In concert – Steven Isserlis & Mishka Rushdie Momen @ Wigmore Hall

It must have been extremely special for Steven Isserlis to be playing the music of three of his favourite composers at the Wigmore Hall on this day – even more so as the date fell on the birthday of one of them, Robert Schumann.

He is one of the cellist’s greatest musical loves, and the sense persists that Isserlis is still discovering more things that make it so. One of Schumann’s many strengths is the versatility of his music, meaning pieces such as the 3 Romances Op.94, originally written for oboe and piano and given to his wife Clara as a Christmas present in 1849, can easily be performed with violin or, indeed, the cello.

Schumann’s birthday was marked by a performance of unaffected romantic beauty from Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, very much on an equal footing playing the composer’s first instrument. The pair caught the doleful and slightly inquiring nature of the first romance beautifully, while the surge of feeling in the central music of the second was a strong cumulative wave. The third, its theme given in a darker shade, was briefly introspective in its unison phrases but then more overtly passionate.

Before Schumann came another ‘birthday’ composer. Beethoven’s 250th is not likely to receive quite so much live coverage as it would have done in a year without a pandemic, but what it lacks in quantity it will surely make up for in quality. The Sonata for piano and cello no.1 in F major, the first of a pair published as the composer’s Op.5, is the ideal concert opener. It begins in slight trepidation of what it is about to discover, but then, on establishing what is effectively a new form of writing for the cello and piano together, throws itself headlong into the rapids.

The Allegro that comes after that first sense of discovery was joyous indeed, with lovely dialogue in play between the two protagonists. Isserlis smiled frequently, as though revelling in the combination of favourite music and venue once again, while Momen’s clear phrasing dovetailed neatly with the cello’s, owning some of the really tricky right hand runs with fearless accuracy.

The second movement had a terrific burst of energy, the sun breaking through at every possible opportunity when its catchy theme made several reappearances. The pair also gave a nice air of mystery when Beethoven suddenly departed from ‘home’ and ended up in a number of seemingly unrelated tonal centres, before reassuring us with the warmth of the home key once again.

As he introduced his favourite 20th century cello sonata, there was a sense of Isserlis’ heart almost bursting with the chance to play music live again. He described his discovery of Fauré’s late music as ‘being outside a door but then passing through and wondering why on earth I had been outside’, before the pair played the Cello Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.108, the first of two such works from the Frenchman.

This was a very fine performance indeed, Isserlis and Momen watchful and urgent at the start, its music wracked with uncertainty but nonetheless pushing forward with great conviction. The Andante slow movement began lost in thought, the bell-like toll of the piano matched by Isserlis’ rich legato tone, before reaching heights of passion that the final movement also delivered, the performers now glorying in the major key and Fauré’s bursts of sunshine, the strong resolve of the first movement bringing its ultimate reward.

The pair finished with a profound account of Isserlis’ own transcription of a Bach chorale prelude, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, in which – as the cellist noted – Bach says it all.

In concert – A week locked into Wigmore Hall

At 1pm on Monday June 1st, live music-making returned to the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3.

While we have been incredibly fortunate to enjoy live streams of music from around the world since lockdown began, this felt like something extra special. A whole month of lunchtime concerts, served up by our finest chamber music venue in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, and streamed on the Wigmore Hall website. With a selection of top class artists, all of whom live close enough to journey in and play, all that was missing was the audience – but this added extra poignancy, offering us private moments with the musicians in our own home, a deluxe version of what BBC Radio 3 has been giving us for decades. A note should be made for presenter Andrew McGregor‘s broadcasting manner, expertly paced and perfectly weighted.

The musical riches in the first week have been many and varied. The first concert was ideally placed, Steven Hough giving us Busoni’s epic realisation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor and Schumann’s lovelorn Fantasie in C major. In some performances of the Bach-Busoni the virtuoso elements of the piece take over at the expense of feeling, but not here. Hough shaped the phrases with great care, bringing out the gusto when it was needed but giving an incredibly well-balanced account of a familiar showpiece.

With Schumann’s Fantasie he gave a flowing performance of a notoriously difficult work, made all the more poignant because of its circumstances, written in isolation by a composer pining for his wife Clara. There was joy, too – the march theme of the second movement ringing out with bell-like clarity, while the resolution at the end, softly voiced, left a lasting smile.

Tuesday’s song recital from soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook had the themes of Hope and Longing – appropriately in the awful context of world events, which saw the concert begin with a two-minute period of reflection on racial inequality and violence.

Crowe began on high, judging her vibrato beautifully for Thomas Arne’s aria O ravishing delight, before three Schumann songs found her vocal control matched by her communication with the audience, in spite of the empty hall. The sound world of Berg’s 7 frühe Lieder is very different, with challenges of tricky melodic intervals and words by seven different poets, but the soprano handled them effortlessly, helped by Tilbrook’s painterly application of light and shade for the corners of Berg’s nocturnal settings.

The pair moved on to a selection of poignant folk songs, none more so than the unaccompanied She moved through the fair, before English lyrics old and new from Thomas Dunhill, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams and Madeline Dring. It was a touching recital with both soprano and pianist clearly on the same page.

Few guitarists would expect to receive compliments on the quality of their quiet playing…but that was what stood out immediately from Sean Shibe’s solo recital on the Wednesday. With a collection of attractive Scottish dances the listener was drawn in from the start and borne to the beauty of the Highlands, the tunes carrying on the air in performances of extraordinary intimacy.

The same could be said for Shibe’s performance of Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor, carefully studied but delighting in the expressive interplay between the parts, bringing Bach’s notes clean off the page. Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint was even better, Shibe moving to a Fender to play the 12th part of this multilayered composition. The waves of sound echoing around the Wigmore as the guitarist, now barefoot, completely lost himself in the music.

Oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist Julius Drake, both Wigmore regulars and musical partners for 40+ years, crammed their Thursday lunchtime with music old and new, all of personal significance.

They included two short premieres, the wide open textures of Huw Watkins’ haunting Arietta and the uncertainties of Michael Berkeley’s A Dark Waltz, written in lockdown. There was a rarity,too, in the first broadcast performance of Liszt’s darkly coloured Élegie, originally written for cello and piano but here in a recently unearthed version with for cor anglais.

Howard Ferguson’s arrangement for oboe and piano of Finzi’s substantial Interlude was beautifully paced and deeply felt in that slightly elusive way in which the composer writes, Drake absorbing the extra parts with ease. Meanwhile Ferguson’s arrangements of three pieces for pedal piano by Schumann studies were also nicely done. Later we heard three attractive shorter pieces from Madeline Dring, and finally Nicholas Daniel showed off the oboe’s versatility in three rewarding arrangements of popular songs, including The Girl From Ipanema and capped by All The Things You Are. A note, too, for the pair’s deeply felt and beautifully observed Bach encore, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, prefaced by a sensitive introduction.

Last but not least, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy reminded us what an intimate form of communication the piano duet can be. As the pair live together they have experienced isolation in each other’s company, and that in itself brought an extra poignancy to their lovingly played selection of BrahmsLiebeslieder Waltzes, a profound Schubert Impromptu in A flat from Tsoy and a bittersweet clutch of six Waltzes, Ländler & German Dances from Kolesnikov.

Together the pair enjoyed the humour and lightness of touch in Beethoven’s 8 Variations on a theme of Count Waldstein, but the best was saved for last and a wonderful performance of Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor. Recognised as one of the finest works in the piano duet repertoire, it received a performance led by Tsoy that moved from almost painful introspection to passionate outbursts five minutes later. The scherzo section had plenty of cut and thrust, while the whole piece, ideally paced, built to an almost overwhelming strength of feeling, capped by an intensely dramatic pause before the softly voiced opening theme returned.

What a musical week it has been – and looking at the roll call it looks like we are in for another three weeks of equally fine and moving insights. You can catch up with all the concerts on the links above and are strongly advised to do so, for there are some incredibly fine performances waiting to be heard. Live concerts may not be with us for a while yet, but in the meantime these intimate hours with some of our best classical music artists are an ideal substitute.

You can see the schedule for forthcoming Wigmore Hall livestreams here, the series resuming courtesy of cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen on Monday 8 June.

Music online – BBC Radio 3 to restart Wigmore Hall concerts behind closed doors

Since its beginnings five years back, Arcana has made a big deal of the BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts at the Wigmore Hall on Mondays, covering the majority of recitals given in that time. The concerts bring a great deal of pleasure to listeners not just in the hall but at home, brightening up a dreary Monday on many occasions. Their availability on catch-up through BBC Sounds only heightens the xpe

Very happily the concerts are to return to our homes. With the Wigmore Hall closed to the public until September, Alan Davey, Controller of BBC Radio 3 and John Gilhooly, Director of Wigmore Hall, have today confirmed the first live classical music broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 from Wigmore Hall, following the nationwide lockdown.

A series of 20 concerts will take place at 1pm every weekday throughout the month of June, starting on Monday 1st. The series will mark Wigmore Hall’s temporary re-opening, as well as BBC Radio 3’s return to live concert broadcasting, part of their Culture in Quarantine initiative.

Programmes are to be confirmed, but rather excitingly the artists confirmed include a wide array of British-based talent, listed alphabetically below:

James Baillieu (piano), Benjamin Baker (violin), Iain Burnside (piano), Allan Clayton (tenor), Michael Collins (clarinet), Imogen Cooper (piano), Lucy Crowe (soprano), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Julius Drake (piano) Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), Angela Hewitt (piano), Stephen Hough (piano), Elizabeth Kenny (lute), Pavel Kolesnikov (piano), Paul Lewis (piano), Michael McHale (piano), Joseph Middleton (piano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Hyeyoon Park (violin), Timothy Ridout (viola), Sean Shibe (guitar), Anna Tilbrook (piano), Samson Tsoy (piano), Ailish Tynan (soprano), Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Adam Walker (flute), Roderick Williams (baritone)

Arcana will be looking to cover a number of these concerts, offering listening guides as we have done for five years. See you in the virtual concert hall!

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Alessandro Fisher & Roger Vignoles: Nordic Tales

Alessandro Fischer (tenor, above), Roger Vignoles (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

With the Coronavirus pandemic now sadly in full swing, this was the last concert at the Wigmore Hall for some time, the venue now on an enforced break until mid-April at the earliest. It served as a reminder of just how lucky we are to be able to experience live music, and how good it is to have concerts such as this preserved on the radio.

This particular concert was a fascinating program of Nordic tales through the eyes of four composers of different nationality. BBC New Generation Artist Alessandro Fisher and the superb, ever-attentive Roger Vignoles cleverly constructed a program focusing on Scandinavia. Yet we saw it not just through the eyes of one of its favourite musical sons (Grieg) but through three others with strong connections – Robert Schumann (Germany), Frederick Delius (England) and Gunnar de Frumerie (Sweden).

Schumann’s 5 Lieder date from 1840, his famed year of song, and came about from his admiration of Hans Christian Andersen’s ability to blend the childlike and the grotesque in his stories. Each of the five songs behaves in a similar way musically. Märzveilchen (The March Violets) (2:32), are aptly timed here, with an appropriately breezy and outdoor air, Fisher’s clear voice adding to the sunny countenance. In Muttertraum (A mother’s dream) (4:10) a shadow falls over the music, drawing longer as the tenor describes the ominous appearance of a raven, all to the accompaniment of a beautifully shaped single line from Vignoles (below).

For Der Soldat (The soldier) (6:56) the muffled drum is vividly described by Schumann – and Vignoles – and Fisher’s voice takes on a declamatory form but reaches stunned silence at the end, when he realises he has killed his man. In Der Spielmann (The fiddler) (9:55), Fisher’s ringing voice tells of celebration but also an untimely death, before the final Verratene Liebe (Betrayed Love) (13:14) This brief song stays in genial mood despite its subject matter.

You can learn a lot about a composer’s output from their songs, and in the case of Grieg his songs reveal the work of a skilled tunesmith and an effortless ability to set a scene in next to no time. The songs here tell of those skills, and Fisher clearly loved performing them. He begins with two early works, the affectionate To brune Øjne (Two brown eyes) (15:50) and yearning Jeg elsker dig (I love you) (16:55).

Grieg’s depiction of En svane (The swan) is held in magical suspension by both Fisher and Vignoles (19:51), its serene progress leading to the flowing song Med en vandlilje (With a waterlily) (22:26). Prinsessen (24:55) has particularly special pleading from Fisher here, the prince’s entreaties to his beloved falling on deaf ears, while Fra Monte Pincio (28:02) has an urgent delivery, thinking of good times ahead.

To Delius, who visited Norway for a number of epic walks across the country, and whose relationship with the country remained close. He was good friends with Grieg, too, so it is perhaps inevitable they should both share common ground as excellent songwriters. The selection here begins with Twilight Fancies (34:40), Roger Vignoles shading the picture with distant horn fanfares and Fisher judging his vibrato ideally. The song sets a translation of the text used by Grieg in Prinsessen, and the different responses of the composers are fascinating in comparison.

Young Venevil (38:32) strains at the leash, impetuous but ultimately unlucky in love. The Nightingale (40:35) is airy and atmospheric, its chromatic movement nicely managed, while Longing (43:24) brings with it a surge of feeling through the flowing piano and Fisher’s ringing tone.

The music of Gunnar de Frumerie is seldom heard, but he is highly regarded among 20th century Swedish composers. The Songs of the Heart cycle features deeply intimate music, its subject matter woven into natural allegory. The six songs begin with the contemplative, almost rapturous When You Close My Eyes (47:58), then the pure You Make Everything Beautiful (50:10), which feels whiter than white. Blessed It Is To Wait (52:36) carries a feeling of impatience despite its title, before the profound From The Depths Of My Soul (54:16). You Are My Aphrodite (57:05) surges forward with great passion and intensity, Fisher’s effectively surfing the turbulent waves of the accompaniment. Finally Like A Wave (58:24) carries a Debussy-like humidity, sultry and ardent.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schumann 5 Lieder Op.40 (1840)
Grieg To brune Øjne Op.5/1, Jeg elsker dig Op.5/3 (1864), En svane Op.25/2, Med en vandlilje Op.25/4 (1876), Prinsessen (1871), Fra Monte Pincio Op.39/1 (1869-84)
Delius From Seven Songs from the Norwegian (1889-90): Twilight Fancies (34:40); Young Venevil (38:32); From Five Songs from the Norwegian (1888): The Nightingale (40:35); Longing (43:24)
de Frumerie Hjärtats sånger (Songs of the Heart) Op.27 (1942, rev. 1976) (47:58)

As an encore, once the Radio 3 microphones had departed, Fisher and Vignoles gave a brilliantly rendered account of Ian VenablesFlying Crooked, a comical but rather accurate portrayal of the flight of a butterfly, in this case a Cabbage White.

Further listening & viewing

Alessandro Fisher has not yet recorded the music given in this concert, but each song is included on the playlist below, in leading versions that include Anne Sofie von Otter’s account of Songs of the Heart:

Grieg’s songs are particularly worthy of further exploration, and these recordings from soprano Claire Booth and pianist Christopher Glynn are a great introduction to his craft:

von Otter meanwhile has recorded a disc of Swedish songs which include the works by Gunnar de Frumerie:

Finally Delius and his Norwegian connection, brilliantly explored in this vocal and orchestral collection from Danacord:

Wigmore Mondays – Ruby Hughes, Natalie Clein & Julius Drake: Works for soprano, cello & piano

Ruby Hughes (soprano, above), Natalie Clein (cello), Julius Drake (piano, both below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 2 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating hour of music for three instruments not often linked – soprano, cello and piano. Its imaginative programme comprised music by six composers from three different centuries using four languages! It made for a very satisfying whole.

Kodály’s single-movement Sonatina for cello and piano (1:41 on the radio broadcast) began the program. This is a work with which Natalie Clein and Julius Drake are very familiar, having recorded it for Hyperion in 2009, and they immediately found its expressive core. The Sonatina was initially intended for a Sonata the composer finished in 1909, but it happened to work particularly well on its own, and was completed later. Its colourful music – which has parallels to Debussy’s own Cello Sonata – is rich in melodic and harmonic content. Free in form, it speaks directly of the composer’s Hungarian heartlands. Clein’s tone was sumptuous in this performance and Drake’s piano exemplary, the two plotting a convincing course for the work.

This was followed without a break by three of John Tavener’s 6 Akhmatova Songs, written for soprano Patricia Rozario and cellist Steven Isserlis in 1993. In effect the cello is singing here too, its wordless line providing an otherworldly introduction for the third song of the six, Boris Pasternak (10:45). Clein’s rich sound was the ideal foil for the clarity of Ruby Hughes’ soprano. Couplet (12:48) was immediately more agitated, the gruff cello adopting a more questioning slant as it helped describe the poet’s suspicion about praise of her own work. Hughes, too, was more penetrating in her delivery. Finally Dante (14:23) grew outwards from the start, its expressive line shared between singer and instrumentalist.

Deborah Pritchard’s short but powerful Storm Song (16:46), a setting of text by Jeanette Winterson, was the last part of this unbroken first sequence. Premiered almost exactly three years ago, it was led by Hughes’ wide ranging but beautifully shaped melodic lines, soaring above the sinuous cello and piano as they descended into a powerful maelstrom at the song’s heart.

Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis were next, three heady settings of words by Pierre Louÿs, initially claimed to be erotic works from Ancient Greece. They were in fact the poet’s own construction, a fact Debussy presumably knew. La flûte de Pan (23:02) immediately transported the listener to a sultry outdoor setting and a lovers’ tryst, given appropriately chromatic settings by the composer. Julius Drake provided a rich tapestry in Debussy’s piano writing, and the humid setting was enhanced by the slow, tolling bells of the introduction to La chevelure (25:50) Hughes, now lower in her range, cast the spell. Le tombeau des naïades (29:16) closed this deliberately elusive trio, and we were left feeling as though we were all in on a rendezvous that was not supposed to be happening!

On the palmy beach is a commission from Kings Place for Judith Weir, completed in 2019 for these three performers and watched here by the composer herself. A cycle of four themed songs, it takes encounters with the sea and its inhabitants as inspiration, setting four very different poems by Wallace Stevens, Kathleen Jamie, Norman McCaig and Emily Dickinson. Weir has blogged on how she initially intended to keep the two instruments in step with each other, but how it became ‘much more alluring to liberate the cello’. Presumably for copyright reasons, the text for only one of the four poems (the Dickinson) could be printed, which made the text more difficult to follow in spite of Hughes’ wonderful singing. Yet there was a great deal of communication through the music, for which Clein and Drake were equally responsible.

Clein soared towards the heights in the prologue to the setting of Stevens’ Fabliau of Florida (34:30), where foam and cloud are one, and gave a full-throated epilogue too. Weir’s use of the cello to depict a jellyfish in Jamie’s The Glass-hulled boat (38:23) was uncanny, humorous and strangely touching, the agile lines dovetailing with Hughes’ own words. Norman McCaig’s Basking Shark (42:08) was next, the broad cello line a counterpoint to Hughes’s vivid storytelling and only latterly joined by the piano. Finally the setting of Dickinson’s I started Early – Took my Dog – (656) (46:13) was compelling, the sea toying with the author before ultimately opting not to catch her up.

To conclude a unique concert we heard Schubert’s Auf dem Strom (50:57), written for Beethoven’s memorial a year after his death in 1828 and containing a quotation from the Eroica Symphony. Setting the poetry of Ludwig Rellstab, it was written for soprano with horn and piano accompaniment, the composer later adding an obbligato cello was just as valid instead of the horn. This was to our advantage, for it enabled Natalie Clein to project the phrases beautifully, setting the scene for Hughes’ subtly wrought grief. With eloquent playing from Drake, this felt rather like the slow movement of a Schubert piano trio, but with words – expressive and touching.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Kodály Sonatina for cello and piano (1922, published 1969)
Tavener Akhmatova Songs (1993) (excerpts) (10:45)
Pritchard Storm Song (2017) (16:46)
Debussy Chansons de Bilitis (1897-8) (23:02)
Weir On The Palmy Beach (2019) (34:30)
Schubert Auf dem Strom D943 (1828) (50:57)

Further listening & viewing

The works by Deborah Pritchard and Judith Weir have not been recorded yet, but you can hear available recordings of the works by Kodály, Tavener, Debussy and Schubert on the following Spotify playlist:

References to Natalie Clein and Julius Drake’s Kodály recordings of 2009 were unfortunately missed from the Wigmore Hall program. You can hear preview clips of their collection, including the Sonatina on the Hyperion website

The most recent collection of music by Judith Weir comes highly recommended. Airs from Another Planet is a collection of songs and chamber music, released on the enterprising Delphian label:

Meanwhile the music of John Tavener continues to enchant in a lasting way. While awareness of the composer centres all too often around his piece for cello and orchestra, The Protecting Veil, this collection of works for cello from RCA – nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 1997 – has aged very well. It includes all six of the Akhmatova Songs, performed by dedicatees Patricia Rozario and Steven Isserlis: