On record: Vassilis Varvaresos – V for Valse (Aparté)

V for Valse

Vassilis Varvaresos (piano)

Liszt Allegro spiritoso in A major S427/7 (1852), Mephisto Waltz no.1 S514 (1862)
Ravel La Valse (1920)
Rosenthal Carnaval de Vienne (1889)
Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1838)
Scriabin Waltz in A flat major Op.38 (1903)
Tchaikovsky Valse sentimentale Op.51/6 (1882)

Aparté AP172 [61’31”]

Producer / Engineer Pierre Fenouillat
Recorded 22 & 24 July 2017 by Little Tribeca at Hotel de l’Industrie, Paris

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first recital disc from Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos, winner at the 2016 Enescu Competition, and already heard on Schubert’s Winterreise with Dimitris Tiliakos as well as works for violin and piano by Schumann and Richard Strauss with Noe Inui (both on Navis Classics).

What’s the music like?

In an interesting conceptual ploy, the Valse (Waltz) has been taken as basis for an overview of almost a century’s piano music – during the course of which, keyboard virtuosity veered away from uninhibited display to reinforcing the emotional complexity of the piece at hand.

Varvaresos starts his recital in media res with Liszt‘s First Mephisto Waltz – the touchstone for a virtuosity fused with psychological complexity, rendered here with a combination of technical brilliance and emotional understatement as extends right to the scintillating final bars. The seventh from his Soirées de Vienne, a set of Valses-Caprices after Schubert, finds Liszt in more equable if hardly less resourceful mood, not least in the way he channels his borrowed ideas into a study as subtle formally as it is poetic and affectionate expressively.

A further highlight is Faschingsschwank aus Wien, last of Schumann’s piano cycles from his first full decade of creativity and one which tends to be overlooked in the context of several more innovative predecessors. Its outer movements can run the risk of mindless display, but this is never an issue for Varvaresos, who leavens their boisterousness with almost Classical objectivity. This applies equally to the three central movements, not least a Romanza whose poise and inwardness uncannily anticipate the piano miniatures of its composer’s last years.

Tchaikovsky‘s piano output remains relatively neglected, so it was astute of Varvaresos to include his Valse sentimentale, last in a set of six pieces which point up his indebtedness in this medium to earlier models (notably Schumann), yet whose melodic eloquence is wholly characteristic. Scriabin‘s Waltz in A flat makes for a telling foil, its melody line diffused into a harmonic radiance which blurs the expected tonal focus with teasing playfulness. Here, as throughout this programme, the suppleness of Varvaresos’s pedalling is of the highest order.

Discretion is hardly to be expected of an archetypal virtuoso such as Maurice Rosenthal, yet his Carnaval de Vienne is a riotous humoresque on themes by Johann Strauss II that makes a fittingly uproarious encore (as Varvaresos demonstrated at last year’s Enescu Festival). The virtuosity of Ravel’s La Valse is of an altogether more speculative manner, but this account makes a virtue of such ambiguity as this plays out across a structure audacious in its formal design and unnerving in its emotional follow-through – not least those fateful closing pages.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Varvaresos is evidently among a younger generation of pianists for whom virtuosity is neither to be played up to nor fought shy of; but rather placed at the service of the music in question so its salient qualities can more fully be appreciated and savoured.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is ideal in its realism and immediacy, with Jean-Yves Clement’s fanciful note complemented by a photo which looks rather like a still from an Alain Resnais film. An auspicious release by a pianist from whom much can be expected. V for Varvaresos indeed!

You can read more about this release on the Aparté website, or get more information on Vassilis at his website The full album can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Live review – Benjamin Grosvenor, CBSO / Vassily Sinaisky – Mozart, Sibelius & Wagner

Benjamin Grosvenor (above, piano), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraVassily Sinaisky (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 October 2018 (matinee concert)

Wagner Der fliegende Holländer – Overture (1841)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.21 in C major K467 (1785)
Sibelius Symphony no.1 in E minor Op.39 (1899)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It has often been remarked that concerts adhering to the once ‘standard’ format of overture, concerto and symphony are hardly frequent nowadays, so making this afternoon’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Vassily Sinaisky the more welcome.

Wagner has always made for an effective curtain-raiser, not least his overture to The Flying Dutchman. Earliest of his acknowledged operas, its eventful 10 minutes fairly encapsulate the salient incidents and principal themes – not least in this performance, Sinaisky confirming his operatic credentials (in which capacity he has been regrettably little heard in the UK) with an assured reading; most perceptive in its approach to Senta’s eloquent ballad near the beginning and in its Tristanesque return during the closing bars such as Wagner transformed in revision.

A scaled-down CBSO was equally responsive in Mozart‘s K467, happily no longer indelibly associated with one of the dreariest 1960s films. Often at his most perceptive in 19th-century music, Benjamin Grosvenor is no slouch in Mozart and his performance – as was that at this year’s Proms with the BBCSO and Sakari Oramo – was full of felicitous phrasing, even if the formal focus of the imposing first movement was likely of Sinaisky’s choosing. The Andante was affecting without affectation, Grosvenor embedding the solo part closely into that of the orchestra, then the final rondo conjured up effervescence at a not unduly headlong tempo. All credit to Grosvenor in choosing cadenzas by Robert Casadesus (whose Mozart recordings are required listening) and for a limpid reading of Rachmaninov‘s Lilacs as his encore.

Although his ambivalent relationship with the Austro-German symphonic tradition has often been noted, Sibelius’s Russian heritage is often downplayed – yet his first two symphonies would be inconceivable without Tchaikovsky’s input. The First of these has been compared with the Pathétique in its epic and ultimately tragic nature, but the influence of the Russian’s Fifth Symphony feels even more overt in its sombre clarinet-led introduction and an Allegro with its ingenious take on the sonata format. Sinaisky duly has the measure of its brooding power and surging energy, then opted for a flowing account of the Andante that brought out its pathos and quixotic changes of mood without it seeming turgid or episodic. The Scherzo, too, had the requisite dynamism and, in its trio, an appealing whimsy that was deftly drawn.

The highlight, though, was the finale – most often the movement which fails to ignite by dint of its discursive structure. Yet ‘Quasi una Fantasia’ need not imply rhapsodic and Sinaisky treated it accordingly, characterizing its dramatic then fervent themes with due appreciation of their formal integration towards an impassioned climax whose fateful outcome was never in doubt. It helped that orchestral playing was of unwavering commitment, with the CBSO giving of its collective best in a piece which it has played frequently over the past 86 years.

It set the seal on a concert which was a reminder one that even a mainstream programme can surprise and engage when the constituents are thoughtfully planned and performances never less than responsive. The enthusiastic reception of a sizable house was its own confirmation.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Live review – London Contemporary Orchestra @ The Barbican: Other Worlds

London Contemporary Orchestra & ChoirRobert Ames
Universal Assembly Unit (art direction)
Artrendex (artificial intelligence)

Barbican Hall, London
Wednesday 31 October 2018

Scelsi Uaxuctum (1969) (UK premiere)
John Luther Adams Become Ocean (2013)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If the apocalypse comes while we are alive, what music do you want played?

It is a thought-provoking question, one that some composers have tackled head-on by writing music of their own. The end of days provided the link for this programme of polar opposites from the London Contemporary Orchestra, given at the Barbican to the accompaniment of images dictated by algorithmic responses, thanks to the AI technology of Artrendex and the Universal Assembly Unit.

The first part was the end of days in the darkest possible sense. Giacinto Scelsi’s five-part Uaxuctum takes as its inspiration the Legend of the Maya City, and its self-destruction for religious reasons. Due to the demands made on the performers – and, the programme argued, an overly conservative approach to using Scelsi’s music – this was the UK premiere of a piece written nearly fifty years ago.

The textures were remarkable, achieved through a variety of vocal techniques such as trills, tremolos, hissing, deep breathing and nasal sounds. The use of quarter tones lent an extra level of difficulty and a sense of dread to the music, the vocals stubbornly sat in between the instrumental notes at times. The London Contemporary Choir met these demands heroically, stood on the left under a screen whose barbed imagery and sudden explosions of orange and red light were wholly appropriate.

The sizable orchestra was bolstered by a massive battery of percussion, including an enormous barrel rubbed with a ‘thundersheet’ – which made a suitably massive noise. This provided some chilling, incendiary shocks, while the percussion themselves supported the music from what felt like underneath the floorboards.

Perhaps because of the massive screen the edge was taken off the sound a little, which compromised the raw impact of the piece, but Scelsi’s often monotone musical language left an incredibly strong impact under the passionate direction of Robert Ames. Its resultant chill stayed throughout the interval.

John Luther Adams, environmentalist as well as composer, has garnered many plaudits for Become Ocean, a 2013 composition that sees the Earth returning to its early state of complete water coverage. Should it happen again, this form of apocalypse would be man-made; the ultimate destination should global warming continue in the way it does.

Adams chose not respond to this with the sharp edges and doom-mongered percussion of an industrial age. Rather he utilises the orchestra as a single instrument of subtly altering shades, beginning low in the murky depths of the piano but gradually superimposing layers to make a wonderfully sonorous block chord the listener can literally dive into.

Interpreting this as a colour, it could only be the deepest blue of the unfathomable ocean, and the imagery responded as such, submerging the orchestra in slow moving waves under deep, grey cloud. We were, it seemed, cast out in the middle of the ocean, as far from land as could be, but this was to be a meditative exile, accepting of its fate if not wholly aspiring to it.

The music carried for 45 minutes and there were several climax points, where the images grew deeper, before Ames pulled us back to the bare bones again. Adams ended where he had begun, back in the lower reaches of the piano.

Silence was the only appropriate response to this wall of water through sound, a wonderful contemplation and immersion that proved unexpectedly moving, the realisation hitting home of just how much damage we have inflicted on our own planet.

If they ever met, Scelsi and Adams would surely have found a common ground, despite the fascination of their wildly different responses to the final, greatest destruction. They left us with much to ponder and admire, especially from the London Contemporary Orchestra, whose standard of performance was unstinting, and whose virtuosity behind the scenes ensured these two apocalyptic visions met their final destination.

Further listening

The works in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Wigmore Mondays: Thibaut Garcia & Antoine Morinière – Bach Inspirations

Thibaut Garcia (guitar, above), Antoine Morinière (guitar)

Barrios La Catedral (1921) (1:38-8:39)
Tansman Inventions (Hommage à Bach) (1967) (9:47-20:23) , Pièce en forme de passacaille (1953) (20:57-26:14)
Bach arr. Garcia / Morinière Two-Part Inventions (c1720) (28:36-34:12) – nos. 7 (28:36), 8 (29:53),9 (31:10), & 10 (33:18)
Allemande from English Suite No.3 in G minor (before 1720) (34:49-38:02)
Bach. arr Garcia Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor BWV1004 (1720) (40:06-53:36)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29 October 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

One of the most endearing aspects of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach is its adaptability. It can be enjoyed on any instrument, a statement which rings true for only a few composers of his time. He did not write for the guitar directly, but in his lute writing and pieces for stringed instruments he often used melodies and figuration that transcribes effortlessly for the guitar. There is much to be found in this respect in the ‘easier’ keyboard pieces, several of which Thibaut Garcia and fellow guitarist Antoine Morinière played here.

This was a very well thought out program, picking up on composers for the guitar for whom J.S. Bach was a lasting influence. It began with Paraguayan composer Agustín Pío Barrios, a colourful composer whose music embraces the folk tunes of his country but is also in thrall to Bach. La Catedral, a three part homage, was beautifully played here (from 1:38 on the broadcast). In three sections, it set out a mood of affected nostalgia in the first, Preludio Saudade, before the Andante religioso (3:54) took on a processional mood. Finally Allegro Solemne (5:54) gained more momentum but was still carefully studied by Thibaut.

Polish composer Alexandre Tansman’s affectionate tribute of five brief Inventions began with a stately Passepied (9:47), moving on to an emotive Sarabande in the minor key (11:57), a Sicilienne with a nice lilt (14:17), a more lively Toccata (16:00), and then an introspective Aria (17:28). Capping this was a stand-alone Passacaille of impressive stature, given over an ever-present chord sequence.

The Bach inventions (28:36), transcribed into more ‘guitar friendly’ keys, worked well and became a very personal dialogue between two friends. It was as though one guitarist had taken the right hand part and the other the left hand, and were exchanging Bach’s ideas freely. It worked very nicely in the Wigmore acoustic, whether in the perky inventions (8 and 10) where the melodies passed seamlessly, or in the slower ones where the slightly different phrasing of each guitarist lent a nice personal touch.

The Allemande from the English Suite no.3 (34:49) was a graceful dance that became an intimate call and response, the parts originally written for both hands transferring nicely to the two guitars.

Arranging the Chaconne (40:06) for guitar is an impressive feat indeed – still more because Garcia managed to make it less about display (which many artists do) and more about emotional content. The single lines had a deep profundity, but when the virtuoso lines really did get going (from around 43:30) they were key to the overall impact as well as providing a dazzling technical display. Some of the weight of the piece is lost in transcription as far as sheer volume is concerned, but Garcia more than made up for this in a studied and brilliantly played account. There was a lovely transformation into the major key at 46:55, before returning to the sterner confines of the minor key again for the end.

Garcia’s brief encore (57:33-59:28) made excellent use of the harmonics. As you will hear on the broadcast in his amusing story, it is the Catalan folksong El testament de n’Amèlia (Amèlia’s Will), arranged by Miguel Llobet.

Further listening

You can track the repertoire used in this concert via the following Spotify playlist:

Meanwhile Thibaut Garcia’s new disc, Bach Inspirations, contains much of the music heard here, and is out now on Warner Classics:

Bach’s lute music transfers very well for guitar, as this album by the great guitarist Julian Bream demonstrates:

Wigmore Mondays: Karina Gauvin & Maciej Pikulski – French song

Karina Gauvin (soprano, above) and Maciej Pikulski (piano, below)

Hahn Quand je fus pris au pavillon (1899) (1:26-2:41); Si mes vers avaient des ailes (1888) (2:45-5:23; A Chloris (1916) (5:26-8:40)
Debussy Nuit d’étoiles (c1880) (9:59-13:04), Mandoline (1882) (13:09-15:06), Beau soir (1891) (15:10-18:00), L’Enfant prodigue – Récitatif et air de Lia (1884) (18:38-23:44)
Poulenc Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne (1931) (25:21-26:12, 26:15-27:03, 27:07; Métamorphoses (1943) (29:31-; Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon – C (1943) (34:46-38:18)
Bizet Guitare (1866) (39:57-42:20), La coccinelle (1868) (42:27-47:36), Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (1867) (47:51-52:55), Ouvre ton Coeur (1859-60) (53:05-55:47)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22 October 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

An enjoyable tour around the French ‘mélodie’ from Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin and pianist Maciej Pikulski began with the music of Hahn. A celebrated song composer, his melodic gifts were fully evident in this selection of three, although the wide vibrato Gauvin employed did sometimes lessen its impact. A bright account of Quand je fus pris au pavillon (from 1:26 on the broadcast) showed off the breezy, outdoor approach, but the vibrato was too wide in an otherwise gentle Si mes vers avaient des ailes (2:45). The wonderful A Chloris, with its homage to Bach in the serene piano part, found ideal phrasing from Pikulski and rapturous delivery from Gauvin, if again a little too wobbly.

She was on much more secure ground in a selection of early Debussy. The composer’s first published work, Nuit d’étoiles was especially effective in its evocation of the lyre, where Pikulski was superb and Gauvin had a lovely, floated delivery. Mandoline was also a treat in the unison towards the end of the song, while Beau Soir savoured the heady atmosphere of the sunset. There followed an aria from L’Enfant prodigue (18:38), a dramatic tour de force where Gauvin took complete control, singing powerfully of a mother’s loss.

Poulenc’s songs are never less than entertaining in concert, though you have to be quick to appreciate some as they are gone in mere moments! There was a nonsensical air to two of the three poèmes, whose text are attributed to the fictitious Louise Lalanne. The first two sped by in a blur, nicely pointed and characterised, before the slower Hier went much deeper in its emotional impact.

The first of the Métamorphoses was similarly brief (29:31) but the flowing second (30:43) was a slow and thoughtful utterance, beautifully paced. The third (33:29) raced away from sight, but then as a complete contrast we had the down at heel dfgd (34:46), contemplating Paris in the wake of the Second World War.

Gauvin and Pikulski finished with a very varied quartet of Bizet songs, beginning with the bracing Guitare (39:57), with words by Victor Hugo. The piano imitated the strummed chords of the instrument and turning to sunnier climbs as C major replaced C minor (41:32) Gauvin relished the vocal demands here and in La coccinelle, another Hugo text of curious form which she characterised richly. In Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (47:51) we had the highlight of the whole recital, and surely one of Bizet’s best songs – a profound departure with a deep sense of longing that Gauvin wholly inhabited, right up to the floated final notes. Then Ouvre ton Coeur (53:05) brought flashes of exoticism with the added notes of Pikulski’s thrummed accompaniment and Gauvin’s vibrato, on this occasion perfectly judged, to the sudden cry of the final note.

Gauvin gave us one of Poulenc’s most popular songs, Les Chemins de l’amour, as an encore (57:44-1:02:24) – and though a slow version it found the bittersweet heart of the song.

Further listening

You can track the repertoire used in this concert via the following Spotify playlist:

(Veronique Gens)