Online Concert: Alina Ibragimova & Cédric Tiberghien at Wigmore Hall – Schumann: Violin Sonatas 1 & 2

Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

Violin Sonata no.1 in A minor Op.105 (1851)
Violin Sonata no.2 in D minor Op.121 (1853)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 15 May 2023 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

It is only in relatively recent years that the violin sonatas of Robert Schumann have begun to get their proper dues. Schumann wrote three such works, sitting at the mature end of his output, and each is shot through with concentrated feeling.

The Violin Sonata no.1 was written in an unfortunate climate, Schumann admitting that it was reflecting a period when he was ‘very angry with certain people’. Certainly its beginning here, with Alina Ibragimova deep in concentration, had a furrowed brow and a darker mood. Yet it was not long in this performance when shafts of sunlight appeared, especially when the harmony moved into the major key. A period of intense reflection was followed by a drive to the finish, propelled by Cédric Tiberghien‘s flowing piano.

The second movement, effectively a slow movement and a scherzo combined, had an appreciably lighter mood with which to begin but cut to a more agitated frame of mind for the scherzo, its contours ideally negotiated by these two fine performers.

The relatively short sonata finished with a busy and determined third movement, digging in but also drawing back to reveal lighter colours and moods. Schumann’s dispute, it seems, was resolved.

The Violin Sonata no.2 is almost twice the length of its predecessor, and is perhaps beginning to reach the status its musical content deserves. To begin with it is an imposing proposition, and Ibragimova brought a granite-like surety to the double stopping, revealing hints of Bach in the responding recitative. In spite of the first movement’s substantial dimensions, it was consistently compelling in this performance, with passionate violin and flowing piano responding really well to each other and maintaining a really satisfying balance. The opening theme coarsed with drama but the broad phrases of the later theme became assertive and ultimately dominant.

The scherzo showed typically energetic Schumann figure, but remained anxious around the edges until its final acclamation. Meanwhile the third movement presented an opportunity for reflection in the plaintive but highly expressive pizzicato with which it began, both performers enjoying the hymn-like nature of the theme even in its loosely strummed form. Gradually the substance of the theme revealed itself, beautifully expressed in natural phrasing, especially in the second variation, with double stopping from the violin.

The finale pushed forward with great urgency, Ibragimova pushing the relentless theme forward while Tiberghien gave a substantial and weighty supporting voice. The two finished each other’s sentences as Schumann’s motifs passed between the instruments, before an emphatic and rapturous finish in the major key.

The musicians were not quite finished, treating us to a beautifully weighted account of Schumann’s song Abendlied as an encore.

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Online Concert: Tom Borrow @ Wigmore Hall – J.S. Bach, Franck & Rachmaninoff

Tom Borrow (piano)

J.S. Bach Italian Concerto in F major BWV971 (pub. 1735)
Franck Prélude, choral et fugue (1884)
Rachmaninoff Variations on a theme of Corelli Op.42 (1931)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 1 May 2023 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

This BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert featured the New Generation pianist Tom Borrow, making his debut at the Wigmore Hall with a very well-judged trio of works casting their eyes back to the past. The Israeli-born performer was notably comfortable in the environment, responding to the intimate atmosphere of the hall with compelling music-making.

Bach’s Italian Concerto was first, a work that is particularly successful on the piano. Borrow’s articulation in a crisp Allegro was very pleasing to the ear, his enjoyment of the counterpoint evident. The Andante was particularly beautiful, and completely unhurried – the pianist not afraid to give the right hand plenty of room to expand Bach’s melodies, the left hand hushed but responsive too. The bustling Presto had plenty of musical activity, the energetic profile maintained throughout but again the shapely melodic phrasing winning through.

Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue is the best known of his works for solo piano. Its form looks back to the organ works of Bach, inserting a ‘chorale’ section in between the more conventional pair of ‘prelude’ and ‘fugue’. Here the Prélude began softly, Borrow’s light touch bringing delicacy to the decorative arpeggios around the theme, while also bringing the parallels with Brahms into focus. The choral started softy but grew in stature, moving from darkness to bright light, Borrow crossing hands to play the theme with apparent ease. The flowing discourse here was notable, maybe not as loud as some pianists but finding the heart of Franck’s expression nonetheless. The fugue was stately but also mysterious to begin with, the pianist bringing forward its chromatic profile, but then taking full command of the intense exchanges and achieving a most impressive performance in the process. The closing peal of bells was brilliantly played.

Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a theme of Corelli completed the trio of retrospective works, this one another remarkably concentrated piece offering plenty of opportunity for virtuosity and interpretative skill. This was again taken up by Borrow, once again setting a reverent atmosphere with the slow exposition of the theme. The lilting second variation in triple time was persuasively delivered, while a commanding fifth variation and sweeping seventh carried all before them. This only heightened the mysterious eighth and ninth variations, lost in thought.

The dynamic contrasts of the twelfth variation were very well observed, then the anxious syncopations of the thirteenth. The following Intermezzo had the requisite elements of fantasy, followed by a yearning chorale for Variation 14. Borrow’s technical command was impressive throughout, notably in the twists and turns of Variation 16 and the jagged edges of the eighteenth variation onwards. The clarity here was notable, in spite of the volume – and the thunderous finish was complemented by a radiant coda.

Borrow’s encore choice was well-suited – a flowing account of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G# minor Op.32/12, with notes that twinkled in the upper right hand at the end.

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Online Concert: Nash Ensemble @ Wigmore Hall – Mozart & Fauré

Nash Ensemble [Alasdair Beatson (piano), Corey Cerovsek, Michael Gurevich (violins), Rachel Roberts (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello)]

Mozart Piano Concerto no.14 in E flat major K449 (1784)
Fauré Piano Quartet no.1 in C minor Op.15 (1876-9, rev. 1883)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 17 April 2023 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

Mozart and Fauré make a good concert match, and it was a nice touch by the Nash Ensemble to choose one of the piano concertos with which to start this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert

Although Mozart wrote two piano quartets, in 1785 and 1786, he was in the middle of a white-hot streak of creativity between where he wrote a dozen piano concertos in two years. This remarkable period of musical fluency began with the Piano Concerto no.14 in E flat major, which as it happens is highly suitable for the piano quartet combination of piano, violin, viola and cello. To this combination Mozart added one more violin, securing a highly successful domestic first performance in 1784.

The Nash Ensemble players clearly enjoyed this authentic showing. Alasdair Beatson took the solo role by balancing flair and sensitivity, while the strings ensured this attractive work was off to an airy start. That said, they weren’t afraid to dig in when the music turned towards the darker side, and the key of C minor, but E flat won out with its purely positive energy, especially when Mozart’s trill-like figure was introduced. Beatson’s cadenza was beautifully judged, virtuosic but lyrical too.

A softly rendered second movement brought through the piano’s florid figurations but also enjoyed the sweet, still motion of the strings. The Wigmore Hall seemed sunnier for the group’s approach, as it did in the bright and breezy third movement, with sparkling exchanges and a thoroughly enjoyable triple time section which the players clearly relished. This was a fine performance, fulfilling the first principles of chamber music.

Some of Fauré’s very best music can be found in his chamber works, a remarkably consistent body of work running through his career from the First Violin Sonata of 1876 to the String Quartet of 1924. The two piano quartets sit towards the top of this list, the first an outpouring of feeling in the wake of his broken engagement with Marianna Viardot.

The Nash Ensemble communicated this intensity from the passionate swell of the first melody, but there was resolve and determination too, even in Corey Cerovsek’s bittersweet violin solo during the flowing central section. This was where we felt the unique shafts of sunlight that Fauré throws into even the stormiest fast movements, and the harmonic sleight of hand that would be a standout feature of his music.

The second movement Scherzo showed off another of the composer’s traits, the ability to write light-hearted music with long phrases and unusual syncopations. The sleights of hand here were most enjoyable, with purity of tone from the strings and a dextrous piano part from Beatson.

Yet it was the slow movement that contained the emotional heart of the performance, Beatson listening attentively to the playing of his colleagues, Adrian Brendel‘s yearning cello phrase taken up in unison by the strings. Under the twinkling of Beatson’s right hand those strings spoke deeply and longingly.

Fauré had trouble with the finale, revising it after some less than positive feedback from his friends. This 1884 revision, however, turns its thoughts to the future with music of renewed resolve, another characteristically broad phrase looking outwards from the strings over typically tricky piano figures. Needless to say, the Nash Ensemble harnessed all these qualities, capping a memorable performance.

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Online concert – English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Elgar Festival 2022 – In The South

Elgar In The South (Alassio) Op.50 (1903-4)

English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Filmed at Worcester Cathedral, Saturday 4 June 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s concerts at last year’s Royal Jubilee Elgar Festival have already yielded several online performances of note, with In the South perhaps the finest yet in terms of vindicating a work that can all too easily fall victim to its seeming ‘indulgencies’.

The main issue is in setting a tempo flexible enough to accommodate this concert overture’s extended sonata design without it becoming episodic. At around 24 minutes, this unhurried take was mindful of Worcester Cathedral’s expansive acoustic and utilized it to the music’s advantage. The surging initial theme, its speculative transition and suave second theme duly emerged with a formal continuity – the underlying tension carried through to a development whose impulsiveness was maintained despite (even because of?) the intervening first episode.

Evoking the grandeur of ‘empires past’, this episode necessitates astute handling so that its implacability avoids bathos. Kenneth Woods judged it accordingly, and if his tempo for the second ‘canto populare’ episode felt just a little reticent, its expressive raptness (along with Carl Hill’s playing of its indelible viola melody) more than compensated. Nor was there any loss of continuity across the reprise of the opening themes, with Woods’ gradual building of momentum at the start of the coda ensuring an irresistible but never overbearing apotheosis.

Certainly, the response suggested anyone who may previously have harboured doubts about this piece was won over on this occasion. Further evidence of this orchestra and conductor’s empathy with this music as augers well for the First Symphony at this year’s Elgar Festival.

This concert could be accessed free until 4 April 2023 at the English Symphony Orchestra website, but remains available through ESO Digital by way of a subscription. Meanwhile click on the names for more on the English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods

Online Concert: Steven Isserlis and friends @ Wigmore Hall – Boccherini

Steven Isserlis (cello), Jonian Ilias Kadesha (violin), Irène Duval (violin), Eivind Ringstad (viola), Tim Posner (cello), Lucy Shaw (double bass), Maggie Cole (harpsichord)

String Quintet in D minor Op.13/4 (1772)
Cello Sonata no.2 in C minor (pub. 1772)
Cello Concerto no.7 in G major (pub. 1770)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 20 March 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

Steven Isserlis has been a passionate advocate of the music of Luigi Boccherini for a number of years. One of his very first recordings, made for Virgin Classics, brought together a selection of the prolific composer’s works for cello, two of which were heard in this Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert.

Boccherini was born in Italy in 1743, but made his name and much of his living in Spain, where he lived from 1768 until his death. A prodigious cellist, he joined the string quartet in the court of Don Luis in Madrid and wrote himself into the musical equation, making an unusually weighted quintet with two cellos, a combination that became his calling card with over 100 works. While Mozart would go on to write for a string quintet with two violas in the late 1780s, Boccherini achieved a very different balance. His works may be functional in origin but they show fresh invention, distinctive colours and generous melodic appeal. Unfortunately that appeal has not regularly transferred to the concert hall, at least not in the UK – but on this evidence, where Boccherini’s music brightened a spring lunchtime, they should be available on the NHS!

We heard the String Quintet in D minor Op.13/4 from 1772, from early in the Madrid vocation – but clearly Boccherini was already at home in the two-cello idiom. A rich D minor setting found Tim Posner’s cello initially leading with a sonorous tune, before a genial second section in F major assigned plenty of melodic interest to each of the five players. With a relatively congested texture there was nonetheless a beautiful combination of melodies, though the development clouded over in outlook a little.

The second movement Andante gave first violinist Jonian Ilias Kadesha greater prominence, the other four instruments accompanying at walking pace. Soon the texture thinned to three for an extended cello solo, Isserlis’ wonderful tone rising to a high trill with graceful elegance. Boccherini didn’t leave his second cellist out, either, with Posner also enjoying a rich solo rising to the heights. The finale was a quickly executed fugue, with plenty of counterpoint to enjoy and a distinctive sighing chromatic motif passed between the instruments.

Boccherini wrote frequently and fluently for his principal instrument, including many sonatas with harpsichord. Isserlis and Maggie Cole gave a stylish performance of the Sonata in C minor, a work they have enjoyed since recording it in 1988. The assertive beginning established the home key with a strong theme, leading to more lyrical and ornamented melodic content. Isserlis proved very secure in the upper register, especially with a rising motif towards the end of the first movement. A soulful Largo followed, increasing florid and with a lovely resolution at the end. The economical piece soon cut to a triple time third movement, mixing chirpy motifs with longer, flowing passages with chords from the cello.

It is thought Boccherini wrote 12 concertos, of which the Cello Concerto no.7 in G major is one of the most popular. For this performance the group took an authentic figuration, all seven players on stage with Isserlis in the centre, flanked by first violin (Irène Duval) and viola (Eivind Ringstad). They were his foils in the solo passages, Isserlis revelling in the cello’s free spirit while they enjoyed busy counterpoint of their own. The bright figurations had a spring in their step, like a march Isserlis showing impeccable high register intonation. A grand cadenza sealed the deal in the first movement, while the perky finale had violins bright as a button and both cellos in their high reaches. In between was a radiant Adagio, set in B flat major and featuring some particularly beautiful and longer-phrased, ornamented melodies. This was one of those pieces where music making was a pleasure, pure and simple, with music suited to the rustic outdoors.

Perhaps inevitably – as Isserlis joked to the audience – there was an encore in the form of a popular snippet. Boccherini’s Minuet, itself from a string quintet, is his best-known movement and is often played separately on the radio. This concert proved there is a whole lot more where that came from.

You can listen to recordings of the works in this program on the Spotify playlist below, including Isserlis’ own versions of the sonata and concerto:

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