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!

Live: Jörg Widmann & Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

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Jörg Widmann (clarinet, above – photo by Marco Borggreve) & Mitsuko Uchida (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Thursday 9th February, 2017

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 (1894)

Berg 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5 (1913)

Widmann Fantasie for solo clarinet (1993)

Schubert Impromptu in C minor D899/1 (1827)

Widmann Sonatina facile (2016, UK première)

Schumann 3 Fantasiestücke Op.73 (1849)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The sound made by the clarinet is surely one of the most beautiful in classical music.

Yet, as Jörg Widmann reminded a packed Wigmore Hall when playing his Fantasie for solo clarinet, the instrument’s qualities extend far and wide. Widmann explored multiphonics – playing more than one note at once – and also used the clarinet to evoke a lilting Alpine dance, some outrageous Gershwin-style slides and baleful, shy asides as though he was the only performer in the room.

Widmann has been chosen as the Wigmore Hall’s Composer in Residence for 2017-18. It is a chance to appreciate his versatility, for clarinet pieces are one side of a substantial catalogue. He has written for solo piano, but although Mitsuko Uchida’s UK premiere performance of the Sonata facile was superbly characterised, it was not as successful musically. Widmann takes Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K545, as a starting point, but he effectively screws up the pages of the work, distorting and fragmenting so that they did not quite add up to a meaningful whole.

mitsuko-uchida-240815Far more purposeful was Uchida’s performance of Schubert’s first published Impromptu, where we explored the composer’s very heart through an interpretation that had the hall on the edge of their seats. The repetitive march theme was darkly coloured, but the transition from minor key to major brought brilliant shafts of light under Uchida’s quick fingers.

When the two musicians played together the results were electric. In spite of a mobile phone that rang for more than a minute, and a hearing aid that shrilled in close proximity to the pitch of Widmann’s clarinet, their Brahms was beautifully poised. The Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 is a late, nocturnal treasure, its tension giving way to an autumnal glow in exchanges between the instruments that behave as though they are old friends. This performance caught that intimacy, especially in the slow movement, and enjoyed the dance of the finale with a spring in its step.

Schumann’s 3 Fantasiestücke faired similarly, closing the program wreathed in smiles, despite the occasional furrowed brow in the first piece. Here the interaction was again on the most intimate of scales, Widmann’s control exquisite in the slower music and matched by Uchida’s voicing of the individual parts.

Even better was the duo’s performance of Berg’s 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, a relatively early publication from 1913 that explores the outer limits of tonality. The mysterious second piece had an extraordinary inner tension, fully released in a flurry of notes, while the last piece, also slow, hung on the air for an age.

Widmann’s control here was almost superhuman, and although he admitted to being out of breath after the Schumann, he and Uchida gave a substantial encore by the 14-year old Mendelssohn. The graceful second movement from his Clarinet Sonata sounded like the work of a much older man, and was lovingly played.

Steven Kovacevich at 75 – Berg and Schubert

Steven Kovacevich celebrates his upcoming 75th birthday with sonatas by Berg and Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

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Steven Kovacevich (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 13 July 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b061fqzz

on the iPlayer until 12 August

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert. Steven Kovacevich has recorded the Schubert but it does not appear to be available on Spotify, so is included here in a leading recording by Maurizio Pollini. The Berg, which he has not recorded, is performed by Mitsuko Uchida:

What’s the music?

Berg: Piano Sonata, Op.1 (1908) (10 minutes)

Schubert: Piano Sonata in A major, published as D959 (1828) (37 minutes)

What about the music?

Steven Kovacevich describes the Berg Piano Sonata as music ‘drawn toward the distant future but still tied to the immediate past’. When he finished the first movement of what he thought would be a larger work in 1908, his teacher and mentor Schoenberg encouraged him that if he had said all he needed to say musically, there was no need to carry on. It is a landmark piece as music begins to break with conventional tonality.

While the 22-year old Berg was starting out, the 30-year old Schubert was signing off. Aware that he had not long to live, the gravely ill composer completed a trio of three massive piano sonatas, some of the biggest works ever written for the instrument and still to this day some of the most remarkable music you can hear on the piano. The second of the three in A major is a remarkable piece, contrasting passages of serenity and acceptance with sudden outbursts of temper – as in the second movement, initially slow but unable to contain itself fully. These are pieces that keep on giving in their remarkable construction and memorable melodies.

Performance verdict

The insights Steven Kovacevich has given into piano music over the last 50 years cannot be underestimated, and the sheer weight of experience he brings with him is the result of a lifetime spent performing at the very highest level.

It is this experience that shines through, especially in a reading of the Schubert sonata that is not without its problems. I would have to digress for a moment and ask if there are many 75-year olds who could play such a piece without a score, and think there are very few. Small wonder, then, that Kovacevich has what seems to be a memory lapse in the final movement, and there are a number of minor slips elsewhere. These are still very much worth persevering with because his portrayal of the unfolding drama in the Schubert is special indeed – and in the second movement in any case it is as though Schubert writes in a lot of ‘wrong’ notes.

What should I listen out for?

Berg

2:00 – one of the most intriguing beginnings to a composer’s published output is surely the quizzical opening notes of the Berg sonata, which end up in its supposed ‘home key’ of B minor, but only by asking far more questions than they answer. There is an immediate impression of a new world forming, and the harmonic outlook is constantly changing in music of great density.

The opening theme, however – the first three notes, at least – is distinctive enough to be felt in the development it receives afterwards. The music builds to a weighty climax at 7:51, then scales the heights at 10:42. Berg writes in a single paragraph, the music subsiding to the quiet, thoughtful finish.

Schubert

14:30 – the opening of the sonata is thoroughly positive, a call to arms – though Stephen Kovacevich is slightly understated in this performance. There is a serenity and intimacy that sets the tone for much of the piece.

15:57 – Schubert’s second theme, a lovely moment of introspection but also restfulness. Barely a minute later however there is a lot more audible strife, and things become fraught – until the return of this second theme at 17:41. A crunching chord at 18:07 prepares us for…

18:15 – Kovacevich repeats the movement so far (18:11) as instructed by Schubert. This helps balance the structure of the whole first movement.

23:53 – a return to the material that dominated the opening exchanges – and then, after a protracted and angst-ridden piece, the second theme and a peaceful close at 28:40.

28:54 – the slow movement begins. As with Beethoven, time seems to stand still in Schubert’s late sonatas, and his thoughts are almost of another world. The music here is very subdued but not by any means hopeless.

31:01 – the right hand seems to develop a mind of its own, becoming faster and faster. In response the music moves to distant and rather twisted harmonies – as Kovacevich notes, sounding a prophetic note towards the music of Liszt here. Feelings of anger and frustration come to the boil. The music collapses in something of a heap, exhausted at the end.

35:07 – the Scherzo, a piece of music that sounds like a feather being blown around by the wind. The detached delivery from Kovacevich’s right hand is subtly mischievous.

37:14 – the contrasting trio section begins, but is a short diversion from the main theme itself, which returns again in humour at 38:24.

39:28 – Kovacevich runs straight into the fluid finale but stops himself at 41:12. Then he picks up again at 41:26. To listen to this movement in full it is recommended to forward to…

51:16 – where after applause Kovacevich very graciously gives a re-run of the finale. Listening carefully to the full theme, there is a similarity between this and Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ theme from the Choral Symphony. It is in the main beautifully played, with a magical moment at 57:01 when we hear the theme in F sharp major, a fair way from home! At 1:01:12, however, Schubert arrives at his destination.

Further listening

A natural port of call from the Berg Piano Sonata is Schoenberg’s early piano works, which also dice with removing tonality altogether. These are the quite substantial Three Piano Pieces of 1909 and the tiny sketches that make up the Six Little Piano Pieces. Then to complement the Schubert we have the small but perfectly formed late Allegretto in C minor and three more beefy piano pieces from the last year of the composer’s life, written in a similar vein to the famous Impromptus. Here they are, all played by Maurizio Pollini and tagged on to the end of the concert playlist:

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