Wigmore Mondays – Louis Lortie plays Chopin

Louis Lortie (piano)

George Benjamin Shadowlines (6 Canonic Preludes) (2001)

Chopin 24 Preludes Op.28 (1839)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 24 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Louis Lortie has a long-held affinity with the music of Chopin, and that was abundantly clear in the affection with which he played the composer’s 24 Preludes.

Completed in 1839, they are an extraordinary set of pieces that travel through each of the conventional Western tonal centres in the course of just 40 minutes. Chopin structures them cleverly, pairing them up so that each prelude appearing in a major key (for instance the first one in C major) is followed by its closest relative in a minor key (in this case A minor). The series proceeds using the ancient ‘cycle of fifths’, so that after ‘C’ we move to ‘G’, then ‘D’, and so on until a complete circuit is reached.

Previous exponents of this sort of cycle include Bach, whose famous ‘48’ also uses all the keys, but moves in a stepwise movement from C to C sharp, then D. In visiting the form Chopin was clearly aware of Bach’s efforts in the previous century, for he took the music with him on holiday to Majorca, where some of the preludes were written.

Lortie brought the cycle to life (from 18:06 on the broadcast link provided), with some of the shorter pieces reeled off at dazzling speed. The quick ones, for instance those in G major (21:02) or a particularly stormy affair in F sharp minor (27:29) were on occasion a bit too swift for the phrasing to be abundantly clear, but when he spent time over the melancholic no.4 in E minor (21:57), or the serious no.6 in B minor (24:37), the melodies were beautifully shaped, the depth of feeling immediately evident.

The natural centrepiece of the cycle is no.15 in D flat major, known as the Raindrop (from 36:27). It is at least twice as long as any of the others but also contains at its heart a very strong reference to plainchant, the speculation being that Chopin was capturing a haunted abbey in his writing. It looks forward to Debussy in this sense, and Lortie played it with the grandeur it deserved. Following it with the whirlwind B flat minor prelude (41:50) was the storm after the calm, the whirlwind superbly energised.

A beautifully crafted finish included the delicacy of the F major prelude from 51:35) and the stern countenance of the final D minor prelude (52:25), carrying its head high to put a cap on a superb performance of 24 strongly characterised pieces.

A little less effective were the 6 Canonic Preludes by George Benjamin, written so that whatever is played in one part has to be shadowed by the other. Some of the pieces were effective characterisations, not a million miles from Schoenberg’s mysterious piano pieces, but others felt emptier emotionally. Lortie played them superbly, but perhaps repeated hearing on the broadcast will bring them to life.

Further listening

Lortie is in the process of recording the complete piano works of Chopin, and his first album in the series for Chandos is a great next step after the Preludes, containing as it does the great Piano Sonata no.2.

Pascal Bentoiu: A London Homage at the Romanian Cultural Institute

Enescu Concerts Series 2016/17 – Ioanna Bentoiu (soprano, above) and Lena Vieru Conta (piano)

Romanian Cultural Institute, London; Friday 6th April, 2017

Schumann Frauenliebe und Leben Op.42 (1840)

Bentoiu Eminesciana II, Op.8 (1958)

Enescu Sept Chansons de Clément Marot, Op.15 (1908)

The death – in February last year – of Pascal Bentoiu robbed Romania of its finest composer after Enescu, as well as a musicologist and cultural polymath of stature. Save for a broadcast performance of his comic opera Doctor Cupid in 1969, little of his music has been performed in the UK – making this recital and talk at London’s Romanian Cultural Institute a welcome redress. The talk, given by this author and musicologist Mihai Coma, provided a context for three song-cycles given by Bentoiu’s daughter Ioanna and regular pianist Lena Vieru Conta.

Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben was evidently Bentoiu’s favourite lieder cycle and while the overt sentiment of Adelbert von Chamisso’s verse may now seem cloying, the symphonic integration achieved during this telling of a relationship from the female perspective retains its innovatory impulse. Taking care to convey this sequence as a formal and cohesive totality, Bentoiu and Conta were yet mindful of the subtly varying emotional nuance between each ‘movement’ and that sense of resigned fulfilment such as permeates the touching final song.

Although orchestral work latterly came to dominate Bentoiu’s creativity, his output of around 30 songs is a significant and no less typical facet of his composing. The three sonnets which comprise Eminesciana II finds him marshalling the ardent rhetoric and imaginative flights of fancy in which Mihai Eminescu writing abounds. No less distinctive are the piano interludes that not only connect these three settings but also point up musical as well as semantic links between them. Clearly, they need to be explored in the context of the wider song tradition.

For their final offering, Bentoiu and Conta turned to Enescu, and the best known of his song collections. Modest in dimension yet abounding in pointers to the music of his maturity, the Sept Chansons de Clément Marot (of which Bentoiu latterly made an insightful arrangement for chamber orchestra) ranges from ribald humour to searching pathos; the formalized texts yielding an emotional acuity that was tangibly realized by singer and pianist. Enescu, as with Bentoiu after him, was nothing if not penetrating as to his insights into the human condition.

The evening was enhanced by photographic exhibition Pascal Bentoiu: His Life and Works, as curated by Irina Niţu and produced by the George Enescu National Museum in Bucharest. This is at the Romanian Cultural Institute until April 27th, then in part at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens on Saturday 29th April at a concert by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper which includes the UK premiere of Enescu’s Fourth Symphony – completion of whose orchestration was among the most significant of Pascal Bentoiu’s later endeavours.

Richard Whitehouse

For further details on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra’s forthcoming concert of the Fourth Symphony, head to their website

Wigmore Mondays – Apollon Musagète Quartet play Haydn & Arensky

Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski & Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in D major Op.64/5 Lark (1790)

Arensky String Quartet in A minor Op.35 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 3 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you want a piece of chamber music for a bright spring day, look no further than Haydn’s utterly charming Lark quartet. The fifth in a set of six written for Johann Tost, a violin player from Haydn’s court orchestra, the ‘Lark’ is bright and very breezy. The first violin takes on the role of the bird, soaring above the other three instruments in the first movement () and then enjoying the role of a vocal soloist in the second movement (10:55), essentially an aria.

In this performance the Apollon Musagète Quartet allowed Haydn’s melodies all the room they needed, except for the end of the first movement which became a bit too fast. In the third movement Minuet – a predecessor of Beethoven’s scherzo (16:14) they dug in a little more. For the last movement, a brilliantly played torrent of notes issued forth from Paweł Zalejski’s violin, rushing the whole way through as the other instruments battled manfully to keep up.

The sudden change of mood for Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 was palpable. Arensky was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and a close friend of Tchaikovsky, and although his music has never enjoyed the popularity of these two Russian heavyweights, at its best it has great appeal. Rimsky wrote him off as a composer, but this String Quartet is one of his finest works. A darker piece, it was originally written for violin, viola and two cellos, but in this performance the Apollon Musagete used the conventional quartet make-up.

The first movement was dark, its solemn intonations speaking of Russian liturgy rather than intimate chamber music, serving as a memorial for Tchaikovsky. The quartet captured its brooding thoughts (23:13) but allowed more light to seep into the outlook as the piece progressed.

The second movement (34:03), a set of variations on Tchaikovsky’s Legend, is often played separately in an arrangement for string orchestra, and the Apollon Musagète showed how these big, bold variations could easily be projected for the bigger form. They demonstrated great aptitude for the quick fire variations (36:23) and (close to 39:24) but showed the slow theme and its other slower, minor key counterparts plenty of time, especially in the final variation from 46:25. The music may have been downbeat on these occasions but still had the power to console.

The finale is a strange comparison of dark liturgical intonation (48:01) and a sudden burst of folk song (49:30), which eventually wins the day. When it did here at the Wigmore, the effect was thoroughly convincing and consolation had ultimately been found in this fine performance.

Further listening

In summing up Arensky’s best achievements as a composer the Wigmore Hall note omitted to mention his wonderful Piano Trio no.1, part of a Spotify playlist including piano music and the Quartet played here.

Live: Convergence 2017 – Manuel Göttsching at the Barbican

Manuel Göttsching (above – guitars, electronics), Shags Chamberlain (keyboards, percussion), Oren Ambarchi (bass guitar, percussion, drums)

Barbican Hall, Thursday 23rd March, 2017

Göttsching E2-E4 (1984)

Ash Ra Tempel excerpts from Schwingungen and Seven Up (1972)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Now in its fourth year, Convergence is one of those inspirational festivals that bring together different art forms without laying down rules of boundary or art form. Because of that, artists who might not get ready exposure are brought to the fore – and hence gigs like this one can take place.

Manuel Göttsching originally released his E2-E4 album in 1984, but it surfaced in remastered form last year to great acclaim, making listeners of a certain age (your correspondent included!) misty-eyed and reverent about its influence on a generation of techno producers.

The music is relatively close to the Steve Reich school of thought in concept, that is it begins with a deceptively simple phrase that stays constant for an hour, but around it various musical events develop. By the end the root of the music remains but where there was once an airy synthesizer riff there is now a full bodied bass, primitive electronic drums and some dreamy guitar, all of which Göttsching took his time to introduce. Little wonder that this music became an inspiration for Balearic producers such as Sueno Latino.

At this concert in the Barbican Hall, Göttsching performed in an incredibly modest manner, sitting in front of a laptop as though he were answering e-mails for at least half an hour, before standing with his guitar to deliver the crowning layer. The reality of course was very different, the stage dimly but effectively lit so that the audience could sit more or less in the dark, enjoying the music as it unfolded. Tapping the feet and fingers was an instinctive reaction, for this music has a great deal of energy, like a written out DJ set. It became a meditation for the mind but also a joyous ritual, the bright chords retaining their appeal even after an hour.

After the interval Göttsching emerged with drummer Oren Ambarchi and keyboard player Shags Chamberlain for company. Ariel Pink had been promised but was indisposed – but this was not a problem, as the trio set out to play excerpts from albums Göttsching had been involved with in the early 1970s as Ash Ra Tempel. These may well have worked better in the first half, but were nonetheless really well observed and open ended – so much so the improvisations were still going on when I sadly had to depart at 11:10.

The driving rhythms spoke of the Krautrock movement that was to take hold later in the 1970s, while some of the spacious textures and feedback also anticipated shoegaze and My Bloody Valentine. And yet there was the spirit of exploration that also incorporated contemporary classical compositions, with elements of the quieter side of Xenakis and Boulez, while also incorporating rich, added note harmonies of the likes of Thelonious Monk. There was a firm pitch centre, a point of reference at all times save for the last number, which found all three players on the same vibraphone initially. The music was difficult to pin down stylistically – so best just to sit back and enjoy!

It was an inspiring evening, providing some welcome respite and inspiration in the light of the awful events elsewhere in London earlier in the day. Those hung over the gig to some extent, but there was a sense that everybody was grateful to have their minds diverted and altered.

Musically there may not have been a great amount of melody, but inspiration came through texture, harmony and primitive drive – especially when Ambarchi drove the rhythm track forward in the second half. Göttsching himself was in fine form, and it was great to have an opportunity to appreciate and praise his influence on musical movements that have followed. Forty years on, his is a voice that still stands out.

For more information on Convergence, head to the festival festival website

Spotify

The Convergence 2017 playlist is below:

Wigmore Mondays – Annelien Van Wauwe & Nino Gvetadze play Debussy, Poulenc & Brahms

Annelien Van Wauwe (clarinet, above) and Nino Gvetadze (piano, below)

Debussy Première rapsodie (1909-10)

Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962)

Schumann Arabeske in C major, Op 18 (1838-9)

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in E flat, Op 120 No 2 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 20 March, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The soft, languid tones of Annelien Van Wauwe’s clarinet were perfectly judged at the hushed start of Debussy’s Première rapsodie, the first piece in a nicely chosen set of music for clarinet and piano.

This piece is an elusive ten-minute train of thought, with two distinct ideas – the slow, sleepy opening paragraph (from 1:40 on the broadcast link) and another, spiky idea (around 3:42), begging for a jazz accompaniment. Gradually the two get closer together and the cumulative energy builds. Nino Gvetadze’s colourful piano accompaniment showed just how suitable the piece is for orchestra – which Debussy realised with a subsequent arrangement.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata is one of his last published works, written in homage to fellow composer Arthur Honegger. Central to its success is the yearning theme of the central Romanza (16:36), where Van Wauwe’s tone and phrasing was beautifully observed. The first movement (beginning at 11:24) could have been a bit more mischievous, perhaps, but the brisk and largely upbeat finale (21:22) certainly hit the spot.

Following this was a chance for Gvetadze to take centre stage in Schumann’s lilting Arabeske (25:40), where wife Clara explicitly asked him to avoid making musical references to her. I’m not convinced he kept that bargain, because the music is very affectionate, and Gvetadze portrayed that too.

We then heard Brahms’ last published chamber work, the last part of an Indian summer instigated by the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, whose quality of tone directly inspired four pieces from the composer. This included a pair of sonatas published in 1894 as Brahms’s Op.120. These are lovely autumnal works, and both performers shaded the E flat work, the more positive of the two, with appropriate care. More authority could perhaps have been given to the second movement (marked Allegro appassionato, from 43:26 on the broadcast) but the outer movements had plenty to admire. The first movement (from 35:09) was largely contented, while the last, a theme and variations (48:50), was more changeable in mood and brilliantly played here, Brahms’ inspiration as keen as ever.

A final thought – what will Brexit mean for the non-English contingent the BBC choose for their excellent New Generations scheme? One of many questions classical music and the arts will face in the coming months and years.

Further listening

Brahms’s last works for clarinet are collected in the playlist below. They are autumnal in nature but have some wonderful lyrical writing for the instrument.