Wigmore Mondays – Nicolas Angelich plays Bach / Busoni, Brahms & Beethoven

Nicolas Angelich (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 9 December 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A concert of the three ‘B’s, all of them greats of keyboard literature – with a fourth, Busoni, added for good measure.

J.S. Bach and Busoni make a winning combination, the Italian 20th century composer having discovered a strong affinity with his ‘ancestor’s’ work in transcribing his organ and harpsichord works for piano. These were always done in a reverent way, and the famous Advent chorale prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the heathens) is no exception. Nicolas Angelich ensured all was still before beginning this account, and once started he left plenty of room for musical thought and variation of tempo and phrasing. Although at times it was a little too mannered, it was a nicely gauged start to the concert.

Angelich continued without a break into Brahms 7 Fantasien, hailed by Clara Schumann as ‘a true source of enjoyment, everything, poetry, passion, rapture, intimacy, full of the most marvellous effects’. The seven pieces work well as a whole, with three Capriccios placed 1, 3 and 7 in the group, interspersed with four Intermezzi. The relatively ambiguous labels mean Brahms has plenty of freedom for expression, and beyond the Capriccios being faster and stormy, and the Intermezzi slower, intimate and experimental, there is little to confine his work.

The performances here were well-informed, Angelich having recorded these works for Virgin Classics back in 2006. The first Capriccio in D minor (9:51) exhibits power and authority, with the composer’s beloved triplet rhythms in evidence, and is complemented by the first Intermezzo in A minor (12:11), one of several moments where Brahms’ thoughts turn wholly inwards – apart from the slightly sunnier middle section. The third piece, a Capriccio in G minor (16:23) has arpeggios tumbling downwards, and has a central section anticipating the tonal area (E) of the three Intermezzi to come. These are the fourth piece in E major (19:23), full of subtle but noticeable questioning in its melody, and the longest piece of the set. It is followed by the thoughtful fifth piece in E minor (23:59) and a sixth, mostly chordal piece back in E major (26:56) which quickly moves away from its harmonic base. Finally the power and passion returns for the seventh piece, a Capriccio in D minor (30:21). Brahms again is in his favourite two-against-three rhythmic figuration, and this signs off the set in the major key with some aplomb in Angelich’s performance.

Fantasy is also a theme for Beethoven’s most famous piano work, his Moonlight Sonata. In truth this piece sits between a fantasy and a sonata (hence the composer’s subtitle, Sonata quasi fantasia), and the first movement, though static in the profile of its arpeggios, is pure and magical imagery, Beethoven intentionally or not evoking moonlight over Lake Lucerne as perceived by his friend, the poet Ludwig Rellstab.

Angelich brought the stillness of the moment to the Wigmore Hall (35:30), reflective and deep in a reverie, only rousing slightly for a Scherzo of relatively downbeat thoughts (41:35). Those sentiments were well and truly blown away by the Finale (44:12), the only one of the three movements written in true ‘sonata form’ by Beethoven. This was a terrifically played account, carefully thought through and played with feeling rather than a need for technical prowess – though that was present too.

Angelich returned to late Brahms for his encore, the Intermezzo in E flat major Op.117/1 (54:02) Another late work, this one is based on an old Scottish ballad, Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament – and brought the mood and chronology of the concert full circle.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

J.S. Bach arr. Busoni Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659 (c1748, arr.1898) (4:36)
Brahms 7 Fantasien Op.116 (1892) (9:51)
Beethoven Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Moonlight’ (1802) (35:30)
Encore: Brahms Intermezzo in E flat major Op.117/1 (1892) (54:02)

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard in leading available versions on Spotify below. These include Angelich’s recording of the Brahms pieces, with Murray Perahia playing the Bach / Busoni and Beethoven:

Angelich can be heard in a double album of late Brahms that includes the composer’s piano pieces published as Op.117-119. They hold a unique place in the piano repertoire, written by Brahms in the knowledge that his compositional career was nearly over and looking forward to innovations by composers such as Mahler, Berg and Schoenberg:

Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach organ works repay further exploration, especially at this time of year. This album from Kun-Woo Paik brings together some of the more famous examples, including the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue:

Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas remain one of the wonders of his output, but even a listen to the four published after the Moonlight sonata reveal a composer striking out for new shores. The Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28, known as the Pastoral, is similarly magical – before the group of three works published as Op.31 reveal humour in the first, stormy Romanticism in the second (nicknamed The Tempest) and an openness of expression in the beautiful third. The playlist below brings together leading recordings from Emil Gilels:

Live review – Hannah Hipp, CBSO / François Leleux: Mendelssohn & Berlioz

Hannah Hipp (mezzo-soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / François Leleux (conductor/oboe)

Town Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 December 2019

Mendelssohn Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)
Berlioz Les Nuits d’été, Op. 7 (1840/1, orch. 1856)
Mendelssohn arr. Tarkmann Five Songs Without Words (arr. 2009)
Mendelssohn Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.56 ‘Scottish’ (1829-31, 1841/2)

Written by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits François Leleux: © HR/Thomas Kost; Hannah Hipp: Matthew Plummer

No doubt about it – Mendelssohn is still a prime attraction in Birmingham, the near-capacity audience for last month’s Elijah at Symphony Hall matched by that at Town Hall for tonight’s programme in which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was conducted by François Leleux.

Oboists turned conductors have a formidable precedent in Heinz Holliger, but even he cannot often have directed from his instrument as did Leleux when, commencing the second half, he presided over a selection of Mendelssohn Songs Without Words in an appealing arrangement by Andreas Tarkmann. Lauded in their day only to be patronized by subsequent generations, the pieces retain a melodic appeal exemplified by Venetian Goldola Song as its centrepiece. Switching adeptly between playing and directing, Leleux certainly relished them to the full.

Prior to the interval, he had partnered mezzo Hannah Hipp (above) in Berlioz‘s Les nuits d’été. Often considered the first orchestral song-cycle, these six songs to texts by Theophile Gautier were only belatedly orchestrated and are linked more by shared expression then any overt thematic links. Nor are they easily encompassed by one singer, but Hipp tackled their highly distinct tessitura with some confidence – moving seamlessly from the whimsy of Villanelle, via the distanced eloquence of La Spectre de la rose to the enfolding inertia of Sur les lagunes; then from the stark anguish of Absence, via the poetic fatalism of Au cimetière, to the impulsive anticipation of L’ile inconnue. For his part, Leleux ensured that those diaphanous and subtly differentiated orchestral textures audibly underpinned the often heady emotional sentiments.

Pieces from Mendelssohn’s earlier and later maturity framed this concert. The overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains a teenage masterpiece by any standards, not least for its evocation of the spirit-world to whose quicksilver elegance the CBSO did ample justice. If the more demonstrative passages sounded a little too generalized in expression, there was no lack of projection overall or doubt as to Leleux’s welding of these elements into an integrated whole. Only the forward ambience of the refurbished Town Hall prevented a true pianissimo.

Dynamic niceties are less of an issue with the Scottish Symphony, its lengthy gestation likely indicating a summative intention on the part of the composer. The first movement’s resigned introduction was superbly rendered, though the ensuing Allegro lacked focus in its trenchant development and surging coda. Not over-driven as often can be, the Scherzo exuded humour alongside its incisiveness, while the Adagio had both grace and suppleness to offset any risk of earnestness or stolidity. Nor did the finale want for energy or purpose, and if Leleux was more insightful during its hesitant transition than the triumphal apotheosis that follows, there was no doubting the underlying conclusiveness with which it rounded off this most inclusive and ambitious of Mendelssohn’s orchestral works – to the evident delight of those present.

A well balanced and immensely enjoyable concert, then, which further attests to the rapport that Leleux enjoys with these musicians. The CBSO is back in Symphony Hall next Thursday for another of the orchestra’s Centenary Commissions alongside music by Elgar and Brahms.

Further listening

With the exception of the Songs Without Words arrangements, the music in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. This includes recent recordings of the Mendelssohn pieces by the CBSO themselves, conducted by Edward Gardner:

For further information on the orchestra’s next concert, under their chief conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, click here

Weinberg 100

Today marks the centenary of the birth of the Polish-born Soviet composer Mieczysław Weinberg.

After a long period without exposure for his music we are finally starting to see the full extent of this extraordinary composer’s output. Some of it has been covered by Arcana in his centenary year, including a pioneering cycle of the 17 string quartets given by the Quatuor Danel at the University of Manchester and two concerts from the CBSO’s Weinberg weekend – from an orchestral concert from the CBSO and Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla to Gidon Kremer‘s Preludes To A Lost Time by way of Kremer and his chamber group Kremerata Baltica in a fascinating concert of putting Weinberg’s works in context.

The Cello Concerto made quite a splash at the BBC Proms this year, and you can watch Sol Gabetta playing it with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France conducted by Mikko Franck below:

Meanwhile a good place to start for the uninitiated is by taking on Kremer’s two discs on ECM. The first of these comprises the four chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet:

Meanwhile the sequel is an enticing collection of miscellaneous works from the Weinberg pen, including the Symphony no.10:

In honour of Mariss Jansons

Like many lovers of classical music, Arcana was sad to learn of the death of Latvian-Russian conductor Mariss Jansons last weekend, at the age of 76.

Jansons was a great conductor, and I was fortunate enough to see him in a number of concerts. Particularly memorable was a Prom with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Lutosławski‘s Concerto for Orchestra and BrahmsSymphony no.1 – and several years later another outing at the Royal Albert Hall with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Richard Strauss‘s Also Sprach Zarathustra and SibeliusSymphony no.2.

Jansons leaves an extremely strong and varied recorded legacy, from which the playlist below draws a few excerpts. The Lutosławski is included, along with two excellent recordings he made when chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Honegger‘s Symphony no.3 and Tchaikovsky‘s Symphony no.1 (Winter Daydreams).

However a personal favourite, and one I reviewed for Arcana, was his stellar recording of Tchaikovsky‘s Queen of Spades opera, a superb and dramatic account:

These are just hints of what Jansons could do – but show him on his best form. He will be greatly missed.

Saint Nicholas’ Day and Britten’s dramatic response

Today is a celebration of the feast of St Nicholas, the early Christian bishop who died on this day all the way back in the year 343. Nicholas is the model for the modern Santa Claus / Father Christmas, but he is also the inspiration behind a major piece of classical music, completed by Benjamin Britten in 1948.

Arcana’s sister site, Good Morning Britten, has this to say about the cantata:

St Nicolas is scored for tenor solo, chorus, semi-chorus, four boy singers and string orchestra, piano duet, percussion and organ. It was written to text by Eric Crozier, for performance at the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, on 24 July 1948.

Background and Critical Reception

Britten’s honouring of the Christmas saint was timed for the centenary of Peter Pears’ old school, Lancing College in Sussex. Yet Saint Nicolas did not receive his first performance there – in fact it opened the very first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948. Critics were requested not to write about the piece until its primary function at the school had been performed. The highly acclaimed libretto is from Eric Crozier, with whom Britten wrote Albert Herring.

Donald Mitchell, in his biography of the composer, observes that ‘for a year his music continued in the blithe spirit that Albert Herring had engendered’. He also notes how the work combines professional and amateur, Britten seeking not to exclude anybody on the grounds of musical talent. ‘There are testing but rewarding parts for the amateur singers and instrumentalists; congregational hymns, and one of the catchiest of his tunes for The Birth of Nicolas.’

This gives the strong sense Britten was writing for all ages and beliefs, and is reinforced by Stephen Arthur Allen. Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, he declares it as ‘not purely a work for religious digest’. Furthermore, ‘A duality of narrative may be perceived through the dilemma between Nicolas’s public and private world:

“Our eyes are blinded by the holiness you bear,

The bishop’s robe, the mitre and the cross of gold.

Obscure the simple man within the Saint.

Strip off your glory, Nicolas, Nicolas, and speak! Speak!”

He warms to his theme. ‘The transparent nescience of The Birth of Nicolas is reinforced by its A major setting. The presence of the tritone, governing the stepwise movement of the sequence in each phrase, demonstrates that Britten is able to write music that children can engage with and sing easily, while embodying sophisticated intervals and a symbolic dimension that offsets generic expectations otherwise associated with such material.’

After that, perhaps the words of Michael Kennedy are key: ‘There is little need to examine this cantata in detail; it is best experienced whole and without analytical preparation.’

Thoughts

The advice from Michael Kennedy to refrain from analysing Saint Nicolas too much is sound indeed, for this is a dramatic piece that works best taken on face value.

Once again it is possible to witness Britten’s ability to write dramatic sacred music, and as in The Company of Heaven he bolsters that with sympathetically set hymn tunes. There is a strong sense of progression through the life of Saint Nicolas, too, and at his birth he gets a really catchy tune, written for the boys’ choir in a joyous A major. As he journeys to Palestine Britten colours his relatively small orchestral forces with a glassy, oscillating line for the two pianos and wispy held strings.

Meanwhile the tenor soloist – Pears, of course – gets frequent opportunities to exploit his talent for legato singing, with some extremely lyrical writing that would seem to me to have a strong Italianate flavour, that of Verdi perhaps.

The hymn quotations invite the involvement of a congregation, another element in common with The Company of Heaven. However Britten cannot resist the odd piece of harmonic mischief, and All People That on Earth do dwell, so beloved of Vaughan Williams, gets some unexpected minor chords. I couldn’t help but think that was a deliberate thumbing of the nose!

There is, however, a certain amount of homage being paid here, deliberate or otherwise. I was sure in places I could detect hints of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius – especially in the way the two works end, alike in key in harmony, while there are passing elements of Handel and Bach, via Mendelssohn.

Once again Britten uses the performing spaces to his advantage, positioning the children’s choir a distance away from the main action. This is especially effective after the swell of the choir towards the end of His piety and marvellous works, which cuts to the trebles singing ‘Alleluia’ in the distance. It is a magical moment.

Equally fine are the climactic closing pages, the death of the saint marked by the singing of the Nunc Dimittis chant, Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in piece, which seals the deal on a very fine and enjoyable work.

Watch and listen

Below you can hear the late Sir Stephen Cleobury talking about the work, and how he went about the 2013 album he made with King’s College Cambridge Choir to mark Britten’s centenary:

On the Spotify link below you can listen to the album Cleobury conducted, which also includes the unaccompanied choral masterpiece Hymn to Saint Cecilia and the celebratory anthem Rejoice in the Lamb, again under the direction of Cleobury.