In Concert – Silesian Quartet & Wojciech Świtała: Bacewicz, Weinberg & Zarębski

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

Bacewicz String Quartet No. 4 (1951)
Weinberg String Quartet No. 3 in D minor, Op. 14 (1944)
Zarębski Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 34 (1885)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

In existence now for 44 years and with only a change of leader during that time, the Silesian Quartet has amassed a broad repertoire taking in the extent of the Austro-German tradition along with that of its Polish heritage – as was evident from this latest Wigmore Hall recital.

The rapid upsurge of interest in women composers has been of real benefit to those such as Grażyna Bacewicz, whose sizable output of essentially abstract music went too long under the radar and not least a minor masterpiece as her Fourth Quartet – its first prize at the Liège Competition in 1951 vindicated. Its three movements are dominated by the first of these – a sombre Adagio introduction as variously infiltrates the lively ensuing Allegro, such that the coda essentially becomes a stretto between such contrasted expression. The central Andante finds this composer at her most lyrical, with the ‘giocoso’ marking of the final Allegro not necessarily implying any lessening of formal and emotional focus, as this builds toward an impetuous conclusion that clinches the unorthodox if methodical design of the whole work.

The Silesian gave a superb account of a piece it knows well – having recorded all Bacewicz’s quartets – as it did of Mieczysław Weinberg’s Third Quartet. On a similar scale, this also has a similarly overarching intensity – not least when attacca markings between movements were scrupulously observed as to give the overall design its unity within diversity. The unchecked energy of the initial Presto is by no means offset by the bittersweet poise of the Andante – its taciturn unease continued in an Allegretto affording only the most tenuous, even provisional closure. One reason, surely, why the composer restructured this piece when recasting it more than three decades later as his Second Chamber Symphony, which is hardly to deny the sheer fascination of the music at a crucial stage on the way to Weinberg’s mastery of this medium.

Had he died before writing his last work, Juliusz Zarębski would barely have been a footnote in musical history. His Piano Quintet confirms an acute feeling for Lisztian harmony, allied to a commanding formal sense as should have been the springboard into an eventful maturity and is not so far behind those by Brahms, Dvořák and Franck in being a major contribution to its medium. The Silesian had the measure of the first movement’s quirky take on sonata form – its vividly contrasted ideas merged in a tensile development then varied reprise and dynamic coda. The Adagio frames its lilting central section with a melody of rapt fervency, as is itself framed by music of ‘Forest murmurs’ aura, while the Scherzo likewise frames its wistful trio with music of an intently rhythmic propulsion. The final Presto is essentially a cyclical reprise of earlier ideas as this picks up where its predecessor left off, before pursuing a sonata-rondo trajectory such as culminates in a fervent recollection of the work’s opening theme. That this piece remains the summa of Zarębski’s creativity does not lessen the extent of its attainment.

The Silesian and Wojciech Świtała had prepared no encore, instead reprising the final pages of the Zarębski to close this programme in fine style. It is part-way through a recorded cycle of Weinberg’s quartets, another of which will hopefully feature in a future Wigmore recital.

For more information on the performers, click on the names to visit the websites of the Silesian Quartet and Wojciech Świtała – and for more on the composers, click on the names of Juliusz Zarębski, Mieczysław Weinberg and Grażyna Bacewicz

In concert – Alison Balsom & Anna Lapwood @ Chapel of St Augustine, Tonbridge School

Trad. arr. Oskar Lindberg Old Swedish Folk Song (unknown)
Kristina Arakelyan Modal Reeds (2021, world premiere)
Albinoni arr. Balsom / Lapwood Concerto in D Minor (1722)
Debussy arr. Lapwood Clair de Lune (1905); Syrinx (1913); The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (1910)
Britten arr. Lapwood Sunday Morning from Peter Grimes (1945)
Eben Okna (Windows): Green Window ‘Issachar’; Gold Window ‘Levi’ (1976)
J.S. Bach arr. Balsom / Lapwood Chorale Erbarm dich BWV 721 (unknown)
Owain Park Images (2018)
Alain arr. Balsom Litanies (1937)

Alison Balsom (trumpet), Anna Lapwood (organ), Sam Mendes (lighting director)

Chapel of St. Augustine, Tonbridge School, Tonbridge

15 October 2022

by Ben Hogwood

This was an inspirational evening of music, cleverly conceived and executed as the first in an impressive set of concerts to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Tonbridge Music Society. In its existence the society has attracted a stellar cast of classical and jazz artists to the Kent town, where they have a number of fine performing venues at their disposal. Even by their standards, however, this was an auspicious event.

Powered by a series of common musical denominators (and a shared love of Chelsea buns!), trumpeter Alison Balsom and organist Anna Lapwood created an immersive sequence of music for the striking Chapel of St Augustine in Tonbridge School. One of the many inspirations behind this was Alison’s teacher from the Guildhall School of Music, and her thank you gift took the form of an inspiring and memorable evening for many young performers, who in a ceremony afterwards were presented with a series of Diamond Music Awards given by TMS to support local musicians between the age of 5 and 18.

Both performers have a strong belief in giving back to their communities and passing on to the next generation of performers. The week leading up to the concert featured a master class given by Balsom for students of the school, and Lapwood’s continued personal and virtual encouragement for her many followers under the #playlikeagirl hashtag is bearing fruit if the young audience was anything to go by. Both showed why they can be lasting inspirations, their craft borne of a shared passion for the music they play.

Complementing the music was a lightshow, under the direction of Sam Mendes – Balsom’s husband, clearly relishing a more vocational night away from his film director profession. Running smoothly and logically, the music began with solo organ – and few would have been prepared for the immediate and bare emotion of the Old Swedish Folk Song arranged by Oskar Lindberg. We heard a counterpoint from Kristina Arakelyan, who was present for the world premiere of her similarly moving Modal Reeds. A cinematic piece led by Balsom, this had striking parallels to the film music of Thomas Newman in its rich harmonic palette and distinctive, bright textures. It made a strong impression.

The chapel was bathed in blue at this point, a subtle counterpoint to the music. Balsom then fell under the spotlight, moving to the organ loft for a spirited account of Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in D minor, its natural arrangement for trumpet making much of the heartfelt second movement, proving there is more than one Adagio bearing the composer’s name! Lapwood’s choice of registrations on the organ throughout the evening was ideal, but here especially she found a rewarding balance and sensitive phrasing.

A Debussy triptych followed – a mellow-voiced Clair de Lune, in the organist’s own arrangement, segueing neatly into Balsom’s account of Syrinx, the solo flute piece taking flight in its arrangement for trumpet. Both instruments combined in a plaintive account of The Girl With The Flaxen Hair.

The evening’s centrepiece was to follow, prefaced by a fiendishly difficult arrangement of Sunday Morning, second of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. The longest stop on the organ came into play, rumbling beneath a vividly pictorial account where Balsom added a treble line. From here we moved to two substantial segments from Petr Eben’s Okna (Windows), a 1976 piece inspired by four of Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows. Coincidentally, only three miles down the road stands Tudeley parish church, the only site in England to feature original windows by the artist.

This piece is clearly special to Balsom, and the two gave a penetrating insight into Eben’s writing, taking two substantial excerpts. Lapwood exploited the organ’s colour, the mottled Green Window gathering intensity with some raucous interventions against Balsom’s fluid line. The steady build in the Gold Window was something special indeed, reaching an apex in what Balsom termed ‘the loudest B flat chord ever for non-amplified instruments’. It certainly left its mark here!

Great control was required for the floated melody of Bach’s chorale Erbarm dich before the evocative Images from Owain Park, to which the trumpet added a playful yet poignant treble line. Jehan Alain’s Litanies also benefited from this, the organ piece given an extra-ceremonial air to close proceedings. We were not fully done, however, as a softly played encore arrangement of Shenandoah held the audience rapt a little while longer.

Both artists should be applauded for their creativity and collaboration here, two words that sit towards the forefront of their thinking. The balance was ideal, a notable achievement given the familiar problems of tricky sightlines and the distance between the two performers. Mendes, too, should be credited for a sensitive response that cast a spell on those in the chapel, moving from cool blue hues to dramatic outlines in gold. A special evening indeed – how about reproducing it as a late-night Prom?

For more information on Anna Lapwood’s new Images album, featuring the piece from Owain Park, click here. Meanwhile for more on Alison Balsom’s recent release Quiet City, click here – and for more information on her debut album for EMI Classics (latterly Warner), containing a complete account of Petr Eben’s Okna, click here

In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: Beethoven & Schumann string quartets

Schumann String Quartet no.3 in A major, Op.41 No. 3 (1842)
Beethoven
String Quartet no.11 in F minor, Op.95 ‘Serioso’ (1810-11)

CBSO Soloists [Jonathan Martindale and Stefano Mengoli (violins), Christopher Yates (viola), Helen Edgar (cello)]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 6 May 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Centre Stage series, featuring members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, continued this afternoon with a coupling of string quartets which, written just three decades apart, could hardly be more contrasted in terms of their aesthetic stance or emotional impact.

It made sense to reverse the advertised playing order. Schumann’s Third Quartet may be the last of his trilogy, but the initial movement is an ideal means of ushering in any programme – its gentle introduction then ruminative Allegro segueing with an unforced eloquence amply conveyed by these players. Most impressive was the ensuing scherzo – its variations on an agitated theme maintaining impetus right through to the restive closing bars. In his opening remarks, Jonathan Martindale spoke of the anguish beneath this music’s seeming sanguinity as is confirmed by those stealthy episodes that twice disrupt the Adagio’s repose before its main ideas find uneasy accord. No such issue affects the final Allegro, its rhythmic dexterity faltering a little but its determined progress towards an affirmative outcome never in doubt.

Whereas Schumann’s quartet typifies the mid-Romantic zeitgeist, Beethoven’s Serioso finds the latter composer’s late-Classicism at its most provocative – not least in terms of a formal concentration that barely exceeds 20 minutes. The present account underlined this in a lithe take on the opening Allegro which exuded a volatility such as (rightly) carried over into the next movement – its Allegretto marking indicative of a restlessness made more poignant by the extended coda’s burgeoning lyricism. Yet, as the ambiguous final cadence attests, there can be no let-up with a scherzo whose ‘serioso’ marking reinforces this as music-making in earnest. Its tense angularity is hardly less evident in the lurching progress of a finale whose breezily nonchalant conclusion is as unexpected as it was vividly realized on this occasion.

An arresting and persuasive juxtaposition which will hopefully be evident (if a little less starkly) in the next Centre Stage concert just over a month from now, when several of this afternoon’s players reassemble for early chamber works by Vaughan Williams and Fauré.

You can find further information on CBSO Centre Stage concerts on the CBSO website

In concert – Marija Vidović, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra / Jan Latham-Koenig – Pejačević, Sibelius & Mahler

tamsin-waley-cohen-c-patrick-allen

Pejačević Verwandlung, Op. 37b (1915), Liebeslied, Op. 39 (1915), Zwei Schmetterlingslieder, Op. 52 (1920)
Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47 (1903-04, rev. 1905)
Mahler Symphony no. 1 in D major (1899 version)

Marija Vidović (soprano), Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra / Jan Latham-Koenig

Cadogan Hall, London
Thursday 13 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photos (c) Patrick Allen (Tamsin Waley-Cohen), Paul Persky (Jan Latham-Koenig)

Visits from overseas orchestras are only now getting into their stride following the abeyance caused by the pandemic, so credit to the Zagreb Philharmonic for having undertaken its first UK tour in over half a century with a programme whose challenges were not to be gainsaid.

A recent BBC performance of her Symphony confirmed the significance of Dora Pejačević (1885-1923) in European music of the early 20th century, and it was a pleasure to encounter these four orchestral songs from her maturity. A setting of Karl Kraus’s Transformation won grudging admiration of Schoenberg; here, even more so in that of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Love Song with its winsome violin solo and fervent orchestral interlude, the influence of Strauss is directed towards audibly personal ends. Marija Vidović (above) gave them with no mean eloquence and did comparable justice to those charms of Karl Henckell’s verse in Two Butterfly Songs – the elegance of ‘Golden stars, little bluebells’ then the poise of ‘Flutter by, butterfly, flutter away’, each of them benefiting from especially deft contributions by the Zagreb musicians.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen duly joined the orchestra for Sibelius’s Violin Concerto – likely more popular than ever these days, here receiving a confident and forthright account that was at its most persuasive in a trenchant and cumulative take on the developmental cadenza toward the centre of the first movement, then an Adagio more than usually restive and even ominous as it unfolded. The soloist’s astringent tone might not be to all tastes, but it effectively banished any risk of expressive blandness while maintaining an impulsive interplay with the orchestra – not least in that opening Allegro’s combative coda or a finale which, while its Allegro was not ideally ‘non tanto’, generated an impressive momentum which carried through to a truly visceral close. Some solo Bach enabled Waley-Cohen to demonstrate a more inward touch.

A pity Jan Latham-Koenig (above) rarely appears in the UK, as his engagements seldom disappoint. For all its rawness and passing inelegances, this was as gripping an account of Mahler’s First Symphony as one is likely to encounter. Its opening movement was evocatively launched, the sounds of nature gradually admitting of a human presence such as filters through in its lilting exposition (not repeated) then comes to the fore with joyous immediacy in the coda. Robust and forthright, the scherzo’s outer sections found contrast in the ingratiating charm of its trio.

A symphony with a complex gestation (admirably set out in Timothy Dowling’s programme notes), its ensuing fantasy on a well-known children’s song is shot through with elements of klezmer and art-song in a portrayal of a huntsman’s funeral vividly ironic in its tragicomedy. Latham-Koenig was almost as persuasive in the lengthy finale – its Dante-esque contrasts of violence and supplication channelled convincingly to the spellbinding recollection of earlier motifs which made way for a chorale-dominated apotheosis of notably unsparing immediacy.

Few countries have yet had a composer for president, but Ivo Josipović served Croatia during 2010-15 and the encore of his Prelude to the Millenium sounded redolent of early Ligeti or Lutosławski in its uninhibited verve. The Zagreb musicians gave their collective all – to his evident pleasure.

For further information on the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, click here – and for information on the artists, click on the names to find out more about Marija Vidović, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Jan Latham-Koenig. Meanwhile for more on composer Dora Pejačević, click here

In concert – Julia Fischer, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Elgar Violin Concerto & Enescu Symphony no.2

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Julia Fischer (c) Marquee TV

Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1910)
Enescu: Symphony No. 2 in A, Op. 17 (1912-14)

Julia Fischer (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 13 April 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo (c) Marquee TV (Julia Fischer)

Could there be a more instructive coupling than the pieces in this concert, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor emeritus Vladimir Jurowski, for showing where musical Romanticism had arrived in the early 20th century and where it might have gone?

Relatively few concertos number among their composers’ most personal works, but Elgar’s Violin Concerto is one such and it was a measure of Julia Fischer’s identity that her account conveyed its conceptual richness as fully as its technical brilliance. Not least in the opening Allegro, Fischer drawing out that fatalism as germane to the heartfelt second theme as to its forceful predecessor such as pervades the initial tutti then the combative development. Here, as with the impetuous coda, Jurowski ensured textural clarity in even those densest passages.

Similarly in the Andante – the musing wistfulness of its main melody finding accord with the high-flown eloquence of what follows, with no undue lingering here or in those rapt closing bars. Its themes may be less overtly memorable, but the final Allegro molto follows a keenly purposeful trajectory whose dynamism is thrown into relief by that accompanied cadenza in which Elgar recollects earlier ideas as an intuitive interlude; rendered by Fischer with a poise as itself prepared ideally for the resumption of the finale then a powerfully rhetorical ending.

Enescu, who conducted the Paris premiere in 1932 with Yehudi Menuhin prior to the latter’s recording with the composer, might well have reflected on the success of this work compared to that of his Second Symphony – coolly received at the 1915 premiere, its score missing until 1924, and no revival until 1961. This might well have been the first hearing in London, but its formal and syntactical intricacy held no fear for Jurowski who, having previously championed Enescu’s Third Symphony and opera Oedipe, presided over a consistently assured rendition.

Not the least of its successes was in maintaining the impetus of the initial Vivace, whose ‘ma non troppo’ marking can easily lead to loss of focus among those polyphonic layers that were delineated with unfailing precision. Music this harmonically complex is (surprisingly?) direct as to melodic contours – not least its central Andante whose main theme, soulfully phrased by Benjamin Mellefont, has the evocative quality of those found in Russian symphonies several decades before. Here its inherent tenderness and its lingering regret could hardly be gainsaid.

The biggest challenge comes in the finale – not least the gauging of an extended introduction whose processional needs to generate momentum sufficient to propel the main Allegro on its eventful if never discursive course. Here, too, the extent of Enescu’s instrumental prowess is made plain by the dextrous contribution from keyboards and percussion to already extensive forces; variety of textures underpinning stages in musical evolution through to a coda whose heady if methodical accumulation of themes and motifs makes for a resplendent apotheosis.

Such was the impression left by this performance, a tribute to Jurowski’s conviction and the LPO’s executive skill. Maybe Enescu’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies will yet be heard in the realizations by Pascal Bentoiu, his own symphonies themselves deserving of such advocacy.

To read Arcana’s interview with Julia Fischer, who talks about the Elgar and Mozart violin concertos, click here

For further information on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2021/22 season, click here – and for the newly announced 2022/23 season click here For more on George Enescu, head to a dedicated website – and click on the artist names for more information on Julia Fischer and Vladimir Jurowski