Wigmore Mondays – Apollon Musagète Quartet play Haydn & Arensky

Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski & Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in D major Op.64/5 Lark (1790)

Arensky String Quartet in A minor Op.35 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 3 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you want a piece of chamber music for a bright spring day, look no further than Haydn’s utterly charming Lark quartet. The fifth in a set of six written for Johann Tost, a violin player from Haydn’s court orchestra, the ‘Lark’ is bright and very breezy. The first violin takes on the role of the bird, soaring above the other three instruments in the first movement () and then enjoying the role of a vocal soloist in the second movement (10:55), essentially an aria.

In this performance the Apollon Musagète Quartet allowed Haydn’s melodies all the room they needed, except for the end of the first movement which became a bit too fast. In the third movement Minuet – a predecessor of Beethoven’s scherzo (16:14) they dug in a little more. For the last movement, a brilliantly played torrent of notes issued forth from Paweł Zalejski’s violin, rushing the whole way through as the other instruments battled manfully to keep up.

The sudden change of mood for Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 was palpable. Arensky was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and a close friend of Tchaikovsky, and although his music has never enjoyed the popularity of these two Russian heavyweights, at its best it has great appeal. Rimsky wrote him off as a composer, but this String Quartet is one of his finest works. A darker piece, it was originally written for violin, viola and two cellos, but in this performance the Apollon Musagete used the conventional quartet make-up.

The first movement was dark, its solemn intonations speaking of Russian liturgy rather than intimate chamber music, serving as a memorial for Tchaikovsky. The quartet captured its brooding thoughts (23:13) but allowed more light to seep into the outlook as the piece progressed.

The second movement (34:03), a set of variations on Tchaikovsky’s Legend, is often played separately in an arrangement for string orchestra, and the Apollon Musagète showed how these big, bold variations could easily be projected for the bigger form. They demonstrated great aptitude for the quick fire variations (36:23) and (close to 39:24) but showed the slow theme and its other slower, minor key counterparts plenty of time, especially in the final variation from 46:25. The music may have been downbeat on these occasions but still had the power to console.

The finale is a strange comparison of dark liturgical intonation (48:01) and a sudden burst of folk song (49:30), which eventually wins the day. When it did here at the Wigmore, the effect was thoroughly convincing and consolation had ultimately been found in this fine performance.

Further listening

In summing up Arensky’s best achievements as a composer the Wigmore Hall note omitted to mention his wonderful Piano Trio no.1, part of a Spotify playlist including piano music and the Quartet played here.

On record: Balam – Numbers (Balam / CD Baby)

Balam: Numbers (Balam / CD Baby)


Acoustic Alchemy keyboardist Fred White continues his side-project Balham with this disc of mainly solo piano pieces. Numbers confirms his creative versatility as well as a keyboard fluency second to none among those musicians currently active on the ‘smooth jazz’ circuit.

What’s the music like?

Less varied than its Balhm predecessor, on which White demonstrated his very real skills as a multi-instrumentalist across a sequence of tracks that featured brass and vocals.

Numbers instead focuses almost entirely on solo piano, over nine pieces whose numbered titles have deliberately been listed in a random sequence to encourage the listener to experience them in varying order.

Although the mood of these pieces is almost entirely muted and introspective, White evinces real command of touch so that timbre and texture never become monotonous. The exception to all of this is Four (track five on the disc), on which White’s piano has been supplemented by soprano saxophone (Jeff Kashiwa, no less), electric guitar, violin, cello and wordless vocals in music whose kaleidoscopic elements feel as enticing as they are hypnotic.

Does it all work?

Yes, in that this relative uniformity in no sense equals drabness. Certainly those who retain a liking for classic ambient piano albums such as the Brian Eno and Harold Budd collaboration Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror will respond to what is on offer here, and rest assured that White’s preference for keeping things austere is a world away from the prettified mood music of Einaudi and his ilk. A pity, even so, that the more questing approach as found on Four was not pursued more extensively: hopefully this might be the case on ‘Balam 3’?

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Fred White is a keyboardist of wide-ranging skill and subtlety, who can only be commended for pursuing his music to regions far removed from that of his regular band. Obtain the disc via his Facebook, Soundcloud or web-page entries and then enjoy the music!

Richard Whitehouse

For more information on Balam head to their Facebook page or Soundcloud. Meanwhile you can listen to Numbers on Spotify below:

Live: Convergence 2017 – Manuel Göttsching at the Barbican

Manuel Göttsching (above – guitars, electronics), Shags Chamberlain (keyboards, percussion), Oren Ambarchi (bass guitar, percussion, drums)

Barbican Hall, Thursday 23rd March, 2017

Göttsching E2-E4 (1984)

Ash Ra Tempel excerpts from Schwingungen and Seven Up (1972)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Now in its fourth year, Convergence is one of those inspirational festivals that bring together different art forms without laying down rules of boundary or art form. Because of that, artists who might not get ready exposure are brought to the fore – and hence gigs like this one can take place.

Manuel Göttsching originally released his E2-E4 album in 1984, but it surfaced in remastered form last year to great acclaim, making listeners of a certain age (your correspondent included!) misty-eyed and reverent about its influence on a generation of techno producers.

The music is relatively close to the Steve Reich school of thought in concept, that is it begins with a deceptively simple phrase that stays constant for an hour, but around it various musical events develop. By the end the root of the music remains but where there was once an airy synthesizer riff there is now a full bodied bass, primitive electronic drums and some dreamy guitar, all of which Göttsching took his time to introduce. Little wonder that this music became an inspiration for Balearic producers such as Sueno Latino.

At this concert in the Barbican Hall, Göttsching performed in an incredibly modest manner, sitting in front of a laptop as though he were answering e-mails for at least half an hour, before standing with his guitar to deliver the crowning layer. The reality of course was very different, the stage dimly but effectively lit so that the audience could sit more or less in the dark, enjoying the music as it unfolded. Tapping the feet and fingers was an instinctive reaction, for this music has a great deal of energy, like a written out DJ set. It became a meditation for the mind but also a joyous ritual, the bright chords retaining their appeal even after an hour.

After the interval Göttsching emerged with drummer Oren Ambarchi and keyboard player Shags Chamberlain for company. Ariel Pink had been promised but was indisposed – but this was not a problem, as the trio set out to play excerpts from albums Göttsching had been involved with in the early 1970s as Ash Ra Tempel. These may well have worked better in the first half, but were nonetheless really well observed and open ended – so much so the improvisations were still going on when I sadly had to depart at 11:10.

The driving rhythms spoke of the Krautrock movement that was to take hold later in the 1970s, while some of the spacious textures and feedback also anticipated shoegaze and My Bloody Valentine. And yet there was the spirit of exploration that also incorporated contemporary classical compositions, with elements of the quieter side of Xenakis and Boulez, while also incorporating rich, added note harmonies of the likes of Thelonious Monk. There was a firm pitch centre, a point of reference at all times save for the last number, which found all three players on the same vibraphone initially. The music was difficult to pin down stylistically – so best just to sit back and enjoy!

It was an inspiring evening, providing some welcome respite and inspiration in the light of the awful events elsewhere in London earlier in the day. Those hung over the gig to some extent, but there was a sense that everybody was grateful to have their minds diverted and altered.

Musically there may not have been a great amount of melody, but inspiration came through texture, harmony and primitive drive – especially when Ambarchi drove the rhythm track forward in the second half. Göttsching himself was in fine form, and it was great to have an opportunity to appreciate and praise his influence on musical movements that have followed. Forty years on, his is a voice that still stands out.

For more information on Convergence, head to the festival festival website


The Convergence 2017 playlist is below:

Wigmore Mondays – Annelien Van Wauwe & Nino Gvetadze play Debussy, Poulenc & Brahms

Annelien Van Wauwe (clarinet, above) and Nino Gvetadze (piano, below)

Debussy Première rapsodie (1909-10)

Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962)

Schumann Arabeske in C major, Op 18 (1838-9)

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in E flat, Op 120 No 2 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 20 March, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The soft, languid tones of Annelien Van Wauwe’s clarinet were perfectly judged at the hushed start of Debussy’s Première rapsodie, the first piece in a nicely chosen set of music for clarinet and piano.

This piece is an elusive ten-minute train of thought, with two distinct ideas – the slow, sleepy opening paragraph (from 1:40 on the broadcast link) and another, spiky idea (around 3:42), begging for a jazz accompaniment. Gradually the two get closer together and the cumulative energy builds. Nino Gvetadze’s colourful piano accompaniment showed just how suitable the piece is for orchestra – which Debussy realised with a subsequent arrangement.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata is one of his last published works, written in homage to fellow composer Arthur Honegger. Central to its success is the yearning theme of the central Romanza (16:36), where Van Wauwe’s tone and phrasing was beautifully observed. The first movement (beginning at 11:24) could have been a bit more mischievous, perhaps, but the brisk and largely upbeat finale (21:22) certainly hit the spot.

Following this was a chance for Gvetadze to take centre stage in Schumann’s lilting Arabeske (25:40), where wife Clara explicitly asked him to avoid making musical references to her. I’m not convinced he kept that bargain, because the music is very affectionate, and Gvetadze portrayed that too.

We then heard Brahms’ last published chamber work, the last part of an Indian summer instigated by the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, whose quality of tone directly inspired four pieces from the composer. This included a pair of sonatas published in 1894 as Brahms’s Op.120. These are lovely autumnal works, and both performers shaded the E flat work, the more positive of the two, with appropriate care. More authority could perhaps have been given to the second movement (marked Allegro appassionato, from 43:26 on the broadcast) but the outer movements had plenty to admire. The first movement (from 35:09) was largely contented, while the last, a theme and variations (48:50), was more changeable in mood and brilliantly played here, Brahms’ inspiration as keen as ever.

A final thought – what will Brexit mean for the non-English contingent the BBC choose for their excellent New Generations scheme? One of many questions classical music and the arts will face in the coming months and years.

Further listening

Brahms’s last works for clarinet are collected in the playlist below. They are autumnal in nature but have some wonderful lyrical writing for the instrument.

On record: Bing & Ruth – No Home Of The Mind (4AD)


Bing & Ruth is actually an ensemble of five, headed by the New York composer David Moore. They deal in largely ambient music, communicated in this instance through an intriguing mixture of two pianos, two upright basses and electronics.

No Home of the Mind is designed to be experienced as a single session of meditation. Its tracks link closely together and move from stillness to energetic movement.

What’s the music like?

While a lot of the music is designed for meditative listening, there are pockets of intense energy in Bing & Ruth’s music. Take the start of Starwood Choker, for example, which opens the album in a striking manner. As it begins the listener effectively jumps from a waterfall, the opening notes suddenly tumbling downhill, a torrent of music driven by the rippling piano but supported by drones from the basses. Then for As Much As Possible the momentum stills, pausing for thought, but with long, held notes remaining low in the background. The basses rumble low in the mix, with soft piano notes.

Soon it becomes clear the album is conceived as a single piece of music, and it runs for nearly an hour. Some of the chord progressions Moore has written have a heart stopping beauty, so while there is no melody as such, tracks like The How Of It Sped can become greatly moving with a single change of harmonic focus.

There is mystery and darkness around the edges, particularly in the deep swell of Is Drop, where the basses begin right in the depths, the music starting to collect more energy as it sweeps upwards. The tumbling piano form appears again on Form Takes Gentle before the ebb and flow returns us to a slow tempo with swirling textures at To All It. This moves seamlessly into Flat Line / Peak Color, which reaches towards the end in powerful harmonic progressions.

Does it all work?

No Home Of The Mind is a very effective and thoroughly immersive piece of music, and works really well on headphones. From first hand experience I can tell you it is especially good at taking the heat out of potentially stressful commuting situations!

Moore varies his textures subtly but effectively, so that the tumbling piano motif becomes a real thrill when it appears, while the response of relative calm is rather beautiful and almost timeless. The colours of the ensemble are beautifully rendered, the fuzzy textures enhancing the listener’s dream like state. The reds, greens and yellows of the cover are an accurate reflection of how Bing & Ruth cast a spell on their listeners.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Bing & Ruth make music that is almost completely weightless at times, but which becomes earthbound with the deep, resonant double basses. A real beauty on headphones to take the weight off your troubles!

Ben Hogwood

Listen on Spotify