Wigmore Mondays: Aleksandar Madžar plays Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata

Aleksander Madžar (piano, above)

Beethoven Piano Sonata no.29 in B flat major Op.106 Hammerklavier (1817-18) (2:35-48:14 on the broadcast link)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 February 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

Is there a more complete work for piano than Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata? Few pieces are bigger in scope, and yet at the same time few speak as intimately as this piece does, especially in the slow movement.

It therefore takes a special performance to communicate the strengths of the piece in full to an audience, but Aleksander Madžar went some way to doing that at the Wigmore Hall.

The name Hammerklavier comes from the German word, specifying the piece should be played on the more modern fortepiano and not the harpsichord. It also phonetically describes the opening phrase in the first movement (from 2:35-14:14 on the broadcast, marked Allegro) where it really feels like the piano is being used as a forceful rhythm instrument rather than for its melodic beauty. Madžar took a much more relaxed view of the opening statement, communicating the onset of the drama but bringing it in much more gradually. He did at times have a shrill ring to the top of his range, especially when the right hands were playing in octaves.

That said, it was clear how he wanted this performance to go, and the structure of the movement made sense under his hands, with the repeat of the first part of the first movement (the exposition) included.

The second movement Scherzo (14:15) had a considerable breadth of colour, and subtly pointed out Beethoven’s harmonic deviations, not least in the ‘trio’ passage where Beethoven briefly visits the minor key (15:18). Here the sound was uncommonly hollow, and try as I might I could not dismiss the notion of empty bottles or bones rattling in a cage. Very macabre!

The slow movement (from 18:05, marked Adagio sostenuto) surely holds the key to a successful performance of the Hammerklavier. It is one of those moments in late Beethoven where time seems immaterial, where each phrase has a great meaning and where the right hand, although slow, is purely melodic. It anticipates music that has been written more than a century since – Mahler and Schoenberg, to name just two – but is still recognisably of Beethoven’s time. We were hanging on each of Madžar’s notes here, as he slowly traversed each section to set himself up for the mighty fugue. The unhurried phrases unfurled with natural ease, and the thoughtfulness and deep seated feeling could be sensed just from watching his movements.

The last movement Introduzione (35:32) began with a strong sense of anticipation, leading up to the big fugue (38:14). This took a little while to straighten itself out – to be fair it must be an incredibly difficult switch in the mind to go from a period of such stillness to rapid movement – but once Madžar had settled on a tempo it gathered considerable momentum. The end, when it came, was fulsome and thrilling.

An encore in this context was risky but the choice was ideal – the Allemande from Bach’s Partita no.1 in B flat major (from 49:30-53:02). Carefully chosen in the same key, it shows to some extent the Hammerklavier’s past.

Further listening

You can listen to the music in this concert in a powerhouse of a recording from Emil Gilels, paired below with what is commonly regarded as the first of Beethoven’s ‘late’ sonatas, the A major work published as Op.101.

On screen: Barbara Hannigan, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Berg: Wozzeck Fragments; Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre (LSO Live)

Webern Six Pieces op.6 (1909/28)
Berg Three Fragments from Wozzeck, op. 7 (1923)
Ligeti arr. Howarth Mysteries of the Macabre (1992)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (1913)

Barbara Hannigan (soprano – Berg & Ligeti), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO3028 [84’58’’] One DVD and one Blu-ray disc

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from its all-French programme (LSO3038), LSO Live here releases a further concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle on DVD and Blu-ray – once again a co-production with the digital channel Mezzo and in association with ARTE France.

What’s the music like?

Rattle has long been an advocate of Webern’s Six Pieces and made a fine recording of it in his Birmingham days. This LSO account is notable for its scrupulous attention to dynamics and tonal shading, even if such fastidiousness minimizes any real spontaneity in this elusive music. A case in point is the rather effortful climax to the explosive second piece, while the ‘funeral march’ fourth lacks underlying momentum on the way to its powerful though hardly unnerving culmination. Elsewhere, this music’s subdued introspection is tellingly conveyed.

The Three Fragments which Berg drew from Wozzeck follows on naturally. Focussing on the character of Marie enabled the composer to bring together three of this opera’s highlights for concert use, and Barbara Hannigan brings a probing characterization to the lullaby from Act One then the bible-reading scene from Act Three. She captures the naivety of the child at the close of the third fragment, before which the LSO comes into its own in a powerful while not unduly vehement interlude prior to the final scene – Rattle steering them through unerringly.

Hannigan returns in rather different guise for Mysteries of the Macabre that Elgar Howarth arranged from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. This present-day staple of the coloratura repertoire lends itself to all manner of parody and if Hannigan’s juvenile delinquent might be felt inappropriate for a chief of secret police, her vocal contribution is uninhibited in its virtuosity. Rattle and his orchestra enter-into the music’s anarchic accordingly, the former’s joke at the expense of Nigel Farage seeming all too ironic in the light of subsequent events.

Rattle’s association with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring goes back to the outset of his career and hearing this account is a reminder of his prowess in music the LSO has itself played many times. Yet for all the consummate technical skill, there is a nagging sense of conductor and orchestra going through the motions to ultimately predictable effect (indeed, the performance from Peter Eötvös with the LSO later that season generated much more genuine excitement and sense of purpose). Easy to admire, there is little here to make one assess this work afresh.

Does it all work?

Absolutely in terms of a programme both cohesive and provocative. Things are more mixed in term of performances – with those of the Berg and (musically at least) the Ligeti as good as one is ever likely to hear, that of the Webern just a little too micro-managed overall and the Stravinsky a reminder that superb playing and expert conducting do not necessarily make for a gripping interpretation.

As an indication of Rattle’s association with the orchestra of which he subsequently became Music Director, there is much here that is enjoyable and engrossing

Is it recommended?

Yes, in terms of a concert to which one might wish to return on repeated occasions. Sound and vision leave little to be desired in either format, though post-production means that there is little sense of the orchestra performing in a tangible acoustic – Barbican Hall or otherwise.

For more information on this release, visit the LSO Live website

On record: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Sir Michael Tippett: Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 (Hyperion)

Tippett Symphonies nos. 1 & 2 BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Symphony no.1 (1944-5)
Symphony no.2 (1956-7)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A new recording of Michael Tippett’s symphonies, following on from those by Colin DavisGeorg Solti (Decca, 1968-81) and Richard Hickox (Chandos, 1992-4) was sorely needed, and with his prowess in British music Martyn Brabbins would seem well placed to provide it.

Having begun his cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies, Brabbins now embarks on those of Tippett, whose reputation seems to be on the ascent given the inevitable decline after his death in 1998. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra may not have had a close association with this music, though the fact each of these recordings was preceded by a live performance at least ensure what is heard here are those interpretations intended by Brabbins rather than merely a run-through that comprises studio takes methodically assembled in post-production.

What’s the music like?

In the First Symphony, informed by the tragedies of war and personal loss, Brabbins handles the initial Allegro’s bracing polyphonic discourse with assurance – less unyielding than Colin Davis if not quite evincing the forward resolve of Richard Hickox. The exposition’s motivic elements are precisely individuated then vividly contrasted in the development, though there could have been greater intensity during the reprise before it reaches stasis in the coda. The Adagio is the highlight here, a passacaglia afforded focus by the expressive contrasts of its variations and cohesion by their near-symmetrical trajectory. Slower then either of his rivals, Brabbins secures greater momentum so that the sombre augmentation of the theme caps this sombre movement overall. The scherzo’s outer sections have the right rhythmic buoyancy, even if its songful trio is a little reticent, and while the twin subjects of the finale’s double-fugue are well delineated, the transition into the reprise lacks impetus; the climactic ‘stretto’ less potent than its disintegration in the coda, though this is likely what Tippett intended.

This remains a frequently impressive account, with that of the more wide-ranging Second Symphony only marginally less so. Its opening Allegro is the finest on disc – more flexible than Davis and less stolid than Hickox, while generating kinetic energy in the development and truly Beethovenian coda. If the Adagio feels less convincing, this is not through lack of insight on Brabbins’s part or finesse on that of the BBCSSO but rather a sense that the ideas in its mosaic-like construction are being juxtaposed without admitting that greater eloquence Hickox finds at a slower tempo and Tippett himself (NMC) conveys to rapturous effect. The scherzo is disappointing as, for all the wealth of detail uncovered, the underlying tempo is too staid for momentum to accrue so the climax feels less Dionysian than merely incisive. Some might also consider the finale too steady, yet Brabbins succeeds more than those before him in knitting the four parts of this fantasia-like sequence into an organic process of continuous variation through to a coda as brings the work forcefully but never overbearingly full-circle.

Does it all work?

Most of the time. As recorded in Glasgow’s City Halls, the orchestral sound has clarity and lustre well in advance of those earlier readings, even if the acerbities of Tippett’s scoring can seem a little too well-blended (the balance of trumpets in the outer movements of the Second Symphony being a case in point), hence a relatively high playback level is preferable. Oliver Soden’s annotations are informed and informative, though not free of occasional tautologies or affectations that one hopes will not feature in his forthcoming biography of the composer.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Whatever their difficulties in execution, the intrinsic musical qualities of Tippett’s symphonies cannot be doubted and this first instalment augurs well for the rest of the cycle. Nos. 3 and 4, as well as the early Symphony in B flat, are due from Hyperion later this year.

You can read more about this release on the Hyperion website, while for more on Sir Michael Tippett, visit the Tippett foundation. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra can be found here, while more on Martyn Brabbins can be found here

On record: Buffalo PO / Falletta – Kodály: Orchestral Works (Naxos)

Kodály Orchestral Works Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra / JoAnn Falletta

Dances of Galánta (1933)
Concerto for Orchestra (1939-40)
Variations on a Hungarian Folksong, ‘The Peacock’ (1938-39)
Dances of Marosszek (1930)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

An exploration of the Hungarian composer’s colourful orchestral works from the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and JoAnn Falletta, this disc includes established favourites (the Dances of Galánta and Peacock Variations), the underrated Dances of Marosszek and a relative rarity in the Concerto for Orchestra, completed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1940.

What’s the music like?

Richly scored and full to bursting with good tunes. The Dances of Galánta, the composer’s home for seven years in his youth, are a brilliant curtain raiser. As Edward Yadzinski says in the booklet note they are ‘a travelogue of gipsy spirit’. The tunes are rich with melodic ornaments and move between quick, energetic dances and slow, seductive ones.

The Dances of Marosszek (a region of northern Romania) should be better known. Originally written for piano, they begin with a surging theme in the cellos that casts a spell on the piece, heavy on allure but with some lovely softer contrasts.

The Peacock Variations are great fun, Kodály taking a legendary folk song and casting it in different speeds, harmonies and instrumentation to demonstrate its versatility. At times he reduces the orchestration, and brings solo instruments to the fore – notably in Variation XI, where cor anglais and woodwind are set against soft strings.

The Concerto for Orchestra is much more than a virtuoso showpiece, bringing in different sections of the orchestra into the Hungarian folk world. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra may be better known and more adventurous in its approach, but this is a fascinating alternative.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is extremely well performed, and the Buffalo string and winds are full of the flavour, if understandably not always getting to the heart of the folksy melodies. An interpretation from a ‘home’ orchestra almost always brings a higher level of authenticity when folk melodies are to the fore, but the Buffalo do still revel in the colour and tuneful abandon of these scores.

Is it recommended?

Yes. These may not be outright recommendations for each piece, perhaps, but they offer alternatives that show how well Kodály wrote for orchestra and how, in the Concerto for Orchestra, he could turn a potentially dutiful work commission into 20 minutes of fun.

You can head to the Naxos website for a podcast from conductor JoAnn Falletta on Kodály’s orchestral works ear this disc on Spotify here:

On record: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins – Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony (Hyperion)

Elizabeth Watts, Mary Bevan (sopranos), Kitty Whatley (mezzo-soprano), Royal College of Music Brass Band (Variations), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Martyn Brabbins

Vaughan Williams
Symphony no.2, ‘A London Symphony’ (1918 version)
Sound sleep (1903)
Orpheus with his lute (1901/3)
Variations (1957)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from discs devoted to Elgar and Walton, Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in this first instalment of his Vaughan Williams cycle, coupled with three relatively little-heard pieces from either end of the composer’s lengthy creative span.

What’s the music like?

Significantly, Brabbins has chosen the ‘second version’ of A London Symphony as revised in 1918 and published in 1920. Closer in its formal proportions to the streamlined 1933 revision than the expansive 1913 original, this features additional passages in the second and fourth movements, but it is the textural richness and subtlety which comes through most strongly in this account – among the most overtly alluring yet recorded. Rarely has Vaughan Williams’s later bemusement as to how he achieved such beauty of sound in this piece felt more apposite.

Beginning barely perceptibly, the opening movement unfolds from hazy evocation to one of London ‘in full swing’ and Brabbins captures such a progression unerringly – as he does that of the central interlude with its enfolding calm and opening-out of emotional space prior to a resumption of the earlier activity then a coda whose imposing rhetoric is never overbearing. Even finer is the ensuing Lento, outwardly a depiction of Bloomsbury Square one November afternoon though more pressingly a meditation on time and place which builds to climaxes of sustained expressive intensity. Brabbins gauges these superbly, then draws the extra material found in the coda into a seamless continuity of serene recollection. Rarely, moreover, have the numerous woodwind and string solos been rendered with such felicity as by the BBCSO.

A scherzo designated ‘nocturne’ might present problems of characterization and pacing, but neither is an issue here – Brabbins opting for a relaxed though never sluggish tempo such as underlines that teasing reticence to the fore in the fatalistic coda. The finale follows on with due inevitability – its heartfelt initial ‘cry’ launching a movement whose sectional unfolding feels more than usually cohesive as it takes in halting processional and forthright march on the way to a culmination where anguish and that sense of teetering on the brink are palpably conveyed. Brabbins takes his time in the ‘Epilogue’, slightly more extended than it became while evincing that steady emergence from anxiety to affirmation as brings the whole work affectingly full circle. Rarely have these closing pages conveyed so much of a benediction.

Does it all work?

Absolutely, and the fill-ups are a further enhancement. Heard in its version for three female voices, the setting of Christina Rosetti’s Sound sleep audibly anticipates Serenade to Music almost four decades hence – with Elizabeth Watts no less touching in that of Shakespeare’s Orpheus with his lute likely written for a staging of Henry VIII. Almost Vaughan Williams’s last completed work, Variations is better known as orchestrated by Gordon Jacob – though its intricately intertwined sections and final chorale are thrown into starker relief by brass band.

Is it recommended?

Indeed – not least when the sound has ideal spaciousness and definition, along with probing annotations by Robert Matthew-Walker. Fine as was Martin Yates’s recent account (Dutton), that from Brabbins is undoubtedly the recording of the ‘1920 London Symphony’ to go for.

For further information on this release, visit the Hyperion website, or the BBC Symphony Orchestra. You can also read more about Martyn Brabbins here