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:

Wigmore Mondays: Roberta Invernizzi – Songs from the Early Italian Baroque

Roberta Invernizzi (soprano, above); Rodney Prada (viola da gamba), Craig Marchitelli (lute, baroque guitar), Franco Pavan (lute)

Caccini Dolcissimo sospiro (1601) (1:54-4:37), Dalla porta d’oriente (1614) (4:39-6:35)
Kapsberger Passacaglia (unknown) (6:45-10:38)
Monteverdi Ecco di dolci raggi (1623) (11:49-14:28), Disprezzata Regina from L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642-3) (14:29-19:25)
Bassani Toccata per B quadro (21:05-22:18)
Frescobaldi Canzone a basso solo (22:20-24:43)
Merula Folle è ben che si crede (1638) (24:58-27:40)
Rossi La bella più bella (27:53-30:42)
Kapsberger Toccata Arpeggiata (31:51-34:27)
D’India Intenerite voi, lagrime mie (1609) (34:56-, Cruda Amarilli (1609) (37:31-40:10)
Monteverdi Si dolce è’l tormento (1624) (41:22-43:33), Voglio di vita uscir (43:37-48:20)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19 November 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

If – like me – you know rather less about the music the Italian Baroque than you feel you would like to, this is a great place to start. In the course of a very nicely balanced concert of vocal and instrumental music, soprano Roberta Invernizzi showed off the extent of harmonic daring at work in the 17th century. She did so in a very unfussy way, her voice superbly controlled but also allowing herself plenty of room for expressive freedom, enhanced by gestures to the audience that spoke of nothing but pure involvement.

From left to right looking at the Wigmore Hall stage was the stylish trio in accompaniment – Rodney Prada, with the wonderful sound of his six-string viola da gamba (essentially an early cello), and then the lutenists Craig Marchitelli – a long time accompanist of Invernizzi – and Franco Pavan. They switched between lutes and baroque guitars.

The quartet began with the florid vocal display of Caccini‘s Dolcissimo sospiro (1:54 on the broadcast link), a wonderfully airy rendering, which gave way to the fluid dance of Dalla porta d’oriente (4:39). There followed a surprisingly introspective but harmonically rich Passacaglia from Girolamo Kapsberger (6:45), the lute and baroque guitar down in the lower regions but making an attractive, mellow sound in a superb account from Marchitelli and Pavan.

The flexibility of Invernizzi’s voice was immediately apparent at the start of Monteverdi’s madrigal Ecco di dolci raggi (11:49), a bright song with subtle pointing from the lute and guitar, the viola da gamba joining a little way in. A more dramatic text took hold at 12:55 to the open-stringed twang of the lute. Then at 14:29 we experienced a further dramatic turn, and a more obviously operatic setting for an aria from Monteverdi’s opera ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’, laden with dramatic tension, with both fret players transferring to theorbos (also a type of lute)

The Bassani Toccata (21:05) began with a lovely, throaty low melody on the viola da gamba, before the Frescobaldi Canzone arrived and took us through more dance-like sections, still in the lower range, and ending in the major key. Invenizzi returned for another beautifully uplifting song where purity of tone and well-judged vibrato mixed freely, Rossi’s La bella più bella a rapturous dance in her hands.

It is amazing how modern some very old music can sound sometimes (to use a huge generalisation!) but Kapsberger’s Toccata Arpeggiata (34:11- could almost be from a recent electronic musician, such is its inventiveness with harmony and texture within the lutes playing it. Although a display piece it also serves as an effective meditation, and the sounds of baroque guitar and lute were mesmerising in the hands of Marchitelli and Pavan.

Two madrigals from Sigismondo d’India followed (34:56), and there was suddenly a very serious tone to Invernizzi’s vocal. These two laments were deeply felt, and again deliberately strained against conventional harmonic resolution so that the tension was heightened throughout. The second, Cruda Amarilli (37:31) had the twang of the lute to accentuate its impact.

Finally we turned to Monteverdi and Si dolce è’l tormento (So sweet is the pain) (41:22), a song with higher notes of striking clarity. This was followed by the distinctive ‘hook’ applied to Voglio di vita uscir (I want to leave this life behind) (43:37), a song that despite its persuasive lilt had a dark side.

For a well-deserved encore, the four performers offered the Caccini song Amarilli mia bella (My Beautiful Amaryllis) (50:37-53:14), capping a performance that, as BBC Radio 3 presenter Andrew McGregor remarked, gave ‘a masterclass in ornamentation’.

Further listening

The music from this concert – most of it available in recordings by Invernizzi herself – can be heard on the playlist below:

Invernizzi has completed a number of discs of Italian song, of which two are below – Songs from Early Baroque Italy:

and Music for Harp and Soprano in early Baroque Rome:

Wigmore Mondays: Aleksey Semenenko & Inna Firsova – Grieg, Ysaÿe, Debussy, Tchaikovsky & Paganini

Aleksey Semenenko (violin), Inna Firsova (piano)

Grieg Violin Sonata no.3 in C minor Op.45 (1886-7) (1:40-23:34)
Ysaÿe Violin Sonata in D minor Op.27/3 ‘George Enescu’ (1923) (25:34-32:13)
Debussy La plus que lente (1910) (34:17-38:16)
Tchaikovsky Valse-scherzo in C major Op. 34 (1877) (38:55-45:06)
Paganini, arr.Kreisler La Campanella (1826) (46:30-54:16)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 5 November 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

There were fireworks at the Wigmore Hall rather earlier than planned on this particular November 5th. The reason for this was the inflammatory partnership of violinist Aleksey Semenenko and pianist Inna Firsova, whose high voltage program of Grieg, Ysaÿe, Tchaikovsky and Paganini really got the heart rates fluttering.

The duo began with one of Grieg’s finest chamber works, the Violin Sonata no.3. While his first two works in the violin sonata are dressed in relatively sunny clothing, this third one has a lot more grit and determination in the notes. This was evident right from the start (1:40 on the broadcast, marked Allegro molto ed appassionato), a memorable theme given authoritative treatment by Semenenko and Firsova. The music drew back for some more intimate thoughts, but soon, as the main theme gets developed, a deeply passionate dialogue between violin and piano played out.

The second movement, a Romance (10:13), began with a clear and delicate melody from Firsova, a beautifully poised response to the first movement. Soon however a more agitated section started (12:18), led by the violin, but soon the glassy, soft-hearted music returned. The third movement Allegro moderato (16:06) began with a melody that feels like a folk tune, especially with the rustic piano accompaniment, and we were back into the urgent mood of the first movement. At 18:53 a rich second theme could heard, played by Sememenko with a very full, gorgeous sound, if just occasionally over-reaching on his tuning.

The Ysaÿe Sonata is for solo violin, directly inspired by the music for violin of J.S. Bach – but with considerably more display factored in. It is third of a set of six he completed in a short space of time and published as Op.27 in 1923. That said, the Belgian composer still writes with a keen sense of form, and this compact sonata, dedicated to fellow violinist / composer George Enescu, packs a lot into its six and a half minutes. So too did Semenenko, whose dazzling virtuosity (from 25:34) added to a beautiful tone gave it the best possible platform. Some of his bowing was razor sharp, especially in the fast music, but the attack was always impressively clean.

Semenenko and Firsova followed these fireworks with a pair of waltzes. Debussy’s example (34:17), originally for solo piano, is a sugar-sweet but elusive piece of work, beautifully harmonized by Firsova in this version. Tchaikovsky’s (38:55) is another story, a swaggering dance piece that both performers relished, swaying in and out of time with the familiarity of seasoned partners. It was all instinctive and brilliantly done, with Semenenko’s bow acting like a pond skater over the strings at times! An earlier performance of this work from the pair can be seen below:

One of the ultimate violin showpieces is La Campanella, written by Paganini in 1826 as the third and final movement for his Violin Concerto no.2, but arranged here for violin and piano by Fritz Kreisler – like Paganini a virtuoso of incredibly high standing.

Gravity is surely defied in this version, right from the main theme (46:30) to a series of contrasting sections, each of eye-watering difficulty – try from 52:00 on the broadcast to get some incredible dexterity between plucking (pizzicato) and bowing.

Great credit should go to Irina Firsova, too, for her mastery of what is effectively an orchestral score compressed for piano. The lightness of touch meant this was never a heavy account, despite the number of notes, and Semenenko’s agility fair won the day.

A spectacular recital indeed, which I would urge you to hear from the start. The pair weren’t quite finished, though, and complemented their fireworks with a little sparkler, Tchaikovsky’s Valse sentimentale in F minor Op.51/6 (56:12-58:21)

Further listening

As a good companion to this playlist, Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova have recorded a disc of similar themes, taking a Grieg sonata and virtuoso showpieces from Tchaikovsky, Paganini and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, ending with an intense account of Schubert’s Fantasy in C major:

If that isn’t enough, and to whet the appetite for more French music for violin and piano from the Wigmore Hall in a couple of weeks’ time, here is another Semenenko and Firsova double act in music by Poulenc, Chausson, Debussy and Saint-Saëns:

Wigmore Mondays: Thibaut Garcia & Antoine Morinière – Bach Inspirations

Thibaut Garcia (guitar, above), Antoine Morinière (guitar)

Barrios La Catedral (1921) (1:38-8:39)
Tansman Inventions (Hommage à Bach) (1967) (9:47-20:23) , Pièce en forme de passacaille (1953) (20:57-26:14)
Bach arr. Garcia / Morinière Two-Part Inventions (c1720) (28:36-34:12) – nos. 7 (28:36), 8 (29:53),9 (31:10), & 10 (33:18)
Allemande from English Suite No.3 in G minor (before 1720) (34:49-38:02)
Bach. arr Garcia Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV1004 (1720) (40:06-53:36)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29 October 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

One of the most endearing aspects of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is its adaptability. It can be enjoyed on any instrument, a statement which rings true for only a few composers of his time. He did not write for the guitar directly, but in his lute writing and pieces for stringed instruments he often used melodies and figuration that transcribes effortlessly for the guitar. There is much to be found in this respect in the ‘easier’ keyboard pieces, several of which Thibaut Garcia and fellow guitarist Antoine Morinière played here.

This was a very well thought out program, picking up on composers for the guitar for whom J.S. Bach was a lasting influence. It began with Paraguayan composer Agustín Pío Barrios, a colourful composer whose music embraces the folk tunes of his country but is also in thrall to Bach. La Catedral, a three part homage, was beautifully played here (from 1:38 on the broadcast). In three sections, it set out a mood of affected nostalgia in the first, Preludio Saudade, before the Andante religioso (3:54) took on a processional mood. Finally Allegro Solemne (5:54) gained more momentum but was still carefully studied by Thibaut.

Polish composer Alexandre Tansman’s affectionate tribute of five brief Inventions began with a stately Passepied (9:47), moving on to an emotive Sarabande in the minor key (11:57), a Sicilienne with a nice lilt (14:17), a more lively Toccata (16:00), and then an introspective Aria (17:28). Capping this was a stand-alone Passacaille of impressive stature, given over an ever-present chord sequence.

The Bach inventions (28:36), transcribed into more ‘guitar friendly’ keys, worked well and became a very personal dialogue between two friends. It was as though one guitarist had taken the right hand part and the other the left hand, and were exchanging Bach’s ideas freely. It worked very nicely in the Wigmore acoustic, whether in the perky inventions (8 and 10) where the melodies passed seamlessly, or in the slower ones where the slightly different phrasing of each guitarist lent a nice personal touch.

The Allemande from the English Suite no.3 (34:49) was a graceful dance that became an intimate call and response, the parts originally written for both hands transferring nicely to the two guitars.

Arranging the Chaconne (40:06) for guitar is an impressive feat indeed – still more because Garcia managed to make it less about display (which many artists do) and more about emotional content. The single lines had a deep profundity, but when the virtuoso lines really did get going (from around 43:30) they were key to the overall impact as well as providing a dazzling technical display. Some of the weight of the piece is lost in transcription as far as sheer volume is concerned, but Garcia more than made up for this in a studied and brilliantly played account. There was a lovely transformation into the major key at 46:55, before returning to the sterner confines of the minor key again for the end.

Garcia’s brief encore (57:33-59:28) made excellent use of the harmonics. As you will hear on the broadcast in his amusing story, it is the Catalan folksong El testament de n’Amèlia (Amèlia’s Will), arranged by Miguel Llobet.

Further listening

You can track the repertoire used in this concert via the following Spotify playlist:

Meanwhile Thibaut Garcia’s new disc, Bach Inspirations, contains much of the music heard here, and is out now on Warner Classics:

Bach’s lute music transfers very well for guitar, as this album by the great guitarist Julian Bream demonstrates: