On record – Oberton String Octet – Slavic Soul (ARS Produktion)

Oberton String Octet [Jevgēnijs Čepoveckis, Veronika Brecelj, Andrii Uhrak and Alberto Stiffoni (violins), Serhii Zhuravlov and Hanga Fehér (violas) Floris Fortin and Dorottya Standi (cellos)]

Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet Op.11 (1924/5)
Afanasyev Double Quartet in D major ‘Housewarming ‘(1872)
Glière String Octet in D major Op.5 (1902)

Ars ProduktionARS38305 [59’26”]

Producer Anette Schumacher
Engineer Daniel Comploi

Recorded 19-21 December 2019, Florentinersaal, University of Arts, Graz

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The debut release from this ‘purpose built’ string ensemble which intends to encompass the repertoire for octet and double quartet, examples of both being featured here together with music by a composer whose ‘enfant terrible’ phase proved as reckless as it was short-lived.

What’s the music like?

Long since a footnote in musical history, Nikolay Afanasyev (1821-98) became a pioneer in Russian opera and chamber music, likely composing this Double Quartet for the inauguration of the St Petersburg Society for Chamber Music. Taking his cue from those four pieces with which Spohr had intended to launch a new medium, it follows an outwardly classical format while being permeated by aspects of Russian folk music. Best are an animated Scherzo with its stately trio, then an Andante of suffused pathos. Both outer movements betray a degree of formal uncertainty, a reminder that Afanasyev (as with Glinka before him) was essentially an autodidact, yet their energy and charm override such failings. Certainly, the Oberton sounds captivated by the qualities of this ‘Housewarming’ which it is (rightly) intent on championing.

Whereas Afanasyev writes for four parts, Glière writes for eight voices in his Octet. One of several works for string ensembles from the outset of his career, this follows audibly in the lineage of Mendelssohn with its emphasis on intensive dialogue and textural richness, even if both its formal layout and tempo indications indicate knowledge of his Russian forebear. Here, too, the middle movements – the second poised between scherzo and intermezzo, and the third an eloquent ‘song without words’ – are highlights, though the initial Allegro yields telling understatement while the finale builds a cumulative momentum that carries all before it. The Oberton are unfailingly alive to its contrapuntal energy and often orchestral sonority, adding another piece to the roster of Octets such as marked their composers ‘coming of age’.

As curtain-raiser, Shostakovich’s Two Pieces duly launches the programme in unequivocal fashion. Written either side of his seminal First Symphony, the ‘Prelude’ fairly abounds in volatile emotion while the ‘Scherzo’ evinces a coursing energy and caustic dissonance that points unerringly to those works immediately following it. What a pity the intended fugue never progressed beyond the sketch stage, though the work as stands remains testament to the ‘confidence of youth’ and the Oberton’s charged reading assuredly takes no prisoners.

Does it all work?

As a programme, undoubtedly. The repertoire for string octet and double string quartet is a select yet significant one, and the Oberton is evidently on a mission to convey this in both performance and recording. Hopefully, this release will be the start of a project as could do worse than to couple each double quartet by Spohr with those octets of Mendelssohn, Gade, Svendsen and Enescu. Moreover, the logistics involved in bringing together eight musicians based around Western and Central Europe will hopefully not limit their live music-making.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. The SACD sound has exemplary definition if almost too great an immediacy in more demonstrative passages, while the booklet notes are succinctly informative. Strongly recommended, with the hope further releases from this ensemble will not be long in coming.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Presto website

Read

You can read more about the Oberton String Quartet at their website

On record – Han Chen plays Thomas Adès: Piano Works (Naxos)

Han Chen (piano)

Thomas Adès
Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009)
Still Sorrowing (1992)
Darknesse Visible (1992)
Blanca Variations (2015)
Traced Overhead (1996)
Three Mazurkas (2009)
Souvenir (2018)

Naxos 8.574109 [69’43”]

Producer Han Chen
Engineer Ryan Streber

Recorded 5-7 April 2019, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Taiwanese-born and American-based pianist Han Chen releases his third album for Naxos, bringing together almost all the works for solo piano by Thomas Adès (b1971) in readings that depart – sometimes markedly – from earlier practice and are the more impressive for it.

What’s the music like?

Adès’s piano music falls into three well defined phases. Premiered at the London recital that launched his wider career, Still Sorrowing draws on Dowland in a sustained rumination with ingenious use of the keyboard (is Blue-Tack still being used to dampen the middle register?). Darknesse Visible is more directly a Dowland paraphrase, its pianism highly demonstrative in its range of textures and dynamics. An early culmination is marked by Traced Overhead – its three (progressively longer) sections heading from the spiralling upward motion of Sursum, via the animation of Aetheria, to the gradual ascent of Chori whose heightened eloquence is fatefully undermined by its plunging descent near the close. Understandable that Adès then eschewed the piano medium (and largely avoided public performance) for more than a decade.

His return came from a typically unexpected angle. Among the most significant operas this past quarter-century, Powder Her Face might not have obvious pianistic potential, but Adès proved otherwise with a Concert Paraphrase which realigns several musical highlights into a four-part sequence given continuity by the ingenuity with which underlying dance measures merge into and out of each other. Those for whom its theatricality is all may be nonplussed, yet the essentially tragic essence behind the opera’s glittering façade is conveyed even more keenly through such abstract terms. No less ingenious, the Three Mazurkas refashion a genre most associated with Chopin and Szymanowski into music that recalls the études of Ligeti in their technical finesse and those expressive slights of hand capricious and affecting by turns.

Equally modest in their formal dimensions, the most recent two pieces could hardly be more contrasted in content. A test-piece for the 2016 Clara Haskill Competition, Blanca Variations takes a brief piece from Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel as basis for a study in highly intricate and dextrous pianism. Taken from his score for the film Colette, where it provides a haunting backdrop to the end-credits, Souvenir emerges as a discreet if potent homage to the tradition of French piano music through its slow waltz motion where inference becomes all.

Does it all work?

Yes, even though there are occasions when Adès’s consummate technique risks becoming its own justification. All credit, then to Han Chen (already with excellent releases of Liszt and Rubenstein on Naxos) for ensuring that surface allure is always at the service of an engaged and engaging musical expression. Most of these works have been recorded by the composer, several by numerous other pianists, but Chen clearly has an approach which enables him to render the music very much his own way – extending and enriching its potential accordingly.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Sound has clarity and definition without seeming clinical, and there are informative booklet notes by Paul Conway. One recent short piece (Berceuse from The Exterminating Angel) has not been included, but it hardly detracts from the qualities of this release overall.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Naxos website

Read

For further information on Thomas Adès visit the composer’s website

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):