On record – Mahan Esfahani: J.S. Bach – Toccatas (Hyperion)

J.S. Bach
Toccata in F sharp minor BWV910
Toccata in C minor BWV911
Toccata in D major BWV912
Toccata in D minor BWV913
Toccata in E minor BWV914
Toccata in G minor BWV915
Toccata in G major BWV916

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

Hyperion CDA 68244 [76’54”]

Recorded August 2019 at St. John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex

Producer Sébastian Chonion
Engineer David Hinitt

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Mahan Esfahani has been playing a lot of J.S. Bach lately. With a series of the composer’s complete keyboard works ongoing at the Wigmore Hall, and with a well-received account of the Goldberg Variations in the bag from his stint at Deutsche Grammophon, now would seem the ideal time to document his thoughts on some of Bach’s most extrovert and unpredictable works for harpsichord, the Toccatas.

What’s the music like?

Exuberant and even flamboyant. Those are two words you might not readily apply to Bach, certainly in the wrong performance, but this is the sort of recording to remind you that not only was Johann Sebastian a master of the more theoretical processes in music, he could write music of breathtaking originality too.

The Toccatas are the work of a young man looking to experiment and explore, and also to entertain. Esfahani really captures that spirit of freedom from the first to last notes, the Toccata in G major setting us down in a crumpled heap around 76 minutes later.

It helps to have the performer’s accompanying notes on the works, and how difficult it is to arrive at a scholarly direction on how they should be played. What matters as much is the performer’s input, and – as he acknowledges – the producer and engineer, to whom he expresses heartfelt thanks as his own ‘therapists’.

Does it all work?

Emphatically, yes. This feels like just the right stage in Esfahani’s career for him to tackle these works, and his response is stylish and reverent, outgoing too – so that the more overtly display-dominated items are real audience pleasers, and the telling pauses or slow passages are delivered with gravitas and great feeling.

For there is music of great theatre and occasion here. Presented in catalogue order, we begin with the Toccata in F sharp minor BWV910, which begins with a thrilling rush of the right hand, before dance figures take over. A stern central section leads to a rediscovery of its positive stance towards the end.

The Toccata in C minor BWV911 follows, its fugue deliberately paced to start with and then allowed to pick up its natural momentum. Esfahani, so assured in his playing, brings each part in with a firm inevitability as the closing pages approach before signing off emphatically.

The Toccata in D major BWV912 features some really impressive, florid passage work, while the D minor work, BWV813, feels like an answer with its stern, imposing contours. This work really springs forward in Esfahani’s hands around the 3:30 mark, before a superb, authoritative finish, with the pleasure of hearing the keys released at the end.

The instrument’s lower register really sings in the Toccata in E minor BWV914, notable for its bold lines, before an extremely descriptive episode that is so strongly characterised it feels like a scene from a play. When the big rush of counterpoint comes later, Esfahani again exerts close control.

The Toccata in G minor BWV915 starts with a sense of occasion, a cascade in the right hand before a nimble dance and a flourish, before the final Toccata in G major BWV916, a solo concerto in all but name. This has a celebratory air, its descending motif in clumps of chords rather like a peal of bells. Then a slow, thoughtful movement in E minor (the closest relative key of G) provides a reflective episode before a lively return home for an upbeat finale.

Complementing these seven impressive utterances are an ideal harpsichord sound and recording, the church chosen by Hyperion offering just the right amount of depth to the recorded sound, so we hear the clarity of Bach’s writing but also its ambitious scope.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. If you tend towards the organ works when listening to Bach played on the keyboard, this is just the disc to show you what you are missing on the harpsichord side of the equation.

Mahan Esfahani plays these works with formidable technique and with passion too, taking every opportunity to bring Bach’s flourishing works to life. What a cover, too!

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple file formats, you can visit the Hyperion website

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 7: Wojciech Świtała & the Silesian String Quartet play Weinberg & Bacewicz

Silesian String Quartet [(Szymon Krzeszowiec, Arkadiusz Kubica (violins), Łukasz Syrnicki (viola), Piotr Janosik (cello) (above)], Wojciech Świtała (piano, below)

Weinberg String Quartet no.7 (1959) (2:47 – 26:49 on the broadcast link below)

Bacewicz Piano Quintet no.1 (1952) (30:36 – 53:10)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 2 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Photo credit Magdalena Jodłowska (Silesian String Quartet)

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

For this listener at least, it has taken a while for the Proms At…Cadogan Hall theme to catch on this season. However the BBC’s traversal of 800 years of musical history has turned out to be both original and interesting, touching on areas of music not often heard or given top billing. By grouping these two anniversary composers together a cogent and thought provoking program was the result; a concert subdued in delivery but high on musical and emotional substance.

Both Polish composers featured are not thought of as front rank examples of their country’s classical music tradition, but on this evidence both should be brought forward. There are past reasons for that relative neglect, in the relative unavailability of Weinberg’s music to western ears, and the effective suppression of his and Grażyna Bacewicz’s music, but as classical music looks to remove boundaries and stereotypes, these are exactly the type of musical figures that should benefit from such a move.

We heard Weinberg first, and the seventh of his impressive output of seventeen string quartets (from 2:47 on the broadcast link above). It is perhaps the one that sails closest to the style of his friend and protector Shostakovich, especially in the second movement where it quotes from his String Quartet no.3. As the Adagio first movement (2:47 on the broadcast) shows, the two composers have much in common in mood if not execution. Weinberg’s bittersweet lyricism is to the fore here, the radiance of pure C major at the very beginning reminiscent of Shostakovich’s own first string quartet in the same key from 20 years later.

As the music progresses however there are more troubled offshoots and episodes, the players digging deeper and the music lost in thought. Weinberg does still keep his audience in mind of the brighter sound of the opening material, which returns at 8:18.

The second movement (marked Allegretto, 9:24) has shadowy outlines from the cello, the music again wary but prone to quick and nimble outbursts from second violin (the excellent Arkadiusz Kubica) – very much in the vein of a Shostakovich scherzo, but with less bite to its execution.

The third and final movement (15:24), a substantial set of 23 variations on a theme, feels like the emotional crux of the work, and was performed as such here by the Silesians. Passionate solos from first violinist Szymon Krzeszowiec and viola player Łukasz Syrnicki (an extended dialogue from 24:20) took place in the Adagio sections, and were complemented by some really concentrated and increasingly fraught quartet episodes in the Allegro, the melodies compressed and tense. In keeping with the movement’s arch structure this tension built towards the viola solo, which marked the passionate final section and a resolution in C major. The feeling was that of a battle won, but at a cost.

Bacewicz contributed two piano quintets to her sizeable chamber music output, and both are works of originality and style. While many piano-led works such as these go for volume and bluster in the keyboard part there is more poise and reserve here, the piano and strings complementing each other on an equal footing.

There is a light touch to the music too, especially in the dance music of the second movement. Before then the first movement (initially marked Moderato by the composer) sets a relatively austere scene, though the string glints at the edges. A faster central section hints at a dance and certainly gains more energy before falling back to the slower approach, albeit with more depth this time, certainly as performed here.

The second movement (marked Presto, 37:47) takes the Polish oberek dance as its inspiration, the forthright piano melody supported by lilting, syncopated strings before summoning itself for a dramatic finish. The slow movement (Grave, 42:09) is every bit as powerful, though here the steps are very slow and steady to a stern, full-bodied climax.

The finale (48:35) had great purpose and originality of texture, the quartet busying their musical arguments against an increasingly outspoken piano part. A set of quick fire exchanges and bustling figures among the strings were harnessed for a full bodied closing statement.

Both pieces were superbly played in this concert, the commitment of the Silesian String Quartet beyond contention – as was also the case for pianist Wojciech Świtała. If the music itself was a little straight faced, it was a timely reminder that only 80 years ago (to the week) the Second World War had begun. The music therefore served as a warning for lessons that appear not to have been heeded!

Listen

The music in this concert can be heard on Spotify below:

The Silesian String Quartet have also recorded a good deal of Weinberg’s chamber output. Here is a disc of the composer’s String Quartets nos. 9 & 10:

They have also recorded all seven string quartets by Bacewicz, in an award winning double album for Chandos which you can hear below:

Wigmore Mondays – István Várdai & Sunwook Kim play Falla, Schubert & Kodály

István Várdai (cello, above) & Sunwook Kim (piano, below)

Falla Suite populaire espagnole (1914) (2:07 – 16:05 on the broadcast link below)
Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D821 (1824) (18:00 – 44:40)
Kodály Hungarian Rondo (1917) (46:46 – 56:28)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 July 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The cello has always been one of the instruments closest to a pure imitation of the voice. Its range and its ability to phrase are both qualities that make it ideal for arrangements of songs.

Spanish composer Manuel de Falla may have collected and published his Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Folksongs) for voice and piano, but they were soon arranged for violin and piano, then for cello and piano by Maurice Maréchal. The instrumental arrangements removed the second song and changed the order to make an effective concert suite. In this slightly understated but effective beginning from cellist István Várdai and pianist Sunwook Kim the music is laid bare, just as Falla would no doubt have preferred.

The first song, El paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth) (2:07), is quite restless but nicely ornamented in this performance with a subtle swing to the rhythms. The second, Nana (4:43), is bittersweet, falling on the side of sorrow, while the rustic Cancíon (7:17) makes nice use of the cello’s glassy harmonics. Polo evokes a lovely, summery heat haze with its dreamy thrummed chords (8:48) topped by a really powerful melodic line from Várdai. The quieter, yearning thoughts of Asturiana (10:18) make a more subtle impression afterwards, before the lively and uplifting Jota (12:59) completes the set.

The arpeggione was an instrument from Schubert’s time that did not last for long. With six strings and frets like a guitar, it did not catch on as a repertoire instrument, and so the substantial Arpeggione Sonata Schubert wrote for the instrument was threatened with redundancy, before finally being published in 1867. The work transcribes ideally for the cello or viola with piano accompaniment, its melodies lying under the fingers with deceptive ease.

The first movement (from 18:00) is the largest of all, expanding to make the most of what seems like quite a plaintive initial idea (the first section repeated from 21:15). It is an elegant dialogue between cello and piano, where at times the two feel like dancers in and out of hold. Some more vigorous diversions aside, the music returns to the slightly downcast mood of the opening, pensive rather than outgoing. István Várdai really makes his cello sing in the higher register, while Sunwook Kim shows a delicate touch on the piano.

The slow movement (30:32) is short but meaningful, with a floated melody from the cello threatening to make it as substantial a length as the first movement, but then gliding effortlessly into the finale (35:04) Here Schubert’s dance writing reappears, enjoyably so in the more upbeat minor key diversion (36:37) but returning to the slightly troubled air we became aware of earlier, enjoying itself to an extent but never fully throwing off the melancholic shackles apparently dogging him from the rejection of his opera Alfonso und Estrella.

No such issues in the Kodály Hungarian Rondo, like the Falla celebrating its origins with feeling. This piece, written in 1917 not published until 1976, starts with what seems like an innocuous tune on the cello (46:46) but one that goes on to dominate, reappearing for both instruments and in various guises. Complementing it are a host of other folksy melodies, most with a distinctive Hungarian flavour in their rhythm or melodic profile. As the piece progresses so the energy levels rise, to an impressive set of flourishes near the end, played with great panache by the two soloists.

As a generous encore, cooling the temperature after the Kodály, we had Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words Op.107 – the only one he wrote directly for cello and piano (57:50). Várdai was playing a Stradivarius cello dating from 1673 that used to belong to none other than Jacqueline du Pré – and he brought out the instrument’s gorgeous tone, especially in the midrange, and abundantly in the Kodály. With Kim’s sensitive accompaniment, they made it an extremely enjoyable concert with which to close the Wigmore Hall’s 2018-19 lunchtime season. See you for more in September!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard below. István Várdai has recorded the arrangement of the Falla suite, but not the pieces by Schubert or Kodály. The Mendelssohn is played by Jacqueline du Pré – possibly on the cello heard in this very concert! – accompanied by her mother Iris.

Várdai has, however, completed a disc of works for cello by the Hungarian composer that include one of the cellist’s ultimate tests, the Sonata for Solo Cello:

You can watch a video of Várdai playing Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello with violinist Gilles Apap, at the HarrisonParrott website:

Kodály’s music is colourful and passionate, staying very close to the composer’s roots. This selection of orchestral works serves as the ideal introduction to his tuneful music, conducted by conductors and fellow countrymen Ádám and Iván Fischer:

Wigmore Mondays – Imogen Cooper plays Brahms & Liszt

Imogen Cooper (piano)

Brahms Intermezzi Op.117 nos.1 & 2 (1892) (1:23 – 11:13)
Liszt Gretchen (Second movement of A Faust Symphony) (1854, arranged 1874) (11:52 – 30:05)
Brahms 7 Fantasien Op.116 (1892) (31:31 – 53:24)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 8 July 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Brahms’ late piano music occupies a special place in 19th century repertoire. Rather like late Beethoven he makes use of the piano for some extremely confidential writing that starts to push at the boundaries of tonality and conventional rhythm. While Beethoven complemented his late piano works with a renewed inspiration for the string quartet, Brahms found the clarinet was his ideal ‘other’ vehicle in the early 1890s. Yet in the solo piano writing, here is a level of intimacy rarely found in the music of his time.

Imogen Cooper began her Wigmore Hall recital with two of the three late Brahms Intermezzi Op.117 – an example of where the composer would give a deliberately ambiguous title to a short piece, allowing himself the greatest possible freedom of form and expression. That said, the first – in E flat major – is simplicity itself, a much loved melody that Brahms used as consolation from the recent losses in his life. For this he drew inspiration from the Scottish ballad Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament, and the piece benefits from Imogen Cooper’s unhurried approach in this performance (from 1:23 on the broadcast). The second piece in B flat minor is more flowing but also more directly troubled as it progresses (from 6:37), finishing in the lower recesses of the piano.

Published adjacently to the Op.117 Intermezzi are seven piano pieces Brahms called Fantasies – separate entities that work best as an overall whole. There are three Capriccio pieces, placed 1, 3 and 7 in the group, complemented with 4 Intermezzi, Brahms again keeping ambiguous labels for artistic freedom. Immediately however there is more heart on sleeve here, the first Capriccio in D minor (31:31) full of power and passion. The second piece, an Intermezzo in A minor, turns inwards, lost in thought (33:54), though there are brief glimpses of light in the central section.

The third piece, a Capriccio in G minor (37:42), has grand designs but still glints with a metallic darkness, using a falling melody whose outline is common to a number of late Brahms piano works, falling in melodic intervals of a third. A solemn central section is more hopeful before this music returns at 40:03. The fourth piece (40:55) is the first of three centred on the pitch of E, which seem to exist between major and minor keys. It is quite ambiguous, with a questioning harmony and uncertain rhythm – but finds calmer acceptance in its brief central section.

The fifth piece – another Intermezzo, now in E minor (45:06) is more mysterious still, its rhythm elusive, as though Brahms is in a dream state. Moving to E major for the sixth piece (47:58) we return towards earth, though the composer – and performer – are still in deep thought. A sudden jolt arrives with the final piece, another Capriccio in D minor (50:59), Brahms suddenly alert and on the front foot, and ending unexpectedly – and exultantly – in the major key. It is an ending hard won, but also slightly false, as it proves difficult to erase the deeply profound thoughts from earlier pieces.

The Liszt piece is a long slow movement taken from the composer’s orchestral / choral epic, A Faust Symphony. This is a portrait of Gretchen that transcribes particularly well for piano, Liszt’s gifts adapting his music and that of others between forms at its very best here. This is after all a composer who thought nothing of transcribing all nine Beethoven symphonies for solo piano.

Gretchen is tender and romantic, unfolding from the very start in a loving and flowing manner as played here by Imogen Cooper. Gradually the music becomes deeply passionate, Liszt building towards a series of weighty climaxes – the first around 19:10 and then again at 23:45. It can be heard as almost one unbroken phrase, and Cooper keeps a very natural feel to her phrasing, until the main theme returns at 24:14, where there is a very natural return to the mood and tenderness of the opening – before more extended dialogue. The period from 27:45 represents the coda, where a settled mood takes hold.

Throughout this concert Imogen Cooper let the music do the talking, as she always has done – not playing to the audience but producing beautifully rendered and carefully thought performances, with very impressive technical command – especially in the big-boned Brahms pieces. Of equal importance was her use of ‘rubato’, which is essentially breathing naturally in a musical sense so the rhythms sound more like phrases of a spoken or sung sentence. Everything came together wonderfully here, as it did in an encore of more Brahms – a beautifully observed account of the Waltz in A flat major Op.39/15, not heard on the broadcast.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard below, in leading available versions. Imogen Cooper has yet to record late Brahms, so the playlist includes timeless versions of the pieces from Radu Lupu and Emil Gilels, along with Cooper’s recently recorded Liszt:

Cooper’s Liszt is part of an intriguing disc of piano music by Liszt and his contemporary and close relative Wagner, recorded for Chandos:

Another Imogen Cooper recommendation brings together piano music by Robert and Clara Schumann – a family affair with the former’s stormy Piano Sonata no.1 and Humoreske, nicely complemented with two of Clara’s Pièces caractéristiques:

Wigmore Mondays – Colin Currie Quartet in music by Pereira, Volans, Stockhausen & Reich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colin Currie Quartet (Colin Currie, Sam Walton, Adrian Spillett, Owen Gunnell (percussion)

Pereira Mallet Quartet (2013 (1:36 – 10:08 on the broadcast link below)
Volans 4 Marimbas (2016) (12:38 – 33:21)
Stockhausen Vibra-Elufa (2003) (35:40 – 41:27)
Reich Drumming Part 1 (1970-71) (44:30 – 59:59)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 1 July 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing change to have percussion taking centre stage for a Monday lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall. Not only that but two of the four pieces had that ‘just off the shelf’ feeling, with the Joseph Pereira and Kevin Volans pieces written for Colin Currie’s ensemble. As an added bonus, South African composer Volans – 70 this year – was in the audience.

Pereira, principal percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave us bright metallic sounds from the start (1:36 on the broadcast). Crisp unison blocks of sound were broken up by quicker figures that gave the Mallet Quartet energy. With a broad range of timbres and pitches, the bursts of activity were often followed by pauses, giving a stop-start feel but ultimately heightening the drama. At 7:30 the quartet converged on a single pitch, D, the high point of the piece at which point the music takes a natural breather. Then the pitches regroup from the depths, returning to a treble pitch from which we tumble down what feels like a waterfall. Pereira’s music pictorial to the close.

Kevin Volans4 Marimbas (from 12:38) exhibited a warmer sound, the players using softer sticks to create a fluid and soothing experience, like running water. As it developed the players negotiated twists and turns skillfully, interpreting the piece an experience of ambient yet positive energy. Around the 19-minute mark the pitch rose, concentrating the mind, but then the sonorous tones of the marimbas’ lower ranges came in again.

Then at 21:45 the performers noticeably reined in the dynamic range, their sticks closer to the instruments as the sound shrunk before our ears. This is a tactic Volans has used on several occasions, working especially well here as percussion is not normally known for quiet performance! The audience subconsciously leant forward in the Wigmore Hall before the reassurance of the full marimba timbre came in again around a minute later. Towards the end it happened again and stayed quiet, proving even more effective second time around.

Stockhausen’s Vibra-Elufa, a short piece (from 35:40), was notable for its intensity and sinuous lines. Performed by Currie alone on marimba, it had moments of tender beauty but also shrill edges, especially when high in the treble range. It left an otherworldly, enchanting impression in the manner of the large-scale stage piece from which it is drawn and arranged, Freitag aus Licht.

Then we were on to Drumming, Steve Reich’s breakthrough masterpiece of 1971 that confirmed minimalism as a community-based musical form (from 44:30). It was a visit to Ghana in 1970 that convinced Reich he was on the right track with what has turned out to be his longest instrumental piece to date. Over time Drumming has evolved, and can even be divided into constituent parts, as here – with Part 1 concentrating on tuned bongos. The technical challenges remain, even over 15 minutes, with improvisational skills and a strong sense of form brought into play. Listen to the broadcast from 44:30 and you will hear how the quartet unite in big strokes of sound but gradually tumble out of phase, picking up kinetic energy as they do so, before aligning again for another commanding statement.

The players were superb, with clear visual communication the secret to a performance notable for its drive, accuracy and flair. Listen to it and lose yourself in the rhythms!
Each of the four pieces in this concert received technically brilliant performances. Currie was the natural leader but Walton, Spillett and Gunnell all stepped forward when required, emphasising the communal approach they have to their music and especially their new commissions. On the way out of the Wigmore Hall I overheard a regular saying it was one of the best lunchtime concerts he had ever been to in the venue, and I am inclined to agree!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert is not available online, with the exception of Drumming – which exists in a recording made by Steve Reich, Synergy Vocals and the Colin Currie Group. It’s as close to authentic as you could wish for!

Since that recording Currie and Reich have made a live disc from the Foundation Louis Vitton, with a broad range of Reich’s work that includes the classic Clapping Music, the choral piece Proverb, the Mallet Quartet, Pulse and Music for Pieces of Wood. Typically functional titles from the composer there!

There is not a great deal of Kevin Volans’ music on Spotify, but one very good way into his music is via the string quartet – which is where a disc from 1994 from the Balanescu Quartet comes in. Hunting, Gathering, his second string quartet, is particularly evocative: