In Concert – Steven Osborne plays Debussy Études @ Wigmore Hall

Steven Osborne (piano)

Debussy
Études Book 1 (1915)
Berceuse héroïque (1914)
Étude retrouvée (1915)
Études Book 2 (1915)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 6 December 2022 (BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo (c) Ben Ealovega

Steven Osborne is in a ‘Debussy phase’. The renowned pianist has recently released an album of Early and late piano pieces for Hyperion, and commendably this concert added a further string to his bow with a collection of late works, principally the two books of Études. These substantial collections represented the end of a year of compositional famine for Debussy, his creativity reignited for the piano and as he began his late trio of published sonatas. Blighted by illness, he nonetheless found the focus to write increasingly economical but outwardly expressive music.

Typically Debussy did not write these pieces as downtrodden exercises for the classroom. Instead, as a recent biography by Stephen Walsh point out, he wrote ‘tests of the pianist’s ability to climb technical mountains while engaging with the musical scenery’. Osborne certainly achieved both objectives in this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert. His technical control was well-nigh flawless but at times daring, pushing these pieces to the limit while remaining sensitive to the natural phrasing of the cells of melody with which Debussy works.

He executed each piece with a compelling characterisation, allowing us to admire Debussy’s craft and texture but also creating remarkable images in spite of the discipline required within each study. Each of the two books of Études contains six pieces, and Osborne began with Book 1 in its entirety. The restless Pour les ‘cinq doigts’ (d’après Monsieur Czerny) began, immediately showing off the pianist’s control and natural affinity with Debussy’s melodic writing. Ending with a flourish, he moved to a picturesque Pour les tierces, portraying in aural terms the equivalent of focussing in on a particular part of a fast flowing stream. Pour les quartes moves the musical language in an Eastern direction, moving between evocative scenes, while Osborne enjoyed linking the character episodes of Pour les sixtes with fearsome playing. Pour les octaves was notable for its clarity and power, while the final Pour les huit doigts hurried forward, changing shape continuously like the centre of a lava lamp.

Book 2 was similarly impressive. The right hand in Pour les degrés chromatiques was like a strong wind, with room retained for its recurring melody, while the open textures of Pour les agréments reminded us just how forward looking these pieces are, Osborne giving the music plenty of room for expression. The circus was memorably evoked in the chase sequences of Pour les notes répétées, before Pour les sonorités opposes became a compelling study in musical perspective, its happenings near and far giving an exquisite sense of distance. The rippling figures of Pour les arpèges composes contrasted with trippy, playful syncopations, before finally we heard contrasts between the assertive and the deeply mysterious in a fully voiced account of Pour les accords.

Between Books 1 and 2 of the Études, Osborne found time for two more late pieces, beginning with the curious Berceuse héroïque, where a solemn left-hand figure grew into an imposing presence, then following with the Étude retrouvée from a year later. Here the suggestive chromatic intervals were persuasive, complemented by a ticklish figure in the right hand.

Completing this memorable concert was an encore of the early Rêverie, written in 1890. By showing us how far the composer had advanced in his musical style, Osborne also illustrated the seeds that were there at the beginning, in a piece whose sustaining calm cast a spell on audience and pianist alike.

In Concert – Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev Piano Sonatas Part 2 @ Wigmore Hall

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Prokofiev
Piano Sonata no.5 in C major Op.28 (original version) (1923)
Piano Sonata no.8 in B flat major Op.84 (1939-44)
Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.1 (1909)
Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor Op.28 (1917)
Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1939-42)

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 1 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The second part of Olli Mustonen’s journey through Prokofiev’s nine completed piano sonatas featured crucial roles for piano tuner and page turner. On the first night Mustonen had experienced problems with the upper register of his Steinway, which fell out of tune under duress as the Piano Sonata no.6 progressed. Tonight one was at hand to ensure temperament was consistent throughout, while the page turner deserves a special mention for his busy supporting role in the whirlwind passages of the Piano Sonata no.7.

The real star, though, was the music – as Mustonen has always been at pains to point out. He is a humble artist whose preparation was clearly meticulous, but one with an extraordinary range of dynamics and the ability to think quickly on his feet / fingers. Here the composer in him comes to the surface, his thoughts on stage often highly instinctive while offering unique insights into Prokofiev’s music.

The order of the sonatas on the second night was as logical as the first – with two more substantial works before the interval and three short sonatas after, two of those presnting their arguments in single-movement form. The Piano Sonata no.5 in C major was first, a work whose initial tempo marking Allegro tranquillo was at odds with the music itself. Certainly Mustonen set about his task with a uniquely probing intensity for the right hand line, becoming increasingly agitated as the music progressed. The Fifth, the only sonata to be written outside Russia, has an unmistakeably French flavour, its Parisian origins found in languorous bass lines and harmonies aligning themselves with the Les Six school. The third movement presented an enchanted sound world, presenting impish qualities but evading any attempt to pin down a definite mood.

The Piano Sonata no.8 is the largest of the nine sonatas, capping the wartime trilogy completed in the early 1940s. Mustonen started in a dreamy mood, but soon the thoughts meandered and the music became increasingly distracted. The powerful middle section was capped by a remarkably strong outburst of feeling, passions near to the surface. The slow movement had warm lyricism and cold sorrow in almost equal measure, while the finale’s capricious theme gave way to music of raw power, with fiendishly quick passagework in the right hand and some incredibly intricate workings under the bonnet. The spectre of war lies close to the surface of this work, and its percussive clout in the faster music gives it impressive power, yet the more measured melodies made the lasting impressions.

It was fascinating to hear Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.1, his Op.1, after the interval. While not his first work in order of composition, this is a piece looking back to peaks of ardent Russian romanticism as well as Chopin and Liszt. The rich harmonies were however topped by signs of the mature Prokofiev to come in the occasionally jagged rhythmic profile and some spicy dissonances, all of which Mustonen conveyed in an incident-packed 7 minutes.

The Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor, also a single-movement work, looks sideways at the sonatas of Scriabin. An awful lot happens in the course of its eight minutes, from the profile of a virtuoso tarantella to an emphatic signing off. Along the way there are distinctive melodic snippets, crisply developed, with harmonic barbs and clipped comments. Later in the sequence some bell-like sequences ring out, projecting easily to the back of the hall. Mustonen’s affection for this music was clear, the sharp-witted themes and peppery harmonies brilliantly realised.

The Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major was the logical next step, Mustonen delivering the three works with barely a pause in between. The shortest of the wartime trilogy, the Seventh is the most explicitly virtuosic, its driving rhythms making it something of a crowd pleaser. Mustonen took its outer movements at a blistering pace, the right hand somehow phrasing the quirky opening melody of the first so that it still made sense, before rolling out the barrel as the music tripped along. The real heart of the performance lay in the Andante caloroso, this curious marking of the second movement asking for warmth from the performer in what was by far the slowest music of the night. There is a deeply yearning centre to this movement, and Mustonen’s soulful interpretation felt just right. The finale could not have been more different, a hair-raising drive to the finish where the insistent three-note motif in bass octaves threatened to go right through the floor. The right hand had a breathtaking speed of transition, somehow coping with the aggressively fast tempo to drive the music kicking and screaming over the line.

Mustonen received a well-deserved standing ovation for his Herculean efforts, his incredible stamina powered by Prokofiev’s unique and instantly recognisable writing for the piano, and his commitment obvious from first note to last. As if to remind us of Prokofiev’s innocent and simple lyricism, he then gave an excerpt from the Music for Children Op.65 as an encore, capping a remarkable two days of music.

On Record – Orion Weiss: Arc 1: Granados, Janáček & Scriabin (First Hand Records)

Granados Goyescas Op.11 (1911)
Janáček In the Mists (1912)
Scriabin Piano Sonata no.9 in F major Op.68, ‘Black Mass’ (1913)

Orion Weiss (piano)

First Hand Records FHR127 [74’51”]
Producer David Frost; Engineer Silas Brown
Recorded 22-24 May 2014 at SUNY Purchase Performing Arts Center, New York

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records issues the first instalment of another planned trilogy (see also The Future is Female with Sarah Cahill), the Arc series being a traversal by Orion Weiss across a century of piano music with intermittent forays into conceptually related pieces by earlier composers.

What’s the music like?

Focussing on music from before the First World War, this first volume is dominated (at least in terms of length) by Goyescas – the cycle of piano evocations in which Granados both paid homage to the illustrious Spanish artist, while extending the potential for large-scale formal design associated primarily with Liszt. That the composer subsequently transformed this into a one-act opera says much for the original’s motivic interconnections, such as Weiss further emphasizes throughout an interpretation in which characterization and cohesion are as one.

The listener is guided from teasing melodic interplay in Flattery, via the (mostly) confiding intimacy of Conversation at the Window then encroaching fear of separation in Fandango by Candlelight and its pained experiencing in Laments, or The Maiden and the Nightingale. A tragic climax arrives in the ballade Love and Death; after which, Serenade of the Ghost offers an ironic epilogue. Weiss renders this methodical yet visceral sequence with no mean insight, drawing out that pathos seldom far beneath the surface of Granados’s mature music.

If the Spanish composer was realizing his vision despite – or even because of – his success as composer and performer, In the Mists finds Janáček combating those vicissitudes of personal and professional failure. Hence the tonally and expressively oblique nature of its initial three sections, such as Weiss articulates with notable emphasis on their volatile mood-swings and frequent welling-up of emotion. All of this is duly thrown into relief by the final Presto with its gradual yet, as here, inexorable tendency towards ultimate fragmentation and dissolution.

Much has been written over the past century about those occult and even satanic connotations of Scriabin’s Ninth Sonata, whose Black Mass subtitle was only added after the event and at the prompting of another. Once again, it is the harnessing of such fluid and increasingly violent expression to a formal follow-through as precise as it is fastidious which gives this music its uniqueness. Weiss ensures an audibly cumulative build-up that, in the closing stages, achieves a claustrophobic intensity which could be considered liberating or annihilating as one prefers.

Does it all work?

Yes. Although it is not hard to locate alternative recordings for each of these pieces of at least comparable value, their juxtaposition within this context makes for a programme absorbing in its overt contrasts yet satisfying in its overall cohesion. Whether or not Weiss has performed this in recital, the trajectory towards an even greater self-absorption and inward intensity feels as inescapable as the presentiments of world conflict which lie behind much of what is heard here. Future volumes will doubtless offer a changing perspective and maybe a ‘way forward’.

Is it recommended?

It is. The sound has a lucidity and detail ideal for piano music from this period, with Weiss’s annotations succinct but also pertinent to his interpretations. This series is a notable addition to his extensive discography, further information about which can be accessed at his website.

Listen

For further information on this release, head to the First Hand Records website, and for more information on Orion Weiss, head to his website

On Record – Sarah Cahill: The Future is Female, Vol.1: ‘In Nature’

Beglarian Fireside (2001)
Bon Keyboard Sonata in B minor, Op.2/5 (1757)
Carreño Un rêve en mer (1868)
Dillon Birds at Dawn, Op. 20 No. 2 (1917)
Gribbin Unseen (2017)
Jambor Piano Sonata ‘To the Victims of Auschwitz’ (1949)
Kaprálová Dubnová preludia, Op.13/1 & 3 (1937)
Kashperova Au sein de la nature – no.3: Le Murmure des blés (1910)
Mendelssohn-Hensel Lieder Op.8/1 & 3 (1846)
Watkins Summer Days (2020)

Sarah Cahill [piano, voice (‘Fireside’)]

First Hand Records FHR131 [71’32”]
Producer/Engineer Matt Carr
Recorded 15-28 August 2021 at St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere, California

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records has issued the first instalment in a planned trilogy devoted to piano works by female composers ranging across the past three centuries, played by Sarah Cahill who has made both the reviving and commissioning of this music a mainstay of her performing career.

What’s the music like?

As Cahill relates in an introductory video (below), The Future is Female is a project to record music by women composers from the Baroque era through to the present-day. Loosely based around the theme of nature, this first volume opens with music from the cusp of the Classical era: Anna Bon, Venetian-born and Prussian-educated, whose primary keyboard work is Six Sonatas published as her Op. 2 – the fifth comprising three relatively substantial movements which finds influences from C.P.E. Bach being put to productive use.

The music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel has now started to come into its own, her extensive output for piano well represented by two from a set of Vier Lieder published as her Op. 8 and akin to the Songs without Words of her brother Felix in their respectively limpid and poetic moods. Exerting considerable influence as pianist and administrator, the Caracas-born Teresa Carreño wrote little in later life, making this teenage Étude-méditation the more striking for its suffused intensity. Equally highly regarded as a pianist, Leokadiya Kashperova brings an impressionist deftness to this movement from her piano suite In the Midst of Nature, whereas Fannie Charles Dillon yields an even lighter touch through an extract from Eight Descriptive Pieces with its pioneering though always subtle approach on the notation of various birdsong.

Long remembered through her association with Martinů, the short-lived Vitĕzslava Kaprálová was an able composer whose piano output includes April Preludes – elusive miniatures which pivot around without ever losing a sense of tonality. The sure highlight is the Piano Sonata by Agi Jambour, its recollection of Budapest during the Nazi occupation inspiring a piece whose three movements take in fraught passion, an Epitaph of sombre poise, then a finale of stark resolve. Of the three living composers, Eve Beglarian features the recitation of a poem by the teenage Ruth Crawford-Seeger within the context of an improvisatory piano backdrop. Deidre Gribbin pens a forceful study of London at a time of social and cultural upheaval, then Mary D. Watkins’s capricious evocation of children at play ends the recital on a more hopeful note.

Does it all work?

Yes. Although not all these pieces are of comparable value, the chronological approach such as Cahill favours makes sense in terms of a stylistic evolution in writing for piano; a parallel (rather than alternative) trajectory through 250 years of Western art music. There can be few reservations concerning either the sound, as good as it gets in terms of clarity and perspective, or the pianist’s detailed and informative annotations. At least half of this selection should be featured in the repertoire of pianists, male or female, which says much as to its overall worth.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The second volume is imminent with the third in preparation, making for a series as inclusive as it is wide-ranging. Cahill has already amassed a significant discography – further information can be found at her website, which also gives details of her forthcoming recitals.

Listen

For further information on this release, head to the First Hand Records website, and for more information on Sarah Cahill, click here. For more information on the composers, click on the names of Leokadiya Kashperova, Vitĕzslava Kaprálová, Agi Jambor, Eve Beglarian, Deidre Gribbin and Mary D. Watkins

Leif Ove Andsnes records Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures

Leif Ove Andsnes – picture (c) Gregor Hohenber

by Ben Hogwood

We all love a bit of Dvořák, don’t we?

That might be a bit of a sweeping statement – and don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him! – but the 19th-century Czech composer is much loved and admired for his winning way with a melody. His symphonies, concertos, chamber music and increasingly the vocal works are all part of the main body of classical repertoire.

Yet a part of Dvořák’s work is consistently overlooked, and that is his substantial body of piano music, that is hardly ever played. Leif Ove Andsnes, in a new album for Sony Classical, is looking to put that right. This is Dvořák’s Spring Song, taken from the 13-part cycle Poetic Tone Pictures, published in 1889:

The Poetic Tone Pictures are, as Leif explains briefly here, a ‘cycle of many stories’:

Happily we will be discovering much more of this music in the next month, from Leif himself. Stay tuned!