Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

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

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert:

Wigmore Mondays – The Cardinall’s Musick / Andrew Carwood: The Gunpowder plot

The Cardinall’s Musick (above) / Andrew Carwood (below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 4 November 2019 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

The year is 2420. London’s concert hall in the City is celebrating its 200th anniversary with a concert of music devoted to Brexit. There are songs and instrumental pieces looking to recreate the chaos of the time.

Sound fanciful? Not entirely – especially when you cast an eye over this fascinating concert from the Cardinall’s Musick and Andrew Carwood, which was all about the attempt to end the reign of King James I by Guy Fawkes and his associates in 1605.

Carwood assembled an intriguing programme of music from well-known composers of the day – Gibbons, Byrd, Tomkins and Weelkes – and those not so well known in Thomas Greaves, John Hilton, Michael East and Richard Allison. The ensemble performed groups of sacred and secular music from the time by the composers, ranging from big eight-part masterpieces by Byrd and Gibbons to miniature odes to tobacco from Michael East.

There were some unexpectedly poignant moments as the concert progressed, and funny ones too, but the group began with one of the best-known anthems from the era in Orlando GibbonsO clap your hands (2:20). The interweaving parts were beautifully realised under Carwood’s clear direction.

The conductor (above) then gave the first of several informative and entertaining guides to both the historical period and the repertoire. Thomas Greaves’ five-part welcome song in honour of James, England receive the rightful king (9:55) led to Thomas Tomkins’ thoughtful O God, the proud are risen against me (11:59). Written in eight parts, this was a barely concealed railing against the leaders of the plot to overthrow the king and government, with some spicy dissonances clearly inflected by the sopranos.
John Hilton’s As there be three blue beans (15:39) was unexpectedly mischievous, a three-part round brilliantly sung by altos Patrick Craig and David Gould, and tenor Benjamin Durrant. It finished by marking the existence of three universities in England – Cambridge, Oxford and James.

Also in this group was William Byrd’s majestic The eagle’s force (17:44), which benefited from the clarity of the altos’ singing, and Michael East’s ode O metaphysical tobacco (20:07). King James I hated tobacco – and eventually had its ambassador Sir Walter Raleigh executed to appease Spain – but many in society loved this new discovery (as they do 415 years on!) There was no evidence of gravelly voices in this performance!

A piece of really impressive heft followed, Byrd’s anthem Deus venerunt gentes (24:03), described by Carwood as ‘symphonic’. A setting of Psalm 78, it is said to be the psalm martyrs would say on their approach to death, to receive forgiveness – and was used by the composer here as a lament for his fellow composer Thomas Campion. By nature it is a serious piece, and its stately progression was ideally paced by the group here, offering time for reflection during its 13 minutes. The lower registers of Byrd’s writing, especially around the 30:25 mark, were immaculately observed and set the downbeat mood, which followed the text impeccably.


King James I

The next selection of music looked at England in the aftermath of the Guy Fawkes plot. After another helpful introduction from Carwood we heard a prayer for the posterity of the king, Richard Allison’s O Lord bow down, a reverential number (39:37), followed by Thomas Tomkins’ request to the Lord for protection, The hills stand about Jerusalem (43:43), where the two sopranos and tenor dovetailed exquisitely. Following the same theme, Thomas Weelkes’ sobering O Lord God Almighty had explicit mentions for the royal family and their security (46:08), once again showing how little has changed in the preceding 400 years.

Finally another great Byrd piece in the shape of the eight-part wonder Ad Dominum cum tribularer (50:36), one with a stark message not just for the country post-gunpowder plot but for the world today: “I speak peace to them and they clamour for war”. A setting of Psalm 120, it is unsurprisingly a work of sombre beginnings, with a couple of spicy dissonances, but it grew in strength and conviction in this performance, which was ideally paced and realised.

Repertoire

The Cardinall’s Musick are the following singers, conducted by Andrew Carwood:

Laura Oldfield, Cecilia Osmond (sopranos), Patrick Craig, David Gould (altos), Benjamin Durrant, Nicholas Todd (tenors), Robert Evans, James Birchall (basses)

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

Gibbons O clap your hands (2:20)
Greaves England receive the rightful king (9:55)
Tomkins O God, the proud are risen against me (11:59)
Hilton As there be three blue beans (15:39)
Byrd The eagle’s force (17:44)
East O metaphysical tobacco (20:07)
Byrd Deus venerunt gentes (24:03)
Allison O Lord bow down (39:37)
Tomkins The hills stand about Jerusalem (43:43)
Weelkes O Lord God Almighty (46:08)
Byrd Ad Dominum cum tribularer (50:36)

Further listening

Unfortunately some of the music heard in this concert is not available on Spotify, but the below playlist contains the music that could be found in available versions:

The Cardinall’s Musick have made a number of highly acclaimed recordings of the music of William Byrd. Two are available to hear on Spotify, recorded in the 1990s for the ASV label and featuring the eight part works heard in the concert. They are the Cantiones Sacrae

…and the Propers for the Nativity

On a completely different tip is this playlist of music suitable for fireworks! It includes works by Stravinsky and Debussy, but begins with the perennial Handel favourite Music for the Royal Fireworks, conducted by the recently departed Raymond Leppard:

On record – Matthew Whiteside: Entangled

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Entangled is the second album release of Glasgow-based composer Matthew Whiteside. Taking its name from the centrepiece, Whiteside’s Quartet no.4, it is his follow-up to 2015’s Dichroic Light, and adds a further two new quartets.

Entangled itself was commissioned by the Institute of Physics in 2017 for string quartet, electronics and film, as a work dedicated to Whiteside’s great uncle, John Stewart Bell. It explores the proof of ‘quantum entanglement’, where particles are entangled in a ‘spooky’ way.

The substantial Quartet no.5 takes a predominantly slow outlook, while Quartet no.6, which begins the disc, could almost be said to exist without tempo.

What’s the music like?

Entangled is a pretty apt description for the music in this quartet, which is equal parts analogue and digital. The acoustic sounds are treated with studio trickery, the listener’s perspective on headphones cleverly manipulated as the sounds move between foreground and middle ground.

We travel through three movements, entitled Waves, Spooky Action and Spinning, all accurate descriptions for the music within, which contains jagged melodic gestures and writing that veers between fragmentation and long, sweeping notes. There is drama aplenty for Spooky Action in particular, more than appropriate for this time of year, while Spinning disorientates the listener with its sudden loss of a clear tonal base. The experience is quite unnerving all round.

Quartet no.5 also has three movements, none titled, and the structure is heavily weighted towards the first movement, which is almost twice the length of the other two combined. It features a pronounced cello tone buzzing like a fly, the other three instruments expanding out from this drone-like figure. Whiteside uses quarter tones that help bring consonant and dissonant harmonies in and out of phase. The second movement is lighter and more elusive, fading into the middle distance above a lightly plucked dance figure from the cello, while the finale employs a more explicit drone, adding overtones and micro adjustments to create music of tension and imminent peril.

Quartet no.6, which begins the disc, was the last work written and was in part inspired by wind chimes and a particular view Whiteside experienced in Tallinn. It is in effect a folk-inflected drone, played on multiple stops by the strings to make it sound rather like a squeezebox. It is very much a ‘less is more’ piece, setting a rarefied atmosphere and floating some way above the ground thanks to its almost complete lack of bass. A Celtic flavour can be discerned on its wings.

Sitting between the quartets are two bite-sized Responses of three minutes each. These are electroacoustic pieces that work as effective bridges. Response One is a time out from the string quartet texture doubling as an ambient repose, while Response Two is more explicitly connected to Quartet no.4, warping its output and conjuring some intriguing sounds.

Does it all work?

Entangled is an effective piece of work. Whiteside’s writing for quartet takes its lead in part from Bartók and can on occasion draw too much, but it also looks beyond the medium to electronic means, securing a contemporary sound that is strongly communicative.

The structure of the album is effective too, the Responses well placed. Emotionally the three works inhabit very different places, with Quartet no.6 the most immediate and Quartet no.4 the most directly challenging.

The Aurea Quartet give superb technical performances, and give no.6 in particular the ideal weight to help it float on the wind. The recording stresses the leaner textures of the strings, but this aids Whiteside’s music.

Is it recommended?

Yes. It is refreshing to encounter a composer making albums with new classical music in this way, for when used imaginatively the format still has much to give. Entangled also works when interpreted as different shades of brightness. I thought of no.6 as the bright light, no.4 as the dark and no.5 as a deep pastel shade, with a kind of chalky blue in the middle. Try it and see what you think!

Based on the Responses, it would also be interesting to hear more of Whiteside’s electronic work.

Listen

Read

You can read about the workings behind Matthew Whiteside’s Entangled on his website here. The commentary is as much about the mechanics – and occasional frustrations – of self-releasing an album, while giving insights into the creation and recording of the music behind.

Buy

Wigmore Mondays – Jean Guihen Queyras & Alexandre Tharaud play Debussy, Poulenc, Marais & Bach

Jean Guihen Queyras (cello, above), Alexandre Tharaud (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 28 October 2019 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Marco Borggreve

Who could possibly be better suited for this concert among today’s musicians than cellist Jean Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud? The long-established pairing constructed a hugely enjoyable programme of dance-based music for the combination, from two composers who were still writing for the viola da gamba to two writing for the modern cello but harking back to that older era.

The viola da gamba was on its way out when J.S. Bach and Marin Marais wrote their respective pieces for it. They did not know at the time, but it was about to lose its popularity to the cello, which – with one less string and eventually a spike for the player to hold it in – gradually took over.

Bach’s sonata, for viola da gamba and harpsichord, is equally rewarding when played by cello and piano as here, with great sensitivity and a lyrical line to the melodies from Queyras. The first movement Adagio (1:43 on the broadcast link) was beautifully weighted, as was the quicker but equally graceful Allegro (3:18). Both players found the deeper emotion of the Andante (7:06), Bach moving into the key of B minor for some aria-like soul searching. The final movement Allegro (11:03) was a delight, the benefit of an established musical partnership clear to see and with nicely judged ornamentation from Tharaud.

Marais wrote extensively for the lower end of the stringed instrument family, and his Pieces de viole contain music that is as challenging for the players as it is rewarding for the audience. This three-movement suite, arranged for the modern cello by Christian Döbereiner, contained a slower Prélude (16:53) and Sarabande grave (25:33) that Queyras and Tharaud played eloquently, the cellist finding wonderful clarity in his higher range. These shorter movements framed the main act, several variations on the popular tune La Folia titled Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), which, while apparently played without repeats, is where we had the real fireworks. There was terrific playing from both and a heightened sense of drama ran throughout.

Poulenc originally wrote his Suite Française for orchestra in 1935 as part of a ballet score, but it proved equally effective in a piano arrangement made later that year. This version for cello and piano was made in 1953, for performance by the composer with French cellist Pierre Fournier. Based on the music of 16th century composer Claude Gervaise, it is a charming suite of seven dance movements looking back some four hundred years, merging the musical language of that time with Poulenc’s perky writing and crunchy harmonies. It was brilliantly realised here.

The seven dance pieces are as follows: a lively Bransle de Bourgogne (30:13), a consoling Pavane (31:40), then a cheeky Petite marche militaire (34:00). The suite continues with an eerie Complainte, the cello in its highest register (35:17), then a largely reflective Bransle de Champagne (36:26), graceful Sicilienne (38:10) and ceremonial Carillon (39:29)

Debussy’s Cello Sonata (43:07) is one of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire, a late masterpiece with clear instructions that the pianist should ‘not fight the cello, but accompany it’. At its centre is a remarkable, forward looking second movement with an improvisatory air and extended episodes for pizzicato (plucked) cello.

This was a terrific performance, Tharaud starting off with a forthright opening statement but responding with great care to the nuances of Queyras and his beautifully shaded tone. The pair caught Debussy’s moods – his bold statements but also the furtive corners of the piece, which sometimes feels like it is hiding in the undergrowth on a hot summer evening.

Both elements were clear in the first movement, and also in the second (47:15), a Sérénade where Debussy’s fragments were all joined together. Queyras had the perfect range of pizzicato colours, but also the clarity of tone right at the top of the register. Tharaud complemented him with the ideal lack of sustain on the stumbling piano figurations and the weight of his responses.

All the while this music was headed for the quickfire finale (50:33), which in its short bursts of melody had charm, worry and glorious colour in equal measure, never quite letting go completely until the final bars and Queyras’ authoritative statement.

As a generous encore the pair complemented the Debussy with Rodion Shchedrin’s entertaining In the style of Albéniz (55:28), not dissimilar to the second movement of the Sonata in its evocative tones but more outrageous in its melodies and harmonies. Queyras and Tharaud set it up brilliantly to cap a memorable recital.

Repertoire

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

J.S. Bach Viola da gamba Sonata no.2 in D major BWV1028 (before 1741) (1:43)
Marais (1656-1728) Suite in D minor: Prelude (16:53), Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), Sarabande (25:33)
Poulenc Suite française (1935, arr. 1953) (30:13)
Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor (1915) (43:07)
Encore – Shchedrin In the style of Albéniz (1973)

Further listening

You can listen to the music heard in this concert on Spotify below, including Queyras and Tharaud in the works by Poulenc and Debussy:

Poulenc also wrote a Cello Sonata, which forms part of an album with works for cello and piano with works by Debussy, delivered by the Queyras and Tharaud pairing here:

As this concert illustrated, French composers were particularly skilled at taking inspiration from the Baroque and Classical periods of classical music (from c1650 to 1800). The playlist below enjoys some of the best examples, headed by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin but also including works by Fauré, Debussy and Poulenc:

Wigmore Mondays – Lawrence Power & Simon Crawford-Phillips: Le tombeau

Lawrence Power (viola, above), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 21 October 2019 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Lawrence Power) Giorgia Bertazzi

BBC Radio 3’s curious title for this concert was Adventures with a viola, despite Lawrence Power spending the last third of the concert playing the violin. Such is his talent on both instruments that the switch appeared to be effortless, part of an adventurous programme exploring the idea of paying musical homage.

To that effect, the first three pieces in the concert were linked. François Couperin’s expansive Prélude from the Première Suite pour viole (from 3:09 on the broadcast) exploited the lovely tone Power could get from the lower reaches of his viola, which helped accentuate the composer’s chromatic writing. A joint arrangement with Simon Crawford-Phillips of Ravel’s Menuet from the wonderful Le tombeau de Couperin followed (6:40), a fitfully effective version that was perhaps too fast in its execution, rather glossing over the cold central passage and the charm of the Menuet theme itself. The lack of repeats in this gorgeous piece of music accentuated the pair’s quick approach, despite a clever pairing of themes towards the end.

Australian composer Arthur Benjamin is not at all well known in these parts, but has an important role in musical history as a tutor of some repute. His own music can be overlooked because of that, and on this evidence unreasonably so – for Le tombeau de Ravel (10:58) was a pretty adventurous collection of a prelude, six waltzes and a coda, extremely well performed by the duo here. Having originally written it for clarinet and piano, Benjamin followed Brahms’s example by producing a viola and piano version, the instruments having a very similar range. The gruff start leads way to contrasting dances of affection and a quickfire number (17:00) requiring (and receiving) great virtuosity and dexterity from Power. There is charm in this music, too, as the next pizzicato waltz indicates, with tumbling figures from Crawford-Phillips, before a ghostly waltz with harmonics at 20:17 offers a starker picture. This is contrasted by a rousing finish.

We then heard a striking version for viola and piano of Three Berceuses from Thomas Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel. They are based on two of the duets from Beatriz and Eduardo, the opera’s doomed lovers, and an eerie cradle song. These brought a wide range of colour and virtuosity from Power, with Crawford-Phillips providing expertly judged punctuation. The first Berceuse movement (26:30) was down at heel, with wispy outlines from the viola, then the second (29:44) had more expansive phrases, ending with crushing left hand octaves from Crawford-Phillips. The ghostly ‘round’ of the third (34:04) had the most memorable melody, ending on a decidedly macabre note as a mother cradling a dead lamb rather than her son attempted to rock it to sleep. Power’s harmonics on the viola were cold indeed.

A second group of homages followed, Power switching to violin for the duration. It was piano alone for Stravinsky’s brief but poignant Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (39:56), setting the chorale theme from his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Crawford-Phillips managed the voicing of the parts beautifully. Tributes to Debussy followed from Erik Satie and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Power reading the poem Debussy before Crawford-Phillips played the Satie Élégie (41:59). We then moved to a much more substantial tribute to the Spanish poet in the form of Poulenc’s troubled Violin Sonata.

The work itself had a tricky germination, its composer rejecting a couple of versions while not settling for the completed work either, returning to it in 1949. It is a dramatic piece, paying homage to the poet Lorca in assertive music that spills over into aggression in the first movement (44:10). In the second, an Intermezzo (50:37), Power and Crawford-Phillips painted exquisite shades through the bittersweet musical language, while the finale (56:38) was powerfully wrought, even more so when apparently hitting a wall (59:58) and sinking into desolation. A commanding performance proved Power’s aptitude in switching between musical instruments.

Repertoire

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

François Couperin Prélude from Première Suite pour viole (1728) (3:09)
Ravel, arr. Power & Crawford-Phillips Menuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) (6:40)
Benjamin Le tombeau de Ravel (1958) (10:58)
Adès Three Berceuses from The Exterminating Angel (2018) (UK premiere) (26:30)
Stravinsky Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) (39:56)
Lorca Debussy (1921-24) & Satie Élégie from Quatre petits melodies (41:59)
Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3, rev. 1949) (44:10)

Further listening

You can listen to most of the music heard in this concert in the available versions on Spotify below, with the exception of the Adès, which has understandably not yet been recorded:

Meanwhile Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips can be heard in Arthur Benjamin’s Le tombeau de Ravel as part of this collection on Hyperion, where Power once again switches instruments for the composer’s violin works.

Poulenc‘s instrumental sonatas represent some of his very finest work, and this collection from the London Conchord Ensemble brings them all together: