was immaculate but the rhythmic profile of the waltzes was instinctive, holding back or pressing forward as appropriate. A tender, intimate second waltz (marked Assez lent – avec une expression intense) brought the audience in closer, while the fourth waltz (Assez animé) twinkled in the night air. Giltburg could be forceful when needed, as in the first (Modéré) and seventh (Moins vif) waltzes, and his Épilogue was exquisitely voiced.

The second half began with Schumann’s Carnaval, a tableau of portraits and personal insights completed in the composer’s mid-twenties. Schumann’s ability to paint vivid pictures at the piano is rightly celebrated, and the sketches here were rich in colour and implied detail. Giltburg relished the extravert Florestan as much as he did the reserved poetry of Eusebius, both sections portraying the personality of Schumann himself. The nagging ‘answer’ motif of Pierrot left its mark, as did the repeated notes of Reconaissance. Meanwhile Papillons quoted from one of Schumann’s first piano pieces with a slightly shy countenance. Schumann’s portraits of Chopin and Paganini were once again fascinating in their insights, while finally the triumphant Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins carried all before it in a triumphant account.

As did Ravel’s La valse, which followed, though here there was a very different outcome. La valse describes the destruction wrought by the First World War, its closing bars collapsing in vivid imagery, but it could just as easily describe elements of our civilization over the last few years. Giltburg seemed to inhabit that possibility, the warm-hearted dance dropping in temperature as his account progressed, until the end when it was rumbling throughout the piano in a self-destructive whirlpool. This is a fiendishly difficult transcription, but Giltburg made it seem effortless as he inhabited each and every twist and turn, hurling out the final pages with formidable power.

After this alarming turn of events we returned to the solace of Giltburg’s first encore, a limpid Intermezzo in A major Op.118/2 by Brahms, then marvelled at the passion in his second choice, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G# minor Op.32/12. A memorable recital, and an auspicious start to what promises to be a great series. Best experienced in person rather than online though!

You can listen to the repertoire from Boris Giltburg’s concert on this Spotify playlist, which includes the pianist’s recordings of the Prokofiev, Schumann and Rachmaninov:

For more information on Boris Giltburg you can visit his website

On record: Michael Brown – Noctuelles: Ravel & Medtner (First Hand Records)

Michael Brown (piano)

Ravel  Miroirs (1904-5)
Medtner Second improvisation (in variation form) Op.47 (1925)

First Hand Records FHR78 [61’49”]
Producers Adam Golka, Roman Rabinovich
Engineers Monte Nickles, Jim Ruberto

Recorded 2-10 January 2019 at Olivier Music Barn, Tippet Rise Arts Centre, Fishtail MT

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Michael Brown follows his earlier disc for First Hand Records (Beethoven and Mendelssohn on FHR67) with this coupling of Ravel’s most extensive solo piano work and Medtner’s most extended such piece outside of his sonatas; here featuring two recently discovered variations.

What’s the music like?

While the term ‘post-impressionism’ had not then been applied in a musical context, Ravel’s Miroirs effectively inaugurates this through five pieces that evoke the essence of the image in question rather than merely attempting its depiction. Other pianists may have rendered these evocations more acutely, but few have approached so highly contrasted a sequence with such evident concern for formal and expressive unity.

Hence the overall seamlessness with which the fugitive activity of Noctuelles is followed by the wistful poise of Oiseaux tristes; itself proceeded by those glistening textures and kaleidoscopic timbral interplay of Une barque sur l’océan, then the stark juxtaposition (vividly delineated here) between high-jinx and eruptive unease of Alborada del gracioso. Nor is La vallée des cloches the slight anti-climax it can often seem, Brown judiciously setting the scene for that stately modal theme as is among the composer’s most potent inspirations. An interpretation leaving one more than usually aware that the audacity of Ravel’s musical thinking is made more so by its pointed understatement.

One cannot imagine that Medtner had much regard for this music – but, fortunately, he almost always proved more flexible in his accommodation with past and present as composer than as writer. Never more so than with his Second Improvisation, written after he had left the Soviet Union for uncertain exile in Paris then London – its subtitle ‘in variation form’ indicating the fusing of precision and fluidity that gives this work its substance and its fascination. Brown’s perceptive reading is made more so by his inclusion of two previously unpublished variations which he tracked down to the National Library of Canada: thus, the elaborate passagework of La Cadenza (placed between variations four and five) and the coursing rhetoric of Pesante (placed between variations 11 and 12) which, between them, open out the emotional scope of what is already a design as unpredictable as it is engrossing. Certainly, the trajectory between the initial Theme and eventual Conclusion exudes a freedom from inhibition that Medtner here achieves almost despite himself and which Brown is demonstrably intent on conveying.

Does it all work?

Yes, given Brown teases out those musical connections between composers whose aesthetic outlook differed greatly (Medtner forthright in condemning most of his contemporaries). The account of Miroirs can certainly hold its own in what is now a crowded field (one featuring such as Beatrice Rana on Warner and Steven Osborne on Hyperion), whereas in the Second Improvisation the main competition comes from Hamish Milne (CRD) and Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), neither of who include the additional two variations that Brown interpolates here.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The acoustic of the Olivier Music Barn is ideal for piano music of this intricacy and subtlety, while Brown’s booklet notes are succinctly informative. A welcome release by one of the Tippet Rise triumvirate who have become notable contributors to First Hand Records.

Listen and Buy

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the First Hand Records website. Meanwhile you can listen to Noctuelles on Spotify:

On record: Simon Callaghan: The Open Window – Sir George Dyson: Complete Music for Piano (Somm Recordings)

Simon Callaghan (piano) *Clíodna Shanahan (piano)

Concerto Leggiero (1951)*
The Open Window (1919)
Primrose Mount (1928)
Bach’s Birthday (1929)
Untitled Piano Piece (1890)
Six Lyrics (1920)
My Birthday (1924)
Twelve Easy Pieces (1952)
Prelude and Ballet (1925)
Epigrams (1920)
Three Wartime Epigrams (1920)
Four Twilight Preludes (1920)

Somm Recordings SOMMCD0622-2 [101’58”]
Producer Siva Oke
Engineer Paul Arden-Taylor

Recorded 17-18 January 2020 The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

As the cover suggests, this double album gives us the complete music for piano of Sir George Dyson, including five world premiere recordings ranging from the first piece the composer wrote at the age of seven to a two-piano version of Concerto Leggero, a substantial three-movement work for piano and orchestra completed in 1951.

Paul Spicer, the composer’s biographer, contributes a wonderful booklet note telling the story of Dyson’s life and highlighting the importance of the house piano, brought by Dyson’s parents to encourage his obvious gift for musical in the midst of an impoverished upbringing. It is rather moving to read of the composer’s progression through these years, the piano by his side at every turn.

What’s the music like?

The album is beautifully programmed, taking the biggest piece first. The Concerto Leggiero has many harmonic sleights and twists and turns, especially through its first movement, to which Simon Callaghan and Clíodna Shanahan are alive. This is in complete contrast to the early Dyson piano pieces, which are little nuggets you might expect to encounter in early piano learning – but which have an emotional substance ensuring they last well beyond that sphere.

The Open Window itself is charming, with a softly undulating Field and Wood the first of its eight short movements. Dyson’s descriptions are often little picture postcards, such as the restless description of Swallows, but they frequently have an emotive core, found most poignantly in the closing Evensong. In the same way this short suite was written for young pianists to develop their prowess, the Six Lyrics offer the same opportunity through their melodic cells.

Dyson’s very first Untitled Piano Piece is also included, the seven-year old composer offering a bold attempt lasting just under a minute. At the other end of the scale the Epigrams are slightly shady but intense pockets of emotion, each one somehow finding the uncertainty of post-First World War Britain. The Four Twilight Preludes are disarmingly simple, too, elusive portraits that hang in the air and on occasion call Debussy’s music for children to mind. These small but meaningful pieces show the composer’s ability to bring emotion from what on the outside appears to be simple material.

Bach’s Birthday, meanwhile, shows the composer’s skill at working tight compositional procedures into his music. He uses fugues here in music of remarkable density and expression.

Does it all work?

Yes – because Simon Callaghan proves a very sympathetic interpreter, and the programming gives exactly the right balance of light and shade. Given with affection, it is a charming set of music that works as a pleasant background but is more substantial when listened to closely. Dyson is a composer who, in these piano pieces, packs a lot of meaning into short duration. The experience becomes even more rewarding when enjoyed with Paul Spicer’s commentary.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Open Window fills a notable gap in the British piano music archive, and its support from the Sir George Dyson Trust has secured the completion of an important release. It tells us much more about a composer revered primarily for his choral and orchestral music, illustrating the intimacy he could find in his work. It also serves as a timely reminder of the rich tradition of keyboard music on these shores throughout the 20th century.

For further information on this release, visit the Somm Recordings website

On record – Matthew Schellhorn plays Howells: Piano Music Vol.1 (Naxos)

Matthew Schellhorn (piano) Herbert Howells Phantasy (1917) Harlequin Dancing (1918) My Lord Harewood’s Galliard (1949) Finzi: His Rest (1956) Summer Idyls (1911) Siciliana (1958) Pavane and Galliard (1964) Petrus Suite (1967-73) Naxos 8.571382 [65’52”] Producers Rachel Smith< Engineer Ben Connellan Recorded 19-21 August 2019 at The Menuhin Hall, Stoke D’Abernon Written by Richard Whitehouse What’s the story? Naxos continues its coverage of Herbert Howells with this initial instalment (presumably one more to follow) of his piano music, all pieces being previously unrecorded and authoritatively rendered by Matthew Schellhorn in what is a notable addition to the composer’s discography. What’s the music like? Long before his death (at the age of 90), Howells’s reputation rested firmly on his output of choral and organ works. Only quite recently has his considerable earlier output of orchestral and chamber music received serious re-evaluation, so revealing one whose distinct change of outlook in his early forties came about as much through cultural as personal reasons. Modest in scope and dimension, his piano music features no extended or career-defining works, yet its technical poise and always idiomatic feel for this instrument makes for a rewarding listen. The present selection interleaves miniatures and cyclical works in chronological order. As to the former, Phantasy finds the recently graduated composer assured in his handling of those impressionist aspects derived from Debussy and Ravel, while Harlequin Dreaming inhabits a world of Satie-esque whimsy and nonchalance as a reminder that Howells was then close friends with Bliss. Moving on to the Renaissance-inspired piano pieces of his later years, My Lord Harewood’s Galliard fuses its recherche manner with engaging harmonic astringency, whereas Finzi: His Rest is a pensively ambivalent in-memoriam to a younger colleague. The Siciliana is a languorous if non-indulgent take on the characteristic dance rhythm, while the Pavane and Galliard juxtaposes the confessional and combative with stark emotional acuity. The suites come from either end of Howells’s career, with all that implies for a half-century timespan. Summer Idyls [sic] formed a part of his portfolio for the Royal College of Music; its stylistic indebtedness to the mid- and late Romantics – not least Rachmaninov – would soon be left behind, but the appeal in these evocations of rural environs no doubt familiar from his childhood endures. Pick of the seven is the wistful rumination of ‘Near Midnight’, with the central ‘Minuet Sine Nomine’ similarly dominating the Petrus Suite in its limpid refinement. Otherwise, the seven pieces evince a sinewy counterpoint and tensile linearity    as are audibly a product of Howells’s late style, yet the origin of several in sketches made decades before confirms an overriding consistency of approach heightened by experience. Does it all work? Yes, allowing that Howells never sought to suffuse this music with the degree of emotional intensity reserved, at least in his maturity, for the larger choral works. Yet his quintessential expression is arguably to be found in those many shorter choral or organ pieces intended for liturgical purpose; in which case, the expressive focus and restraint of what is recorded here is its own justification. It could hardly have a more persuasive advocate than Schellhorn, who credits the late Stephen Cleobury for introducing him to the extent of Howells’s piano music. Is it recommended? Indeed. The closely unduly defined sound is ideal for piano music of this kind, and Jonathan Clinch’s annotations (along with a reminiscence by the pianist) are succinct and informative. The follow-up volume, mainly of better-known music, will doubtless prove just as rewarding. Listen & Buy
You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Naxos website