BBC Proms: Dame Sarah Connolly & Joseph Middleton – English Songs

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, above), Joseph Middleton (piano, below)

Stanford A Soft Day Op.140/3 (from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster) (1913) (from 7:15 on the broadcast)
Parry Weep you no more, sad fountains (from English Lyrics Set 4) (1896) (9:58)
Vaughan Williams Love-Sight (from The House of Life) (1903) (12:18)
Gurney Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) (16:53)
Somervell A Shropshire Lad – ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1904) (20:19)
Bridge Come to me in my dreams (1906) (22:45)
Howells Goddess of Night (1920)
Bridge Journey’s End (1925) (28:19)
Britten A Sweet Lullaby (36:34); Somnus (40:31) (both 1947, world premieres)
Holst Journey’s End (1929) (42:50)
Britten A Charm of Lullabies Op.41 (1947) (45:09, 47:22, 49:08, 51:06, 52:48)
Lisa Illean Sleeplessness … Sails (2018, world premiere) (57:31)
Mark-Anthony Turnage Farewell (2016, world premiere)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 6 August 2018

You can listen this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood. Photo of Sarah Connolly (c) Jan Capinski

11 composers and four world premieres in an hour. Not a recipe for sleep and respite, you might think, but Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton constructed between them an enchanting tour of English song, ending up at some far-flung outposts.

For anyone new to the form this would have been the ideal introduction, especially as Dame Sarah was singing with wonderful clarity and diction. I hardly needed to glance at the texts, for her words and expressions, added to those of Middleton’s carefully and beautifully crafted piano parts, did the job perfectly. The structure of the recital was very satisfying too, with natural pauses at the end of a short group of songs for applause and the intake of breath – and, as the subject matter was sleep and dreams, it ensured nobody had fallen foul of the listening criteria in the hot conditions!

The two began in Ireland, presenting the beatific calm of Winifred LettsA Soft Day, as set by Stanford, with the ‘wind from the south’ that some of us in the hot Cadogan Hall would have been longing for! So too for the subject of Parry’s Weep you no more, sad fountains, with its flowing piano lines. This pair from the fathers of English song led to one of the ‘sons’ – Vaughan Williams, and a deeply felt Love-Sight from his song-cycle The House of Life – and Ivor Gurney, his moving Thou didst delight my eyes.

We moved on to Arthur Somervell, the brief but tenderly devastating Into my heart an air that kills (from A Shropshire Lad) and then Come to me in my dreams, an expressive, earlier example of Frank Bridge’s chromatic credentials. Bridge appeared later with the lovelorn Journey’s End, following Herbert Howells’ magical Goddess Of Night – where Connolly allowed the text plenty of room.

Britten’s interpretations of sleep and dreams range from the calm to the nightmarish, aspects that surfaced throughout his song-cycle A Charm of Lullabies, which was given with two extra songs intended for the cycle but left unused. Recently ‘repaired’ by Colin Matthews, A Sweet Lullaby and Somnus were receiving their world premieres and were interesting finds if not quite reaching the level of intensity in the cycle itself.

Britten starts his night with A Cradle Song, before Connolly’s Scots accent (she was born relatively close by in County Durham!) brought an extremely authentic voice to The Highland Balou. The fifth number, The Nurse’s Song, is structured like the Dirge from Britten’s earlier Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. It focused everyone in the hall on the vivid storytelling of Connolly’s voice, from which she moved through humour, intense scolding (scary, too!) and soft slumber. The music ranged wildly, Britten’s wandering piano writing recalling Shostakovich in A Cradle Song, while the clustered chords of the refrain in Sephestia’s Lullaby spoke vividly in a language Janáček would understand. Connolly’s characterisations were brilliant, the audience impatient to clap between numbers initially but held in rapt concentration at the end.

In between the Britten discoveries, Gustav Holst contributed a sparse but telling interpretation of Journey’s End, which Connolly again sang with deep expression, while Australian composer Lisa Illean gave us another world premiere, a farewell of her own in Sleeplessness … Sails. This was a very slow-moving piece where Connolly held admirable control, despite the music’s seeming reluctance to move on. Arguably more effective was Turnage’s Farewell, a profound statement which ended with the composer bounding on the platform, delighted at the interpretation. It would be lovely to hear more from him in song – and from this pair, too, who delivered a wonderful hour’s escapism to the land of nod!

You can hear Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s new recital disc Come To Me In My Dreams, which features much of the music heard in this concert, on the Spotify link below:

Wigmore Mondays: Elias + Navarra = Mendelssohn Octet

Elias String Quartet (above – Sara Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violins), Robin Ireland (viola), Marie Bitlloch (cello)); Navarra String Quartet (below – Magnus Johnston, Marije Johnston (violins), Rebecca Jones (viola), Brian O’Kane (cello)

Beamish String Quartet no.3, ‘Reed Stanzas’ (2011) (5:25-20:49) (Elias Quartet only)
Mendelssohn Octet in E flat major Op.20 (1825) (27:02-58:58)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 25 June 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

You would do well to find a really quiet spot before listening to this concert. That is because Sally Beamish’s String Quartet no.3, written for a first performance at the BBC Proms in 2011, begins with a distant offstage violin solo.

In her work Beamish is tapping heavily into the folksongs of the Hebrides, and the Elias Quartet second violinist Donald Grant, well versed in that literature, is an ideal player to begin the work (from 5:25), with all the inflections the style of writing brings. As the ensemble join nearly two minutes later Beamish’s harmonic workings become clearer, but the distinctive folk melody continues to pull the ear.

A set of ‘stanzas’ provide development and variations on the theme, with the one from 8:15 changing the mood considerably from wide open to closed in. From 11:25 violin and cello join in a duet, before the music breaks into a quicker and much more assertive section. Then after some pretty frenetic dialogue, the mood cuts once again towards that of the opening, moving back towards the original folk melody, which subsides to silence once again.

The performance here was an intense one, its colours and harmonies showing a clear debt to Britten, whose quartets Beamish was listening to at the time. Yet there is no fully blown pastiche here, with a distinctive style of quartet writing that stays very open and direct in its communication. It was great to see Sally Beamish in the audience.

The Elias Quartet were then doubled in number by the Navarra Quartet to play one of Mendelssohn’s many early chamber music masterpieces. The Octet is a real one-off, mastering a form few composers since have managed to achieve. It is all the more remarkable when you consider Mendelssohn completed the work at the age of just 16!

The piece begins with typically youthful Mendelssohn qualities of enthusiasm and vigour, but with a melody that immediately sticks in the head (from 27:02-41:02). The second theme (29:07) is a nice complement, serene and thoughtful. What really stands out is the fullness of texture when compared to the string quartet before, Mendelssohn beefing up the sound with the two cellos and violas at the lower end in particular. Yet he thinks nothing of changing the mood quite considerably in the course of the first movement, with a sudden vulnerability introduced around 35:50 that checks the positive thoughts around it – until a rush back to the original theme.

The second movement (from 41:30-48:18)) is a slow Andante, and it exploits the uncertainty briefly aired in the first with a darker outlook but also a romantic sense of longing. It too thinks nothing of moving to a faster section, quite a fraught exchange of ideas.

The third movement scherzo (48:39) is the most celebrated of the four movements, containing strong pointers towards Mendelssohn’s Shakespearian music, and especially the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This one too is fleet of foot, with silvery shadows darting around the texture all the way through to the end at 53:03. At this point we surged into the finale, a thrilling dialogue between the four different sections of instruments (two lots of violins, violas and cellos) before a sweep to the finish at 58:58.

This was an excellent, joyous performance from the two ensembles, even if just occasionally it had too firm a foot on the accelerator pedal, with some of the tuning in the first movement going slightly awry as the ensembles pushed further forwards.

Further listening

There are no recordings currently available of Reed Stanzas, though a natural progression for further listening is a disc containing Beamish’s first two string quartets:

If the Mendelssohn appeals, this version from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble combines the Octet with a much later work, the wonderful and underrated String Quintet no.2:

For more early Mendelssohn, you simply have to try the amazing Piano Quartets, written when the composer was just 14, and showing an uncommon mastery of writing dramatic music for the piano:

Wigmore Mondays: Trio Wanderer & Christophe Gaugué play Fauré & Haydn

Trio Wanderer (above – Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Vincent Coq (piano); Christophe Gaugué (viola)

Haydn Piano Trio in A flat major HXV:14 (1790) (1:47-20:05)
Fauré Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor Op.45 (1886) (23:34-54:44)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 11 June 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

The piano trio is a common means of expression in chamber music, but in the last few years its live profile has taken a hit, with the retirement of the legendary Beaux Arts and Florestan Trios.

Having achieved 25 years together as an ensemble, Trio Wanderer have a very important role to play in keeping this music visible (and audible!) to concertgoers, and at the Wigmore Hall they demonstrated why they are such a highly regarded act.

It is gratifying to note their most recent recording goes back to Haydn, and a choice selection of his Piano Trios. The composer – acknowledged godfather of the symphony and the string quartet – played a similarly important role in raising the profile of the Piano Trio. Initially his works viewed the violin and cello as accompanying forces rather than dominant melodic instruments, but by the end of his forty or so works in the genre he was showing signs of bucking that trend.

The Piano Trio in A flat major is numbered relatively early in the catalogue and dates from the composer’s second visit to London, where the pianist in its 1792 premiere was the fledgling composer Johann Nepomiuk Hummel. It is a highly appealing work, and here enjoyed a performance of sunny disposition from Trio Wanderer.

They were however alive to some of the work’s unexpected diversions, noting the surprise of the two-bar silence in the first movement (from 1:47 on the broadcast), and the uncertainty of its central section as the main theme underwent some quirky development.

The slow movement (9:40) took the form of an aria, with a sweet tone from violinist Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, and this led straight to an exuberant finale (14:44), with nimble passage work and cross rhythms from pianist Vincent Coq. This was one of Haydn’s forays into a ‘rare’ key – A flat major being difficult for strings to play in – but the Wanderer made it a highly enjoyable one.

The Fauré Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor was a tour de force. This is a wonderful piece, bursting with energy and passion but also taking time in its slower movements for deep, romantic thought. The stormy outer movements were contrasted by a slow movement that here vividly recalled the sleepy church bells of the village of Cadirac, on which Fauré’s writing is based.

The surging opening theme (from 23:34) set the tone, perfectly phrased, with the balance – often tricky to weight with such an active piano part – ideally set. Christophe Gaugué’s viola delivered a beautiful second theme (24:27), while the ensemble in unison found a rare moment of tenderness in this movement for the third (26:21). When the main tune returned (29:36) there was even more intent and power behind it, brilliantly conveyed.

The scherzo (33:50) was dazzling, Vincent Coq somehow phrasing a really tricky theme to perfection, with precise rhythmic accompaniment from the three strings. The slow movement (37:34) undulated softly, bringing visions of hazy fields in hot weather, before the reverie was abruptly shattered by the finale (46:57), back into the passionate groove, delivered with impressive intent by the ensemble. Tempo choices were assertive – just the right side of aggressive – and the final sweep towards the finish carried all before it!

Further listening

You can hear recordings of these works made by the Trio Wanderer for Harmonia Mundi. The Haydn has only just been released as part of a double album of some of the composer’s finest Piano Trios; the Fauré is recorded with Antoine Tamestit and dates from 2010.

Fauré has more wonderful chamber music up his sleeve, and if you enjoyed this performance of the Piano Quartet no.2 then the Piano Quintet no.1 is highly recommended as a next step:

Wigmore Mondays: Danny Driver plays Dreamscapes by Messiaen, Saariaho, Ligeti & Schumann

Danny Driver (piano, above – photo credit Richard Haughton)

Messiaen Prélude No 5 (Les sons impalpables du reve) (1928-9) (2:36-8:15 on the broadcast link below)

Saaraiaho Ballade (2005) (8:30-15:06)

Ligeti Étude No 6 (Automne à Varsovie) (1985) (15:29-20:37)

Schumann Kreisleriana Op.16 (1838) (23:17-59:32)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 March 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating program from Danny Driver on the theme of ‘Dreamscapes’, an hour away from reality in the company of composers intent on using the piano to express new harmonies and colours.

Few 20th century composers had a greater sense of colour than Olivier Messiaen, and the vivid shades of his Prélude No.5 began the recital. Titled Les sons impalpables du reve (The Impalpable Sounds of a Dream), it was described by its composer as ‘polymodal, consisting of a blue-orange mode with a chordal ostinato and cascades of chords, and a violet-purple mode having a copper timbre. Note the pianistic writing, composed of triple notes, rapid passages in chords, canon in contrary motion, hand crossing, various staccatos, brassy louré, gem effects’. All elements to enjoy in Driver’s richly textured performance, from 2:36 on the broadcast link above – with a questioning feel to some of the harmonic phrases.

Then a relative rarity, a piano work by Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer whose output until now has largely concentrated on the orchestra and works for the stage. This time the composer ‘wanted to write music with a melody that grows out of the texture before descending into it again; a work that constantly shifts from a complex, multi-layered texture to concentrated single lines and back again’. From 8:30 on the broadcast you will hear the Ballade under the assured control of Driver, in a performance of great intensity that plummets back to earth at the end.

For the third of this group Driver intriguingly chose Ligeti’s Étude no.6 (15:29) – with the immediately recognisable, rarefied sound world of the composer. The fingers of the right hand worked largely in octaves here, with richly layered music supporting the descending melodies – until absolutely everything descended at the end in Driver’s powerhouse performance.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana is a group of eight pieces inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantasy on the imaginary musician Johannes Kreisler. Each of the sections is in direct contrast to its neighbour, reflecting the character’s manic depression – with which Schumann may have felt an affinity given his own extremely variable state of mind. Certainly inspiration was at hand for this substantial work, which he completed in the space of just four days in 1838, before revisiting slightly in 1850.

Inevitably the muse of Clara Schumann, Robert’s soon-to-be-wife, is close at hand – and explains the outpouring of feeling in each of the works. The pieces vary between between dramatic, tempestuous fantasies such as the first, third and seventh numbers, and deeply personal thoughts expressed in beautiful surroundings, as in the second piece, the longest in the cycle by far.

Schumann sets up a tonal conflict, too – the fast pieces are in the minor key, and most rooted on G – nos. 3, 5, 7 & 8 fall into this category – while the slower, tender pieces (2, 4 & 6) are conceived around B flat major, G minor’s closest relative. The tension between the two, as well as an abundance of melodic material, lay at the heart of Danny Driver’s interpretation.

Driver clearly loves this music, and gave a passionate performance, enjoying the unbroken stream of inspiration in the first piece (23:17), then the repose and reflection in the second (26:14), the pianist allowing plenty of room for thought and contrast between the faster episodes in this much longer piece.

The third piece set up an excitable drama (36:36) with a commanding left hand, while the fourth responded once more with calm introspection (41:45). The fifth piece was detached in this performance, quite an edgy main idea (45:30) giving way to a more graceful centre. Appropriately the sun appeared during the sixth piece (49:18), giving a promise of the spring we are all hoping will arrive soon – and then Driver tore into the seventh piece with relish (53:32).

Any performance of Kreisleriana lives or dies by the last piece, a playful but rather haunting finale (55:56) that rises and falls like a bird on the wing. Driver caught its essence superbly here, with plenty of give and take in the tempo to give the melody its natural rise and fall. Schumann’s music is at its most exquisite here.

For an encore Driver turned full circle, bringing us back to Messiaen for another Prélude – his first, La colombe (The Dove) – a sign that birds would be his principal subject matter when writing music!

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below – which in the absence of a version from Driver includes Alfred Brendel’s recording of Kreisleriana:

Danny Driver’s discography includes a recent landmark recording of piano concertos by women composers for Hyperion, bringing the works of Dorothy Howell, Amy Beach and Cécile Chaminade:

YCAT at the Wigmore Hall: Savitri Grier & Richard Uttley play Poulenc, Messiaen & Beethoven

Savitri Grier (violin, above), Richard Uttley (piano, below – photo credit Cathy Pyle)

Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3)

Messiaen Theme and Variations (1932)

Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor Op.30/2 (1803)

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 6 March 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

I cannot recommend the YCAT Lunchtime Concert series at the Wigmore Hall highly enough. It gives us a chance to see the professional classical performers of tomorrow, and allows appreciation of just how much young talent there still is, waiting to be discovered. The YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust) scheme gives an incredibly valuable service to classical music, giving young artists selected through a rigorous audition process the security of career guidance, a dedicated artist manager and a concert platform including appearances such as this at the Wigmore Hall.

This particular recital brought a current member of the scheme, violinist Savitri Grier, and an ‘alumni’, pianist Richard Uttley, who is building an impressive portfolio headed by contemporary music. This well chosen program showed the two have an extremely sound musical chemistry, and also showed Grier to be a formidable violinist of full tone and strong personality.

She immediately took command of the Poulenc Violin Sonata, so much so that even at the back of the hall it was easy to appreciate the depth and breadth of her phrasing. On occasion the artists were even a touch too loud, but that could hardly be considered a massive problem, especially with the virtuosity and crisp ensemble on display in the outer movements. The slightly resentful Adagio slow movement, written in the midst of the Second World War, showed the pair at their most sensitive, reigning in the volume to give some softly voiced thoughts that were truly touching.

Messiaen’s Theme and Variations occupy a rather singular place in the composer’s output, but show what he was to become – and convinced a young Pierre Boulez when he heard them that he had to study with the composer. The theme itself is mysterious, and both performers enjoyed this and the already expansive harmonic language adopted by the composer. Gradually the variations grew in intensity, reaching an impressive apex.

Mozart and Beethoven were the two composers to advance the Violin Sonata into the 19th century, writing as they were for the violin and piano as equal instruments. If anything Beethoven’s C minor example, the second of his game changing Op.30 trio of works, makes greater demands on the piano – but it is arguably the most ambitious work of its time for the combination.

The second Beethoven ‘C minor’ work in consecutive days at the Wigmore Hall (see Monday’s Leon McCawley recital for more), it exploded into life through an incredibly energetic and virtuosic performance. Both Grier and Uttley took a punchy approach to the first movement’s trade-offs, their ensemble particularly secure, but as the work progressed there was also room for humour (in the third movement Scherzo) and a greater elegance (the second movement Adagio cantabile, sensitively played).

Beethoven’s gruff exterior won out though, and in the finale, where Uttley rose to the demands of some fiendish scales demanded by the composer, there was a great tête-à-tête between the two players, an engaging game of cat and mouse where both were ultimately crowned the winners.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below: