Listening to Beethoven #214 – Piano Sonata no.22 in F major Op.54

Sea beach with fisherman (The fisherman) by Caspar David Friedrich (1807)

Piano Sonata no.22 in F major Op.54 for piano (1804, Beethoven aged 33)

1 In tempo d’un menuetto
2 Allegretto – Più allegro

Dedication Count Ferdinand Waldstein
Duration 12′

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written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood has an important observation, that ‘in other middle-period pairings, a long, powerful and brilliant work (in this case the Waldstein sonata) is succeeded by a short and quiet one, with Beethoven creating a double image and a deliberate contrast, a reminder of the balance between great and small, between seemingly opposed and adjacent modes of being that can compliment one another, as a rare flower grows by a large tree’.

Little needs to be said after that rather neat summing up – though it is as always worth hearing the thoughts of pianist Angela Hewitt. Writing booklet notes for her Hyperion recording, she notes the elegance of the opening before ‘all hell breaks loose’. For the second movement, she stresses the importance of observing the composer’s ‘dolce’ marking to avoid it sounding like a study.

Thoughts

As Angela Hewitt notes, it is a graceful and genial start to this piece, Beethoven enjoying a few sleights of hand with some chromatic inflections to the melody, before the cavalry rights roughshod over the tranquil mood. There is a perceptible glint in the composer’s eye while this happens, and you can sense the frowns the first audience may well have had! This means when the mood returns to tranquil the listener is no longer as trusting as to what might happen – and they are right to be wary, for Beethoven enjoys a few more outbursts and melodic quirks.

The second movement is fast and flowing, though there is a more romantic element to the twinkling right hand, and a good deal of expressive weight when the left hand goes towards the bottom end of the piano. Once again Beethoven enjoys journeying to far-flung keys, and the momentum never lets up right to the emphatic finish.

This is a curious piece, one that is indicative of Beethoven’s quest for the new, challenging existing notions of how a sonata should behave. It has elements of the Waldstein’s virtuosity and energy in the final movement, and has all the characteristics of a ‘prelude and fugue’ from the Baroque period. There is much to enjoy here!

Recordings used and Spotify links

Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)
Claudio Arrau (Philips)
Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon)

Once again a crowded field of some very fine versions, though those from András Schiff, Alfred Brendel and Stephen Kovacevich prove particularly enjoyable.

You can hear clips of Angela Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1804 Hummel Rondo in E flat major Op.11

Next up Triple Concerto in C major Op.56

On Record – Tippett Quartet – Vaughan Williams: String Quartets; Holst: Phantasy Quartet (Somm Recordings)

Tippett Quartet [John Mills, Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)]

Vaughan Williams String Quartet no.2 in A minor (1942-43)
Holst ed. Swanston Phantasy Quartet (1916)
Vaughan Williams String Quartet no.1 in G minor (1909)

Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0656
Producer Siva Oke Engineer Adaq Khan
Recorded 7-8 February 2022, St. Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

In case you have missed it, 2022 marks 150 years since the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams. A great deal has been made of his symphonic and choral output, and rightly so, but an added benefit of such an anniversary is the chance to look at other relatively neglected corners of a composer’s work. Chamber music is one such area that is infrequently explored, and there are some fine works ready for reappraisal.

The two published string quartets sit as principal examples. The String Quartet no.1 in G minor was written in Paris, during a period of study with Ravel, and reflects new influences at work in 1909. A great deal of water had past under the bridge by the arrival of the String Quartet no.2 in A minor in 1942-43. Written for the composer’s friend Jean Stewart, who played viola in the Menges Quartet, it gives great deal of prominence to her instrument.

Complementing the quartets is the Phantasy Quartet by Gustav Holst, a close friend and confidante of Vaughan Williams for many years. Their mutual love of folksong is perhaps their strongest musical link, though as the quartet shows Holst had a different way of expressing his sources. Claiming the work was ‘insufficient’, the composer withdrew it some years after its first performance in 1917, though his daughter Imogen saw its worth and published a version for string orchestra. On this recording the Tippett Quartet use an edition made by Roderick Swanston.

What’s the music like?

The Vaughan Williams quartets are a complementary pairing, and although starting with the later work may seem a curious decision it makes good musical sense in the context of this recording.

As described above, the viola takes an assertive lead in the first movement of the String Quartet no.2, pushing the source material forward with silvery tones that nonetheless have a strong autumnal shade. The harmonic writing is shot through with an anxiety reminding us of this work’s position in the Second World War and its proximity to the Sixth Symphony, a powerful yet haunted work.  The solemn second movement is deepened further by an almost complete lack of vibrato, while the viola takes charge again in the ghostly third movement, with the other instruments muted. The prayerful finale offers some solace, referring to the reverent calm of the recently completed Fifth Symphony, but the end is still shrouded in uncertainty.

The String Quartet no.1 is often talked about in the same breath as Ravel, but Debussy and Borodin are also notable influences here. After a tautly argued first movement the Scherzo is particularly successful here, its motif recurring with just the right degree of playfulness. The third movement Romance is lovingly rendered, while the finale has a great deal of positive energy, Vaughan Williams showing great agility in his writing for four instruments that often sound like a small string orchestra.

Holst’s Phantasy Quartet is beautifully judged, celebrating its folk sources but also throwing context of light and shade that reflect another time of uncertainty during the First World War. The work has more than a little in common with the celebrated St Paul’s Suite for string orchestra, moving between energetic tunes and more thoughtful episodes, where a shadow passes over the face of the music.

Does it all work?

It does. These are fine performances from the Tippett Quartet, who understand the emotional and often anxious pull of the second quartet. Its urgency is compelling, and the harmonic tensions are finely judged here. Meanwhile the compositional promise of the first quartet is clearly shown, with its rich melodic content and the vigorous exchanges of the outer movements, which are extremely well played. The Holst is affectionately given, the quartet revelling in the folk melodies but also the composer’s imaginative harmonies. Swanston’s version works extremely well.

Is it recommended?

Enthusiastically. There are already some fine recordings of the Vaughan Williams string quartets, but the Tippett Quartet join the very best with performances of spirit and deep feeling. The Holst is the ideal complement, and with excellent booklet notes (Robert Matthew-Walker) and a cover picture to match (Simon Palmer) this is one of the finest releases so far in the Vaughan Williams 150 celebrations.

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You can listen to clips from the recordings and explore purchase options at the Somm Recordings website

Switched On – Gabe Gurnsey: Diablo (Phantasy Sound / PIAS)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Diablo is an album for transportation. Not the car journey or train ride, though I can confirm it works on both – more the idea of transporting the listener straight into a hot, sweaty basement club somewhere, in the dead of night.

Gabe Gurnsey describes his new opus as being ‘formed out of a lot of trust and lust’, and credits his musical and physical other half, Tilly Morris, for her role in proceedings – not just as vocalist but as quality control and muse. Together they have made an album whose theme is release and escape, and to do it they use banks of keyboard sounds, vocal manipulation and a vocal hook or ten.

What’s the music like?

Hedonistic, in the best possible way. The twisting synth lines appear almost immediately on the horizon and stay for the duration, which is a good thing as they complement Morris’s voice perfectly. A fine first track, the single Push, sets out the stall, then the following Hey Diablo crackles with atmosphere.

With its vocals, Power Passion has an edge, leaning on 80s influences for its source material but also nailing a contemporary sound. The richly coloured Blessings struts forward confidently, while the synths on I Love A Sea On Fire bubble and weave, the deadpan vocal matched with liquid loops. Give Me is especially good, its vocal couplet beginning “Give me your oxygen”.

Special mention should be made of Morris, who proves the ideal foil to his electronics on this record. She brings something of the Eurythmics / Human League vibe to the table, but there is also a strong helping of Blancmange in the deadpan approach – which on repeated listening has a lot more depth than first meets the ear.

Does it all work?

Yes. There is a real frisson in a lot of these tracks, capturing the optimism and escapism we all feel on a good night in a club.

Is it recommended?

It is. Diablo is one of those albums looking backwards and forwards simultaneously, and Gurnsey’s awareness of both directions means that this new album works a treat.

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In concert – Nicola Benedetti, CBSO Chorus and Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada: Dvořák, Mendelssohn & Grigorjeva

Dvořák Carnival Overture, Op. 92 (1892)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844)
Grigorjeva In Paradisum (2012)
Dvořák Symphony no.9 in E minor Op.95 ‘From the New World’ (1893)

Nicola Benedetti (violin), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 20 September 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been a largely mainstream programme, but tonight’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra drew a capacity house at the beginning of a season in which Kazuki Yamada takes on the reins for what looks an eventful new era near the start of the orchestra’s second century. The CBSO’s response in Dvořák’s Carnival Overture more than confirmed it was ready for the challenge – Yamada ensuring the nocturnal evocation at its centre worked its evocative spell, then building an irresistible momentum going into the thrilling final bars.

Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto cannot have been absent from many of the CBSO’s previous 102 seasons and made its appearance this evening, Nicola Benedetti tackling a piece she must herself have played on many occasions. Not that there was anything routine about a reading such as abounded in subtle touches – especially the opening Allegro’s cadenza, which more than usually fulfilled its role as this movement’s structural fulcrum. In the Andante, Benedetti pointed up the expressive contrast between its main themes; the second of which was notable for a tonal astringency that brought out its plangency in full measure. If there was nothing so arresting in the finale, the interplay of soloist and orchestra was astutely judged through to the effervescence of the closing bars. Certainly, a performance to make one enjoy the piece anew.

Introducing the second half, Yamada requested the audience remain silent during the pause between pieces – the first a setting of In Paradisum by Ukrainian-born Galina Grigorjeva (b 1962), its lucid harmonies and heady culmination bringing the best out of the CBSO Chorus.

From here to the New World Symphony was no great step. Once again, a work rarely absent from the CBSO’s schedule seemed largely revitalized. Not that all of Yamada’s interpretative decisions came off – after an introduction of no mean gravitas the opening Allegro unfolded a little fitfully, though so interventionist an approach might have gained from the exposition repeat to place these in greater context. There were similar touches in the Largo, yet here the focus of Yamada’s conception and the raptness of the player’s concentration were their own justification – not least towards the close, with the front desks combining to poignant effect. Without being driven as ruthlessly as is often the case, the Scherzo has the requisite impetus and, throughout its trio, a whimsical elegance which proved as engaging as the charged coda.

Heading into the final Allegro with minimal pause, Yamada brought out its inherent force but also the ruminative eloquence of its second theme; the transition to which, in the reprise, was ideally judged. Nor did the apotheosis lack for drama as those closing bars melted into silence.

Prior to the start of this concert, a minute’s silence was observed then (most of) the audience joined in possibly its first rendering of God Save the King. A more localized farewell was paid later in the evening to Colin Twigg, first violinist for over 31 years and whose retirement will hopefully see more of his own compositions as have featured in Centre Stage recitals over the years. A miscellany is featured on a Toccata Classics release and worth anyone’s investment. The CBSO will be back in action on Saturday with a major new commission from Brett Dean.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For further information on the night’s artists, click on the names for composer Galina Grigorjeva, and for artists Nicola Benedetti and Kazuki Yamada

Playlist – Daniel Patrick Cohen

Daniel Patrick Cohen. Picture credit Alexandra Făgărășan

Arcana is delighted to hand our playlist baton over to Daniel Patrick Cohen, whose fascinating new album We Deliver is on our own playlist for review shortly.

Cohen, a Londoner living in Romania, has a particular love for film music and hip hop, and wrote a substantial score for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden, as part of the British Film Institute’s Rescue The Hitchcock 9 enterprise, where composers were invited to score the director’s silent films.

With We Deliver, Cohen writes a love letter to hip hop in the form of a 32-track album featuring 67 musicians, described as a lo-fi work entirely made up of throwaway-type tracks that a hip hop producer might have written.

His playlist, then, contains 15 such ‘throwaway’ tracks, including inspired examples from the likes of Daft Punk, J Dilla, Radiohead, Björk and even Mozart alongside five of his own compositions blended in to reveal the loose connections. He elaborated for us:

“The idea is that these tracks were moments of magic which I imagine captured the mood on a day so perfectly that they resisted being developed and expanded. I think it’s worth elaborating that there’s nothing “lazy” about them; on the contrary, one could spend a lifetime waiting for these moments!”