In Concert – Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev Piano Sonatas @ Wigmore Hall

Prokofiev

Piano Sonata no.4 in C minor Op.29 (1917)
Piano Sonata no.2 in D minor Op.14 (1912)
Piano Sonata no.9 in C major Op.103 (1947)
Piano Sonata no.6 in A major Op.82 (1939-40)

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 31 October 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood; Photo of Olli Mustonen (c) Heikki Tuuli

Sergei Prokofiev is a composer whose music responds well to a ‘completist’ treatment. In the last decade London has seen cycles of his seven symphonies (from Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra) and his five piano concertos, given in a memorable Prom in 2015 with the London Symphony Orchestra supporting five different soloists. Now came the chance to look more closely at the composer’s writing for piano in a two-night performance of the nine solo sonatas, given by a specialist of the composer’s music.

Olli Mustonen has recorded the Prokofiev concertos but not yet committed his thoughts on the sonatas to disc. Should he do so the results will be fascinating, for he has a highly individual and uniquely compelling take on this composer’s music. His is an energetic approach, and even by the end of the first movement of the Piano Sonata no.4 he was mopping a fevered brow. Fourteen movements later he had delivered a revealing look at music whose power to reflect its time and place of composition is remarkably strong, carrying profound messages forward to the present day.

Born in what is now Ukraine, Prokofiev experienced great trials and separations throughout his life. Those tensions are felt in his music, where they are offset by a ready sense of humour, expressed through piano writing that emphasises athleticism but makes room for tender lyricism, backed by an instinct for concise yet developed frameworks in which the music can sit. As a result, pieces and movements rarely overstate their welcome.

Piano Sonata no.4 was a good choice with which to start, a collection of old jottings sometimes subtitled D’après des vieux cahiers (After Old Notebooks). Using material dating back to 1908, Prokofiev assembles a selection of inner thoughts and bittersweet memories. Mustonen expressed these first hand, taking liberties with the rhythm and note emphasis on occasion but wholly in the spirit of the music. The language, initially gruff, melted to an emotive and balletic slow movement with an expressive tune using the white notes on the keyboard. The bustling finale exhibiting a common language with the contemporaneous Piano Concerto no.3.

Like the fourth sonata, the Piano Sonata no.2 bears a dedication to Prokofiev’s friend from the St Petersburg Conservatory Maximilian Schmidthof, tragically lost to suicide in 1913. The language here is more obviously Romantic, with elements of Chopin and Scriabin, but the tart lyricism in the right hand could only be from Prokofiev, and Mustonen brought it out with often startling clarity. There was a whirlwind scherzo, like a devilish skaters’ dance, before a cold melancholy encased the slow movement, which sounded like a distant relative of The Old Castle from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. The helter-skelter finale, brilliantly played, took the audience on a fairground ride.

After the interval Mustonen gave a rare performance of the Piano Sonata no.9, an elusive work whose dedicatee, Sviatoslav Richter, confessed to finding it a difficult work to understand. Its music hints at a new simplicity, emphasised by the choice of C major as the ‘home’ key, but the awkward complexion of the music tells of a troubled mind, Prokofiev seemingly thrown by the end of the Second World War and yet another set of restrictions on musical style from the Russian authorities.

The faster figures in the first movement soon tired of their attempts to run away from this, but the macabre second movement suggested a restless toy shop after dark. Throughout the work, bursts of brittle melody threatened to extinguish the more songful elements of Prokofiev’s writing, though the forceful finale was typical of the composer in its power and obduracy. Mustonen did well to communicate what seemed to be a dip in the composer’s energy towards the close.

Finally we heard the Piano Sonata no.6, a work speaking directly to the wartime climate today. Written as the Second World War was raging, it is closely linked with the seventh and eighth sonatas, works that also tell of conflict, anger and desolation. The opening salvo of the Sixth was chilling indeed, but in Mustonen’s hands it became an outright assault, the treble notes biting through with such power that the ‘A’ on the piano lost its tuning as the sonata progressed. If anything this made the impact of Prokofiev’s writing even stronger, the scrunched-up harmonies raw and dissonant.

The Sixth is not a depressing work, however – as its stuttering Scherzo told, wrenched this way and that by a left-hand melody. The lyrical power of the third movement, initially subtle but then more overtly passionate, looked ahead towards the composer’s colourful ballet scores. Mustonen felt that connection, conducting himself whenever a hand was free, and sensing the orchestral connections for the voices in front of him. The finale had a curiously phrased but highly effective main theme, and when the artillery from the first movement returned it brought with it an even greater chill than before. The sonata ended in a cacophony of noise, powerfully wrought and given without quarter.

Taking the white heat out of the sonatas a little, Mustonen proceeded to charm with an encore of the Prelude Op.12/7, published in 1913 and often used as an encore by the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels. It was an unexpected treat, capping an evening of exceptional pianism.

You can hear Olli Mustonen’s recording of the Prelude, part of a Prokofiev miscellany recorded for Ondine, below:

Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev

This week, Arcana will be visiting the Wigmore Hall to hear the complete piano sonatas of Prokofiev, played over two nights by Olli Mustonen.

The Finnish pianist is a specialist in the Ukrainian-born composer’s music, and it looks set to be a fascinating pair of concerts, offering a rare chance to appraise the complete works in this area of Prokofiev’s output. As a taster to illustrate his natural rapport with Prokofiev’s writing for the keyboard, here is Mustonen performing the Piano Concerto no.2 in G minor with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu:

Olli Mustonen plays the complete sonatas at the Wigmore Hall, over two nights – for information click on the links for Monday 31 October and Tuesday 1 November:

Mustonen has also recorded the five piano concertos for Ondine, with Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. You can hear these dynamic accounts below:

In concert – Boris Giltburg plays Granados, Albéniz, Ravel, Rachmaninoff & Prokofiev @ Wigmore Hall

BorisGiltburg2-1440

Granados Goyescas: Quejas, o La maja y el ruiseñor (1909-12)
Albéniz Iberia (Book 3): El Albaicín (1907)
Ravel Miroirs (1904-5)
Rachmaninov Moments musicaux Op.16: no.2 in E flat minor, no.3 in B minor, no.4 in E minor (1896)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata No. 8 in B flat major Op. 84 (1939-44)

Boris Giltburg (piano, above)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 14 March 2022

Written by Ben Hogwood

Boris Giltburg

14 March 2022
22:19

This was the second concert in Boris Giltburg‘s Ravel series at the Wigmore Hall – but as he eloquently explained in the programme and from the stage, it was impossible to proceed without responding to the situation in Ukraine.

Born in Russia but of Israeli nationality, Giltburg’s judgement in this was carefully considered. Reminding us that music has the overwhelming ability to reflect conflict as well as providing an appropriate response to it, in Prokofiev‘s Piano Sonata no.8 he had found the most accurate reflection imaginable. Ukrainian-born Prokofiev wrote the piece during the Second World War, and it was premiered by Sviatoslav Richter in Moscow in 1944. Here its resonance was unmistakable, the work unfolding with a mixture of uncertainty and resolve, with searing outbursts and anguished thoughts that spoke of oppression and tragedy. Prokofiev’s trademark dissonances were descriptive, the percussive rhythms laden with military power. The second movement relented a little in search of lyricism, Giltburg finding parallels with the composer’s ballet scores of the period, with hints of Romeo & Juliet carried on the air. Meanwhile the third movement, a powerful presto, tore up the tarmac in its relentless drive forward while finding time to consider the repercussions. Giltburg’s precision and power were beyond reproach here, his performance incisive but deeply reflective of current events. The Wigmore Hall listened closely, moved to silence throughout but responding with sympathetic applause.

Because of this performance the rest of the concert could have paled into insignificance, but that would reckon without some powerhouse performances of music from earlier in the century. It was refreshing to hear two Spanish works for starters. The music of Granados and Albéniz does not get enough exposure, and it should do – both wrote under the influence of Debussy but had something of the French master’s gift for picture painting. Giltburg caught the baleful tones of Quejas, o La maja y el ruiseñor (Lament, or the maiden and the nightingale), while the sultry El Albaicín was vividly descriptive and alluring.

Ravel may have written Miroirs in 1905 but in these hands it still sounded so modern. Noctuelles (Moths), a remarkable piece of picture painting from the French composer, found its match here, Giltburg delighting in its irregular contours, while the cleaner lines of Oiseaux tristes were no less effective. The much-loved duo of Une barque sur l’océan and Alborada del gracioso were brillianly performed – the former capturing the rocking of the boat with uncanny accuracy, surging forward before checking against the spray – and the latter exploring syncopations and dynamic variations to thrilling effect. Finally La vallée des cloches was both reverent and mysterious, notable for meticulous pedal work from Giltburg to maintain the atmosphere.

Immediately before the Prokofiev we heard three of the young Rachmaninov‘s six Moments Musicaux, a breakthrough collection that helped establish him as a serious composer for the piano in 1896. They are of similar design to the pieces of the same name by Schubert, in a group of six but giving the pianist freedom through varying dimensions and moods. These are pieces Giltburg holds close to his heart, and a whirlwind account of the second piece was checked by the darker hues of the third, a funeral march. This provided much food for thought with its nagging motifs, the music returning to the same itch with ominous regularity, before the fourth piece took off at a rate of knots, fearsome virtuosity tempered by immaculate melodic phrasing.

After the Prokofiev had made its mark we heard the ideal foil as an encore, Giltburg playing the Bagatelle no.1 by Valentin Silvestrov. A Ukrainian composer, Silvestrov was born in 1937 and – according to a conversation between Giltburg and a member of the audience – appears to have safely relocated to Poland. The simplicity of this piece, after the crunch of the Prokofiev, was doubly moving.

For more information on Boris Giltburg you can visit his website

On record – Duncan Honeybourne: De Profundis Clamavi (EM Records)

de-profundis-clamavi

Armstrong Gibbs An Essex Rhapsody Op.36 (1921); Ballade in D flat (1940)
Bainton Variations and Fugue in B minor Op.1 (1898); The Making of the Nightingale (1921); Willows (1927)
Bridge Piano Sonata H160 (1921-4)
Britten Night Piece ‘Notturno’ (1963)
Edmunds Piano Sonata in B minor (1938)
Pantscheff Nocturnus V: Wing oor die Branders (2015); Piano Sonata (2017)
Parry Shulbrede Tunes (1914)

Duncan Honeybourne (piano)

EM Records EMRCD070-71 [two discs, 156’46”]

Producer Oscar Torres & Richard Pantcheff
Engineer Oscar Torres

Recorded 20 & 21 August 2020 at Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Never a pianist to pull his punches, Duncan Honeybourne adds to his expanding discography with this extensive survey of British piano music which, written across almost 120 years and evincing a range of styles, more than reinforces the descriptive heading of the overall project.

What’s the music like?

The first disc begins with the Piano Sonata by Christopher Edmunds. Birmingham-born and long active at the School of Music there, he left a sizable output from which the present work impresses through its wide expressive range within modest formal dimensions. The opening Allegro recalls Medtner in its pivoting between fervency and repose, then the Lento strikes a note of heartfelt emotion underlined by its ‘mesto’ marking. Utilizing aspects of scherzo and finale, the closing Allegro returns to more extrovert concerns as it arrives at a virtuosic close.

Edgar Bainton was still in his teens when composing the Variations and Fugue which became his first acknowledged work. Brahms is a key influence, but the music’s motivic and textural discipline ensures a formal focus throughout the nine deftly contrasted variations then into a tensile and vividly cumulative fugue. Remembered primarily for his songs, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs wrote idiomatically for the piano as is demonstrated by the intricate passagework and often bravura writing of An Essex Rhapsody, while the later Ballade exudes deeper emotion – not least an ominous central section with undeniable overtones of war. Part of a compendious sequence exploring different aspects of night, Richard Pantcheff’s Nocturnus V: Wind on the Waves follows a trajectory of impending marine turbulence that duly regains its earlier calm.

Written at the home of his daughter’s family, Shulbrede Tunes finds Hubert Parry reflecting on domestic environs in a methodically constructed cycle – the 10 pieces taking in evocations of the priory and people within. A lively humour informs Bogies and Sprites that Gambol by Nights, with a ruminative pathos to the fore in Prior’s Chamber by Firelight. Here, as in the exuberant Father Playmate, the aging composer’s devotion to Austro-German romanticism results in music which is as affecting as Parry’s orchestral and choral works from this period.

The second disc opens with two further pieces by Bainton. From among his many miniatures, Willow is a limpidly impressionist album-leaf of no mean poignancy, then The Making of the Nightingale evokes this bird’s creation in imaginative terms that are appealingly realized here. Written for the first Leeds International Piano Competition, Benjamin Britten’s Night Piece is the only acknowledged piano work from his maturity – a study in dynamic and timbral nuance of a finesse as to make one regret his stated antipathy for the modern piano on its own terms.

It is the Piano Sonata by Frank Bridge (placed before the Britten) which inevitably dominates this collection, not least as this recording is among the finest from recent years. Testimony to the composer’s response to the carnage of war as well as its impact on his evolving idiom, the three movements unfold as a single cumulative entity – the sizable opening Allegro preceded by a slow introduction whose main motivic elements are gradually elaborated for the ensuing opposition between anguish and eloquence. The savage rhetoric of its close makes the contrast with the Andante’s consoling rumination more acute, the music as if surveying a landscape of memories which elides straight into the final Allegro with its renewed confrontation of earlier motifs – on the way to a stark denouement then a resigned and almost confessional epilogue.

Pantcheff’s almost contemporary Piano Sonata rounds off this collection. Its three movements each carries an inscription from the epic poem The Axion Esti by Odysseus Elytis that sets the tone for a restive and increasingly tumultuous Inquieto, followed by an Elegia whose sombre imagery might feel almost nihilistic were it not for the plaintive expression that emerges in its latter stages, then a finale whose Alla Vortice marking aptly indicates the gradual intensifying of mood which carries this movement – and the work as a whole – towards its explosive close.

Does it all work?

Undoubtedly, when heard as a collection. Honeybourne has been astute in his planning so that each disc can be appreciated as a stand-alone recital in its own right, or as independent halves of an ‘uber-recital’ which even he would be unlikely to undertake in a live context. All except the Bridge, Britten and Parry are receiving their first recordings, and it would be surprising if some pieces did not enjoy greater exposure in future. For his dedication in championing them, and for putting together such an ambitious anthology, Honeybourne can only be commended.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The piano sound is a shade hard at climaxes, while spacious and wide-ranging elsewhere, with detailed notes on each work and composer from various sources including the pianist. It adds up to an impressive release and a highlight of the EM Records catalogue so far.

Listen & Buy

You can discover more about this release and listen to clips at the EM Records website, where you can also purchase the recording. For more on Duncan Honeybourne, visit his website – and for more on Richard Pantcheff click here

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