Wigmore Mondays – Novus String Quartet play Respighi & Berg

Novus String Quartet [Jaeyoung Kim, Young-Uk Kim (violins), Kyuhyun Kim (viola), Woongwhee Moon (Violoncello)]

Respighi Quartetto dorico (1924) (2:00 – 23:53 on the broadcast link below)

Berg Lyric Suite (1926) (27:15 – 59:23)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Listening to the Quartetto dorico is like taking a big step back in time. The opening salvo of Ottorino Respighi’s quartet from the mid-1920s is certainly arresting for its volume and scoring – only four instruments but a massive sound! – and its musical language feels imported from another age.

The young Korean ensemble capture these qualities, establishing a dream state that is maintained throughout the performance. Respighi’s quartets are rarely performed, so the BBC and Wigmore Hall should be commended for bringing this one in from the cold, adding another dimension to the 20th century string quartet.

There is an otherworldly quality to the high violin writing later on in this single-movement span, lasting over 20 minutes – and the concentration of feeling provides an intense listening experience. From 4:30 on the broadcast link the music retreats to a quieter passage led by the viola, who essentially intones another chart to the soft, restful comments of the other three. A distinctive section starts at 9:27, with an irregular pulse but a strong rhythmic profile established by the plucked cello string, which gives a dance-like feel to the melody.

At 14:15 an important section starts, the Passacaglia – which has six beats in the bar. The music here is slow moving and deeply contemplative, the first violin taking the lead with a lot of the thoughts as the harmonies stay relatively still. Gradually the higher reaches of the instruments come into play, before a dramatic series of unison sweeps bring down the curtain.

If you’re able to read music I would highly recommend following the score with the performance, as it helps you appreciate Respighi’s unique approach to writing for string quartet. The link is here

From the sacred to the profane – and affter heady music to lift us away from earth, Alban Berg’s six-movement Lyric Suite brings us right back to earthly experiences. Though publically dedicated to the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, as it quotes from his Lyric Symphony, it is in fact a not-so-private account of his doomed affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, who he met on a visit to Prague in the 1920s.

The tempo markings of the six movements are descriptive and tell the story. The first provides a good introduction to Berg’s unique way of using serial (or ‘non tonal’) music in a way that is still highly melodic and richly layered with harmonies. Marked Allegretto gioviale (from 27:15 on the broadcast), it uses all four instruments for thick textures and intense dialogue, telling the story of the start of the couple’s affair.

The second movement, marked Andante amoroso (30:43), is lighter, with more of a spring in its step as Berg profiles Hanna and her two children, with distinct musical motifs for each. The third (Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico (37:24)) gives a musically vivid account of the affair’s consummation, with feather light textures, the instruments’ bows used near the bridge to create a feverish atmosphere.

Then, as the doomed nature of the relationship makes itself evident, the music turns sourer. The fourth movement is a slow one, Adagio appassionato (40:36) – and is passionate and pretty heavy, turning to depths of desolation at the end. The second violin (44:20) quotes from the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony, but this is eerie and displaced, with the ending at 46:38 still more remote.

The last pair of movements is devastating for Berg. It starts with a febrile affair marked Presto delirando – Tenebroso (47:13) and has crisp, jagged phrases until, as the music slows, the thoughts become more remote and despair-laden, leading to the relatively sudden end at 51:45.

Finally the Largo desolato, which really is the end of everything () These are melodies that speak of despair and desolation, the end of the tether. A brief show of spirit and resolve is made at 56:56 but this is soon overcome by the viola and second violin, before some sweeping, downwards facing melodies on the cello. The music, fully spent, peters out at 59:23, as though Berg can no longer say any more.

Like the Respighi above, there is so much going on in Berg’s Lyric Suite that it may be an advantage to follow the music itself while listening. It can be found here

The Novus String Quartet gave incredibly impressive accounts of both works, taking the physical and mental demands in their stride and keeping a consistently high standard of ensemble. They have a refreshing approach to programming, and these elements should ensure they are a top level string quartet to keep an eye on.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, with the Novus Quartet’s recently released recording of the Berg Lyric Suite an added draw:

https://open.spotify.com/user/arcana.fm/playlist/0Oqnt2uLE6E7L09TVxPU4Q?si=hD6X6m3RTTS9_jXU_bav_w

The Quartetto dorico is one of two string quartets completed by Respighi, but he also wrote the celebrated Il tramonto (Sunset) for soprano and string quartet. All three works fit very nicely onto one album, recorded by the Brodsky Quartet and the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter:

Meanwhile Berg’s music for string quartet works extremely well in company with his colleague and fellow ‘serial’ composer Anton Webern. Berg’s rich romanticism and Webern’s incredibly concentrated approach complement each other on this Juilliard Quartet album:

One more playlist to end with – a selection of string quartets from the mid-1920s, illustrating the range of styles applied to the idiom at that time. There are some very different responses here from Janáček, Bartók, Martinů and Frank Bridge – very interesting to compare and contrast!

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

Benjamin Baker, Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson – Berg: Violin Concerto & Schmidt: Symphony no.4

Benjamin Baker (violin), Salomon Orchestra / Holly Mathieson

St John’s, Smith Square, London; Monday 16 October 2017

Richard Strauss, arr. Rodziński Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Schmidt Symphony No. 4 in C (1933)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Never an ensemble to shirk a challenge, the Salomon Orchestra’s current season continued tonight with what, aesthetically, was an almost perfectly balanced programme – and whose second half brought a timely revival (in the UK) of the Fourth Symphony by Franz Schmidt.

With its catalyst in the tragically unexpected death of his daughter, this work was consciously intended as an ‘in memoriam’ and this is reflected in a formal design as fuses the customary four movements into an unbroken continuity; expressively also in that salient themes return almost as memories being recollected. From which perspective this performance succeeded admirably – Holly Mathieson having the measure of an overall design as though akin to the ‘journey of a life’, whose ending is tangibly (thereby inevitably) anticipated in its beginning.

The exposition’s themes – the first as introspective as the second, with its Magyar overtones, surges forth – were judiciously contrasted, and if the development was a little too rhetorical, it evinced the right cumulative intensity leading into an Adagio whose anguished climax was set into relief by the inward eloquence on either side. A touch stolid rhythmically, the scherzo did not lack impetus as it headed – lemming-like – over its cliff of disaster; in the aftermath of which the reprise gradually re-established momentum as the work came resignedly full-circle.

Its unity within diversity aside, the Fourth Symphony is a stern test of orchestral skill such as the Salomon met head on. The strings evinced the burnished warmth necessary for this music, and while woodwind intonation was on occasion wanting, it did not undermine an orchestral texture through which brass emerged with the appropriate impact. The solo contributions were well taken, not least from trumpeter John Hackett and cellist Kate Valdar, and Mathieson can take considerable credit for her advocacy of a piece whose repertoire status is still not secure.

Photo credit: Kaupo Kikkas

Before the interval, Berg’s Violin Concerto had provided the ideal complement. Similarly inspired by the premature death of a woman (in this instance the teenage Manon Gropius), it also focusses on that continuum between life and death, as well as the transfiguration which may result. Here again the four movements, divided into two parts, can be difficult to make cohesive and though Benjamin Baker (above) was not lacking consistency, his rather unvaried tone leading to an expressive uniformity as made this, ultimately, an interpretation in the making.

Mathieson, though, was attentive and always responsive in support. Beforehand, she presided over an enjoyable account of a suite arranged towards the end of the Second World War from Der Rosenkavalier. Probably undertaken by the conductor Artur Rodziński, it takes in several of the highlights from Richard Strauss’s sprawling comedy – rather as does Robert Russell Bennett’s ‘symphonic picture’ derived from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which likewise has the result of reducing the larger work to a succession of glib purple-patches devoid of any real context.

Rendered with aplomb, it was surely possible, even so, to find a more fitting concert-opener – Zemlinsky’s Sinfonietta would have been ideal temporally and conceptually. That aside, this evening was a fine demonstration from the Salomon and auspicious occasion for Mathieson.

For more concert information from the Salomon Orchestra, head to their website

Franz Welser-Möst‘s pioneering recording of Schmidt’s Symphony no.4, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, can be heard on Spotify below:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Sam Hogwood on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra playing Schumann, Berg & Brahms

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series it’s a family interview, with Sam Hogwood (niece of the editor, above!) giving her verdict on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s varied Prom.

Prom 40: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati

Brahms Tragic Overture Op.81 (1880)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Thomas Larcher Nocturne – Insomnia (first UK performance) (2008)

Schumann Symphony no.3 in E flat major Op.97, ‘Rhenish’ (1850)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Sam, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

I guess I was privileged in the fact that I got to learn the flute. My earliest memories of music are dancing to my dad’s dance music, and then the radio – the top 40 and dance music with the odd rogue track thrown in – my first record that I ever bought was Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?! I remember buying that and being really pleased with myself! I also remember listening to Peter and the Wolf on my dad’s record player, and there were a few more classical pieces. There was one, a scary story that came with a book – Cranston Thorndike & The Dragon, by Terry Loughlin. We used to have that and play it quite a bit.

With people playing instruments it was you (me playing the cello – ed!) and also my aunt, Clare – I idolized her playing the flute so thought I should do that. When my brother Daniel was doing keyboards, and it turned out she was doing flute my mum and dad got me lessons. So it was a rich and varied upbringing!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

It’s tricky, I’m terrible with favourites! I would say the Foo Fighters, because of the energy they bring on to the stage. I think it’s the way Dave Grohl commands the crowd, no matter how many times you’ve seen them and wherever you’ve seen them it’s always immense.

I think Arcade Fire too, the first time I saw them was at Reading. To see how many of them there were on stage, and the variety of instruments they had – one of them would just suddenly whip out the hurdy gurdy! The fact a few of them would play three or four instruments, and go between them in songs – not even between songs – that’s just mad.

The third one would be The Killers I think. I’ve seen them quite a few times, and again it’s just a great show – because Brandon Flowers is such a great front man. He commands such energy, and demands it back from the crowd at the same time. It’s not just the band, he’s a show man.

How would your experience of the Proms compare with the live music you’ve seen?

I would say it’s more thought provoking, because of the silence. Even though you’ve got the music, there is an incredible amount of silence, whereas I would say that in concerts that aren’t classical there is such a din because of the crowd. That means you’re not necessarily appreciating the musicianship, whereas at the Proms, because there is such a silence, you’d pick up a wrong note or something out of time. There is a lot more pressure on it, and it commands a lot more with the lows and the highs, and it really gets you. There is also the element of deciphering the elements, whereas with pop concerts you are listening more as a whole.

What did you think of the first piece, the Brahms Tragic Overture?

I really enjoyed that. I think for some reason I hadn’t thought before how complementary the wind section is to the strings, and there were points where they were hitting the same notes where I couldn’t tell if it was the violins or the winds. They hit that same point, and then they separate so you can really hear the flutes, and their pitch. Something else I hadn’t really appreciated was with the vast number of strings, and how two flutes commanded as much impact with their melodies.

What did you think of the Berg Violin Concerto?

I enjoyed it. I thought it was interesting. I don’t know a lot about the orchestras, but I assumed the lead violinist, watching him – you could see why he needed to stand up, for space to express himself with the music. It was interesting, how it’s called a Violin Concerto but all the other instruments played throughout as well.

And what did you think of the new Thomas Larcher piece, Insomnia-Nocturne?

I thought about the idea of seeing colours in music that we talked about in the interval, but I thought for me it’s definitely emotion when I listen to music. I definitely thought in this piece a lot of it was very dark and anxious. It made you feel concerned, and it was heavy to the point that when it reached a dream state it was really quite a relief! When it’s that intense, linking back to film, you know why they use certain music in film. If you were to watch a horror film stripped of its music you wouldn’t think too much of it, but it’s the way the music is used that really gets you!

What was your verdict on the Schumann, after that?

It was lovely, and I’m really pleased they finished with that! It was like a magical fairy tale, and then the fourth section got quite dark and dangerous, and then it lightened off again. I thought some of the writing in the book, about the composer and their lives, was entertaining, but then it makes sense later on with what it said about Schumann.

Did you find the notes helpful, reading about the composer while the music is being played?

It’s interesting to read about the origins of the music, but I think it’s a side bit of information because with music you feel your own thing anyway. In the second piece, with the undercurrent about his mistress – you could put that out there but it’s like art, with a brush stroke on a page. The background to it almost becomes irrelevant to the art piece itself. You look at some art works and it tells you how evocative it is, but you look at it and think, ‘I’m not really getting that’ You see it for what it is. I went in the Tate Modern last month and saw the new exhibits, with fire bricks and spirit levels. I’m all for appreciating art but there are some pieces I don’t get, and even as an installation piece I don’t see what you’re telling me!

Thinking of the Proms, was there anything you particularly enjoyed?

The atmosphere; getting to appreciate classical music in a silent state. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with so many other people who have been quiet for such a long period of time for a specific reason. With everything else it’s like the more noise the better, everything gets turned up, but with this if you even cough people stare at you. The musicians are that well skilled that some of the music they play is so soft, and if you’re not silent you’re not going to hear it. Having listened to classical music on the radio and now in a room it was very different.

If you could change anything about the Proms, what would you do?

I’d have the performers sat on the back tiers. When we came to see Bring Me The Horizon with an orchestra here, they were sat on the back three tiers, up quite high. Even if you were on the floor you could see them, whereas this time you could only see them if you were on a level above. I appreciate some people have just come to listen and are not so bothered about the visual aspect, but from a technical point of view I would definitely prefer to see them, it gives the music that bit more.

Would you go to the Proms again?

Definitely!

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – Christian Tetzlaff, Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Robin Ticciati: Brahms, Berg, Thomas Larcher & Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony

Prom 40: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati

Brahms Tragic Overture Op.81 (1880)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Thomas Larcher Nocturne – Insomnia (first UK performance) (2008)

Schumann Symphony no.3 in E flat major Op.97, ‘Rhenish’ (1850)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are one of the UK’s finest ensembles, and they proved their worth once again with outgoing chief conductor Robin Ticciati leading a fine Prom tracing a course from darkness to light.

Brahms’s Tragic Overture is one of the composer’s deepest orchestral statements, and Ticciati was determined to present its steely side. Often the strings were without vibrato, the lean sound complemented by raucous horns and open textures in the woodwind. Lower strings growled ominously, and only the softer woodwind passages offered occasional respite in their beautifully choreographed choir.

Berg’s Violin Concerto contains music of similarly ominous qualities, in this case uncannily heralding the composer’s final year despite its dedication elsewhere. Though the violin begins with elegiac tones it has a broad emotional range, and Christian Tetzlaff (above) rose magnificently to the occasion, finding Berg’s many and varied colours but crucially balancing them with the excellent orchestral contributions.

The coded messages Berg inserts into the music were on occasion stripped bare, and the anger at the heart of the second movement was almost completely unconcealed. Its crowning moment lies in quiet simplicity, however, and when the quotation of Bach’s chorale Es Is Genug arrived on clarinets the mellow tones were deeply moving. Capping the concerto with his rise to a high ‘G’ at the end, Tetzlaff held the note at a barely audible volume so that it sounded like one last breath in his ascent to another world.

As the evening progressed the darkness drew in ever more closely for Thomas Larcher’s Insomnia Nocturne, an orchestral piece receiving its first UK performance. Written for a relatively small orchestra of eighteen, it was an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of sleep’s refusal to take hold, with a high pitched glockenspiel tone becoming particularly tiresome. Sitting in the background, its tone made an uncomfortable backdrop for the increasingly fractious instrumental activity in front, which finally subsided into a fitful slumber, the sort where it is already too late in the night to be rescued. The piece began with promising tonal material, but in a manner akin to insomnia this was rendered much less appealing by the end.

Thankfully Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony was on hand to pierce the darkness with music of unrestrained joy. The opening surge is one of the happiest in all classical music, and like the river on which it is based it takes everything with it downstream. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were superb, the lofty horns enhancing the open-air sound while the woodwind worked together in beautifully shaded colours, as did the strings with more vibrato this time.

If anything the second movement Ländler was even better, flowing forward with purpose and charm, while the Intermezzo following also had a softer heart. The mood became solemn for Schumann’s powerful evocation of Cologne Cathedral in the fourth movement, the symphony turning inwards with self-doubt and contemplation, but from this the finale emerged with resolve and conviction.

A strong Prom, then, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra giving us something old (Brahms and Schumann), something new (Larcher), something borrowed in the Berg and something blue in the mood that ran throughout. Thankfully the shade of this particular blue changed from deep and dark at the outset to a bright and breezy azure by the end.

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Sam Hogwood will give her verdict on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Prom. Coming shortly!