Nash Ensemble – German Romantics II: Brahms, Mendelssohn & Schumann

Nash Ensemble: Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), Lawrence Power, Timothy Ridout (violas), Adrian Brendel (cello), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford, Marie Lloyd (clarinets), Ursula Leveaux (bassoon), Richard Watkins (horn) / Martyn Brabbins (conductor, Brahms Serenade)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2018 7.30pm

Schumann Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (1853)
Brahms String Quintet no.2 in G major Op.111 (1890)
Mendelssohn Song Without Words in D major Op.109 (1845)
Brahms, reconstructed Alan Boustead Serenade no.1 in D major Op.11 (1857/58)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The second of the day’s concerts in the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall presented some of the finest 19th century chamber music to come from the country, picking up where the earlier concert of music by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn left off.

We began with late Robert Schumann, his Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (Fairy Tales), written for the appealing combination of clarinet, viola and piano that Mozart had pioneered in his own Kegelstatt trio of 1786. Schumann’s approach was formally less rigid, preferring to give his trio a quartet of character pieces, unlabelled in meaning but clear in tempo. Richard Hosford, Lawrence Power and Ian Brown were the perfect foil for these pieces, where the second especially stood out for its questioning harmony. The first and third pieces were songlike and romantic, while the fourth felt like one of Schumann’s celebrations of life itself. It is difficult to imagine a better performance than this one, the beauty of tone from clarinet and viola in particular a joy.

BrahmsString Quintet no.2, his last of seven chamber works for strings, is if anything even more positive and life affirming. While writing the piece in 1890 Brahms thought it would be his last work altogether, before going on to enjoy an unexpected Indian summer thanks to the inspiration of clarinettist Richard Mühlfield. The opening bars of the quintet are some of the very best in chamber music, and the tricky theme here was tackled heroically by cellist Adrian Brendel, the melody rising through the heady accompaniment of the others. The second theme of this movement was beautifully and soulfully rendered, setting the tone in the process for the second movement, an Adagio of heartfelt and profound utterance. The third movement, a silvery Intermezzo, was light on its feet while the finale recaptured the positive spirits of the first movement and pressed forward with impressive urgency. The Nash played brilliantly, communicating Brahms’ congested textures with apparent ease and enjoying the exchanges of ideas right to the end.

The second half of the concert, given to a packed Wigmore Hall, began with one of Mendelssohn’s most enjoyable trifles. His last work for cello and piano, the Song Without Words has at its heart a wonderful tune, which Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown clearly enjoyed. Brendel’s tone and forcefulness in the contrasting middle section were ideal.

This made an ideal prelude for early Brahms, the Serenade no.1. This wonderfully positive piece is usually heard in orchestral form, but here we heard Alan Boustead’s recreation of the original instrumentation of the piece, for nine solo instruments. With the combination of flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, we were taken into the sound world of Beethoven’s Septet, written for a similar combination. Musically we were not far off either, and Martyn Brabbins joined the Nash Ensemble to conduct a highly spirited performance. Richard Watkins’ horn was the star of the show, projecting Brahms’s outdoorsy tunes with rustic charm, but in reality all nine players were superb, enjoying the relative lightness of texture and abundance of melody. The slow movement was placed second – not third, as the program said it would be – but this was an effective placement with some gorgeous textures. While this music was more thoughtful the Minuets and Scherzo returned us to the open air, while the Finale positively threw open the shutters for another winsome horn tune. This was Brahms at his most carefree, and Brabbins ensured the Nash Ensemble were too.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall visit their website

Further listening

The below Spotify playlist compiles the music used in both of the evening’s German Romantics series from the Nash Ensemble, using their recordings where possible:

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics I: Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn

Nash Ensemble: Stephanie Gonley (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), Ian Brown (piano)

Clara Schumann 3 Romances for violin and piano Op.22 (1853)
Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes for cello and piano Op.17 (1829)
Fanny Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor Op.11 (1847)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2019 (5.30pm)

Review by Ben Hogwood

As part of the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics season at the Wigmore Hall, it was gratifying indeed to find a concert paying tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as composers in their own right rather than simply inspiration for their more frequently performed husbands.

Clara was the muse for Robert Schumann, and even after his death sacrificed her own career as a composer to ensure his music was best heard. Here we heard her last published work, the 3 Romances of 1853, written when Robert was still alive. Using a method of presentation her husband often employed in chamber music, she wrote these three attractive pieces for great violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom Clara gave the first performance in Germany. Stephanie Gonley and Ian Brown gave a thoughtful and rather beautiful account here, Gonley’s tone and phrasing ideally suited to the longer romantic melodies. The first piece was tender and expressive, the second thoughtful but with glimpses of sunshine, and the third a flowing account with an attractive, long-phrased melody.

There followed the Variations concertantes Op.19, the first of several works by Felix Mendelssohn for cello and piano. Written for his younger brother Paul, they are a virtuoso collection of far reaching interpretations of a theme, and were brilliantly played here by Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown, whose eager dialogue caught the energetic approach of the early Mendelssohn. The music moved from affirmative major key to tempestuous minor, but its return was a beautifully realised shift in mood.

We then heard Fanny Mendelssohn’s final published work, a Piano Trio to place alongside – if not even slightly ahead of – the two great works in the form by her brother. With the unison opening from violin and cello, presented above flowing piano figurations, she immediately ensures the audience are held in the drama of a piece that picks you up from the outset and doesn’t let you go.

Gonley, Brendel and Brown were ideal vehicles to present the piece, revelling in the exchanges of the first movement and the warmly romantic themes when the music became more affirmative. The middle two movements, effectively Songs Without Words in the Mendelssohn tradition, were beautifully presented with lyricism and charm, the third becoming distinctly chilly towards its close, leading to a cadenza from Brown to resume the drama in the final movement. The considerable struggles here were played out with thrilling virtuosity, distilling even the most complicated counterpoint before a glorious closing section that swept all before it.

It is to be hoped Clara Schumann’s 200th anniversary year – together with festival’s such as Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place – will raise the profile of women composers, which it has to be said could hardly have been lower in previous years. Concerts such as this help immensely, bringing forward the quality evident from both Clara and Fanny, with the pertinent reminder that neither Schumann nor Mendelssohn – nor indeed Brahms – could have achieved their musical goals without these creative forces.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble and their German Romantics series, visit their website

Further listening

You can listen to the music from both concerts of the latest German Romantics evening on the Spotify playlist below:

Wigmore Mondays: Augustin Hadelich & Charles Owen – Brahms, Ysaÿe & Adams

Augustin Hadelich (violin, above), Charles Owen (piano, below)

Brahms Violin Sonata no.1 in G major Op.78 (1878-9) (1:57-28:08)
Ysaÿe Sonata for solo violin no.4 in E minor Op.27/4 ‘Fritz Kreisler’ (1923) (30:31-40:44)
Adams Road Movies (1995) (43:33-1:00:24)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 10 December 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was the third Monday lunchtime in the last six weeks where BBC Radio 3 and the Wigmore Hall have been concentrating on music for violin and piano. This nicely constructed recital complemented the previous pair from Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova, and Tai Murray and Silke Avenhaus, where we had heard two of the three violin sonatas by Grieg.

On this occasion we heard a contemporary of those works, the BrahmsViolin Sonata no.1 in G major – a work written for his friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim – and one also picked up by Clara Schumann. It is a highly attractive work and received an affectionate performance here, Augustin Hadelich and Charles Owen straight into the beatific air of the first movement (from 1:57 on the broadcast) With an equally genial theme from 3:24, this was Brahms at his most radiant, with a sweet tone from the violinist and flowing countermelodies from Owen. The airy role reversal at 5:20, with Owen playing the tune and Hadelich giving pizzicato (plucked) accompaniment was a lovely moment – as was the content beginning of the coda (11:35). In between this the music was passionate and animated, Brahms developing his source material.

The second movement (from 12:34) also benefited from Hadelich’s sweetly toned instrument, shaping up to be a lovely reverie until a much more animated central section blew away the cobwebs (15:00). Returning at 16:23, the main theme gained an extra layer from double stopping on the violin (playing more than one string at once), and Owen’s piano line continued as a model of sensitivity.

Clara Schumann stated that she would happily have the last movement of this sonata to accompany her on her journey ‘to the next world’, and you could hear why in this performance (from 20:05), which brought out its bittersweet quality. Brahms moves between G minor and G major, a delicate balancing act of music that sounds a bit fretful and gentler, uplifting thoughts. Hadelich and Owen caught them perfectly here, the latter’s nicely pointed piano working particularly well on the dance-like second idea of the movement. From 25:37 the major-minor tension resumed, resolved in a serene coda from 26:20, ending quietly.

Ysaÿe wrote his six solo violin sonatas at great speed, publishing them all together in 1923. The fourth pays particular homage to Bach, incorporating the dance forms that were used in his Sonatas and Suites for solo stringed instruments. It was dedicated to the violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler, one of the very greatest string players. Not surprisingly it makes technical demands on the performer but Hadelich was brilliant here (from 30:31), careful not to overdo the virtuosity at the expense of musical communication.

The three sections of the sonata moved from a dramatic first movement Allemanda (30:31) through a slowly evolving Sarabande used by the composer as a fugue (34:50) and then a bracing Finale (37:57). The Sarabande had the most striking sonorities of the three, thanks to the inventive pizzicato techniques matched spotlessly by Hadelich, but the last movement was a tour de force with which to finish!

Following this was one of the first pieces John Adams wrote for chamber forces, his evocative trip Road Movies, after a period where he admits to ‘studiously avoiding the chamber music format’. Yet, as this entertaining three movement piece proves, his music translates effortlessly to the smaller scale. The piano (played heroically here by Charles Owen!) supplies a lot of the rhythmic impetus and the bass foundations, leaving the violin to operate more freely up top.

The first movement, Relaxed Groove, is described by the composer as ‘a relaxed drive down a not unfamiliar road. Material is recirculated in a sequence of recalls that suggest a rondo form’. Both performers got to the nub of the bluesy music straight away, and also evoked the ‘solitary figure in an empty desert landscape’ in the second movement, entitled Meditative (49:11), where Hadelich had to detune his bottom string from a ‘G’ to an ‘F’. Finally the toe-tapping 40% Swing (55:19) closed out this virtuosic piece, both players smiling as they enjoyed its grooves and motifs.

We disembarked from the Adams vehicle, but an encore was waiting to see us on our way – a rather fine arrangement by Ysaÿe of the Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor, played with appropriate tenderness by Hadelich. Owen’s flowing accompaniment, too, was finely judged.

Further listening

Augustin Hadelich has not yet recorded any of the works in this recital, but the following playlist brings together the music heard in the concert, including a version of the encore arranged by Nathan Milstein:

For those enjoying the Ysaÿe Solo Sonata, a logical next port of call would be the unaccompanied 24 Caprices by Paganini, which Hadelich has recently recorded:

For those enjoying the Adams, here is a disc including not just Road Movies but a collection of the composer’s works for keyboard:

Wigmore Mondays: Lara Melda – Ballades by Chopin & Liszt

Lara Melda (piano, above)

Chopin Ballades for piano: no.1 in G minor Op.23 (c1835) (2:11-12:09 on the broadcast link; no.2 in F major Op.38 (1839) (13:10-20:38)
Liszt Ballade no.2 in B minor S175 (1853) (22:30-39:40)
Chopin Ballades for piano: no.3 in A flat major Op.47 (1841) (41:28-49:15); no.4 in F minor Op.52 (1842-3) (50:38-1:02:39)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 3 December 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Emrah Bostan

A very well planned and presented hour of Ballades from Lara Melda, contrasting beautifully the approaches to the form by Chopin and Liszt.
Chopin’s Ballades are some of the finest works in all his output for solo piano, and contain numerous innovations in form, style and substance. The four works are very different in character, each telling a very different story – but a private one to the composer, too.

The Ballade no.1 in G minor Op.23 gives a stern call to arms at the start of proceedings (from 2:11 on the broadcast), Melda taking a long (and appropriate) pause before beginning, but starting very slowly too. Though arguably too slow, it is a dramatic interpretation, beautifully paced and technically very strong, remaining straight faced throughout but really working up a head of steam from 4:45 onwards. A slower section follows, nicely phrased, before a return to the stern outlines of the minor key, Melda’s octaves probing sharply (from 7:10). From 10:40 the music gathers itself for a powerful and deliberate (but again very effective) finish.

The Ballade no.2 in F major Op.38 (13:10) has an almost Christmassy feel to start with, the gentle theme making itself known in a rocking formation. This contrasts to a violent intervention (15:17) in a completely different mood and key, Melda keen to make a wide difference between the two approaches. Initially this is a flash in the pan, the soft theme returning at 16:18, but the brittle intervention has not gone away for long, and appears once more from 18:30. Here the pianist does not feel quite so controlled or disciplined – possibly intentionally. The quiet music does return again (20:09), crucially now in a minor key, to indicate force has not quite won the day.

Liszt’s approach to the Ballade, perhaps not surprisingly, is to make it an all-encompassing literary whole, telling the story of Gottfried Bürger’s Lenore in fifteen minutes of high drama. Beginning in the murky depths of the piano at 22:30, the more extensive Ballade no.2 in B minor S175 immediately makes an impact under Lara Melda’s direction, the probing lower range theme setting the scene. The next section, from 26:40, is jagged and unhinged, beginning Lenore’s ride on the horse with her dead lover. This macabre setting full of octaves in the piano’s right hand is brilliantly played, as is the softer, bell-like section that follows at 29:50. Then a tumultuous section shows off Melda’s ability for clarity at speed, a typical whirlwind of Liszt octaves reaching its climax at 32:10. From 34:09 a chorale-like theme begins to develop, reaching its apex at 36:57 and then subsiding to a quiet end.

Chopin’s Ballade no.3 in A flat major Op.47 (41:28) contrasts nicely with the bombast of the Liszt, its relatively reserved but lyrical opening theme one of the composer’s very best. A contrasting waltz section (43:38) is much more assertive, and finds Melda adding a nice lilt to the music. These two alternate as though in a quest for domination, and were beautifully played here. The only slight blot on the landscape was what appeared to be a memory blip from Melda on the last few chords, but she recovered to finish in the ‘home’ key.

Finally the Ballade no.4 in F minor Op.52 (50:38), arguably the most difficult of the four – and an extremely intense piece of music. Melda played it with the same assurance she gave the other three ballades, capturing the deep melancholy at the heart of its waltz-like theme. This was a very concentrated reading, leading inevitably to the quiet five chords (1:01:01) and the incredibly powerful coda that follows (1:01:38)

A fine concert, then, from a pianist with a keen sense of drama, a near-impeccable technique and a clear passion for this music.

Further listening

Lara Melda has plans to release an all-Chopin disc next year, which will be her first recording. The playlist below includes well-loved accounts of the Ballades from Vladimir Ashkenazy, while for completeness I also included the encore Melda played at the Wigmore Hall after Radio 3 had gone off the air:

Another Romantic composer to write Ballades for the piano was Brahms, whose early examples for the piano were published in 1854 as 4 Ballades Op.10. This legendary recording by the pianist Emil Gilels forms part of a disc of Brahms’ Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor, which has the same key and a similar mood to the first of Chopin’s Ballades:

Wigmore Mondays: Tai Murray & Silke Avenhaus play Grieg, Philip Glass & Saint-Saëns

Tai Murray (violin, above); Silke Avenhaus (piano, below)

Grieg Violin Sonata no.2 in G major Op.13 (1867)
Glass Pendulum (2010)
Saint-Saëns Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.75 (1885)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 November 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was an imaginative and invigorating recital from two instrumentalists at the very top of their game. It also brought forward two of the lesser lights in the violin and piano repertoire, giving exposure to composers for whom melody came naturally.

Edvard Grieg’s three sonatas for violin and piano are consistently rewarding. Three weeks previously at the Wigmore Hall we heard Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova in the Violin Sonata no.3; now Murray and Avenhaus gave a passionate performance of its predecessor.

Of a largely sunny disposition, the Violin Sonata no.2 in G major is one of the first works to introduce home-grown folksong into the Norwegian composer’s output. Tai Murray seized the opportunity for drama with an assertive introduction, countering Silke Avenhaus’s thoughtful opening in the minor key (1:49). From 3:17 they moved to the first movement proper, enjoying the attractive, dance-like melodies in a bright exchange, though this was countered by a more reflective, minor-key theme (heard again at 8:19).

Grieg used this key for the slow movement, which began in dreamy, reflective mood (11:09). Soon however the violin was soaring higher and faster, before subsiding to a beautiful, airy second theme, back in the major key (12:47). The third movement once again suggested the outdoors with the piano drone (16:55) and another folksy melody, the violin stepping in exuberantly – and another dreamy episode from 19:02. After a recapitulation of the drone material at 20:18 Murray and Avenhaus led us to a grand coda, a passionate finish in a similar vein to the soon to be published Piano Concerto.

Philip Glass’s Pendulum, originally written for piano trio, appeared here in a duo version sanctioned by the composer. Even when Glass is at his most delicate, great demands are placed on the performers, especially when set the kind of athletic arpeggio figures Murray and Avenhaus had here (from 24:30). They responded with an energetic performance but also took great care with the subtleties of Glass’s writing at the start of the piece, with a steady tread on the lower notes of the piano. The nervous energy was never far from the surface, growing as the oscillations became ever wider, leading to a sweeping finish at 31:47.

The mystery that Saint-SaënsViolin Sonata no.1 is not more often performed is solved by its fiendishly difficult but utterly exhilarating finale. Until then, the work – completed in 1885 – had already made a strong impact, thanks to the composer’s clever grouping of the four movements into pairs of two, and the irregular but strangely effective phrasing of the melodies.

From the start of the first movement (34:02) Murray and Avenhaus set a tense, nervy atmosphere, the violin and piano shadowboxing each other. The second theme (35:37) was equally nervy, despite the flowing piano’s suggestions of the Organ symphony. The recapitulation in this dramatic movement reached a climax at 39:55 with some concerto-esque playing from the piano before the flowing theme returned, Saint-Saëns moving us seamlessly into the second movement (from 43:25)

This respite, a rather beautiful reverie, was broken by the third movement Scherzo (from 48:00), a throwback to the composer’s Danse macabre, with irregular phrases and the instruments mirroring each other again. There was a flowing trio section (from 49:58) but before long we were back to the Scherzo (50:58). Another seamless transition set up the finale (from 52:05), scampering out of the blocks with some remarkable playing from both players, responding to the technical demands with apparent ease and bringing back the second theme from the first movement in a beautiful passage of playing from 56:08. Then the music built for the final time, surging into the major key where a cascade of bells rang out from the piano (57:03), before the emphatic finish.

A terrific concert, this, with no need for an encore. At its best Saint-Saëns’ music can be breathtaking, and this was one such wholly enjoyable occasion!

Further listening

Tai Murray has yet to record any of the music played in this concert, but the playlist below contains some of the best available versions:

If you particularly enjoyed the Grieg, I wholeheartedly recommend a disc bringing together all three of the composer’s sonatas for violin and piano, played by Augustin Dumay and Maria-João Pires:

It remains a mystery as to why the Saint-Saëns sonatas are not performed more often. If you listen to the collection below you will find some persuasive accounts of the Second Violin Sonata, the Cello Sonatas and works for clarinet, oboe and bassoon: