Wigmore Mondays – Jess Gillam & Zeynep Özsuca

Jess Gillam (soprano and alto saxophones, above), Zeynep Özsuca (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 7 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Saxophonist Jess Gillam is proving to be a breath of fresh air for BBC Radio 3 and for classical music in general. Her combination of passionate artistry, technical flair and down to earth presentation is ideal, and brought colour to a dull Monday in October. Her spoken introductions between the pieces in this concert had a nicely judged patter, showing someone at ease with an audience and enthusiastic about the music she plays. The refreshing lack of pretence fed into the inspiring performances too. Gillam was helped by a very well chosen programme of music showing off the versatility of her instrument, in doing so covering a rich variety from the last 300 years.

The Pequeña Czarda of Pedro Iturralde was an ebullient first piece and a sign of things to come, placing the first earworm as well as showing off Gillam’s technique and Zeynep Özsuca’s colourful accompaniment. It draws the odd parallel to Midnight In Moscow in its slow passages, and both performers caught the contrast between these and the helter-skelter faster music.

The Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor, transposed down a tone into C, illustrated how well works for oboe can transcribe for the saxophone, especially when played with as much control as there was from Gillam and Özusca here. The saxophone is a much louder instrument but Gillam really enjoyed the subtle colours available, and this worked especially well in the famous Adagio (11:08 on the broadcast link). In the outer movements Özusca found great clarity to bring the part writing to life.

Anna Clyne’s new piece Snake and Ladder introduced electronics to the equation, reminding us how the saxophone is one of the most versatile instruments between classical and rock music. Written for saxophone and distortion pedal, it was an effective and enjoyable piece, though sat at the back of the hall we had what sounded like wow and flutter from the breathing.

This led through a bit of a stylistic jolt to Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata, which appeared to be presented in original form without an arrangement – certainly none was credited. Gillam clearly loves this piece and played it beautifully, though the more plaintive oboe tone from which the third movement especially benefits was understandably more difficult to find (from 30:06). This movement, an elegy to Poulenc’s great friend Prokofiev, is effectively the last music he wrote and as such is very profound. Gillam did however do a brilliant job with the fast central movement (25:56 on the broadcast), with spiky counter thrust from Özsuca, while the first movement had established the mood.

We then heard from composer Rudy Wiedoeft, an American composer who raised the profile of the saxophone worldwide. His Valse Vanite, an original piece, drew on his love of transcribing other composers, and it was as though Chopin had taken a vacation in Harlem. Both musicians clearly have a lot of affection for this piece, and Gillam’s ornamentation was exquisitely done.

A reduced version for saxophone and piano of John Harle’s RANT! followed, this enjoyable and tuneful piece drawing on folk tunes from Gillam’s native Ullswater. That the composer, also Gillam’s teacher, was in the audience said much for the bond and mutual respect the two enjoy.

A soulful Pièce en forme de habanera followed, Ravel leading nicely into Gillam’s party piece. Milhaud‘s Scaramouche is the work she played in orchestral form at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 2018, though it is arguably more effective in partnership with piano. Özsuca was a little far back in the mix to begin with but the fast movement was still hugely enjoyable, followed by a thoughtful slow movement and perky Brazileira (58:48), Gillam breaking into a grin once more as she played the catchy tune.

The audience would have been happy with this as the final earworm with which to leave, but a bonus was in store in the form of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood (not on the broadcast), the encore showing off Gillam’s remarkable breath control in slower music.

This was a really enjoyable concert, and it was so refreshing to see another younger artist throwing off any shackles that classical music might present, and offering it out as music, pure and simple. Proof if it were ever needed that music should be there for everyone to enjoy!

Repertoire

Jess Gillam and Zeynep Özsuca played the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets)::

Iturralde Pequeña Czarda (2:03)
Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor (7:34)
Clyne (Snake and Ladder) for saxophone and electronics (19:27)
Poulenc Sonata for oboe and piano (21:05)
Wiedoeft Valse Vanité (35:00)
Harle RANT! (40:27)
Ravel Pièce en forme de habanera (47:53)
Milhaud Scaramouche Op. 165b (51:13)

Further listening

Some of the music played in this concert can be heard on Gillam’s debut album Rise. This includes the orchestral version of John Harle’s RANT!, and the works by Iturralde, Marcello and Wiedoeft – and of course the finale of the Milhaud:

Gillam’s teacher John Harle has a very impressive recorded legacy, raising the profile of the classical saxophone in contemporary classical music. The Sax Drive album (one in a series of PR own goals when it comes to saxophone album titles!) is well worth exploring for the three concertos it holds from Stanley Myers, Richard Rodney Bennett (his Concerto for Stan Getz) and Michael Torke:

Meanwhile if you liked the music of Milhaud you will find this hugely attractive collection from EMI to be very much your thing:

Wigmore Mondays: Anne Queffélec plays Bach & Handel

Anne Queffélec (piano)

J.S. Bach arr. Busoni Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,’ BWV659 (1740, transcribed 1907-9)
Marcello arr. J.S. Bach Adagio from Oboe Concerto in D minor (pub. 1717, arr. 1713-14)
Handel arr Kempff Minuet in G minor and Chaconne in G major, HWV435 (1720 & 1733, arr. 1954)
Scarlatti Sonata in B minor, Kk27 (1739)
J.S. Bach Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV826 (1727)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 16 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

As with last week’s Lise de la Salle recital at the Wigmore Hall, Anne Queffélec follows a loose theme of composers interpreting the work of others. Ferruccio Busoni was a master arranger of older composers, often enriching their music with a few parts of his own that would be in keeping with the style of both the original and the new, ‘Romantic’ period. Bach often arranged the music of others and this poignant example from a Marcello Oboe Concerto is followed by pianist Wilhelm Kempff, updating Handel for performance on a modern 20th century piano. Scarlatti’s Sonata is a thinly disguised Bach tribute, while Bach himself then builds a substantial Partita no.2 drawing on the French style – that is, using sharply detached rhythms in some of the movements.

Follow the music

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

J.S. Bach arr. Busoni Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,’ BWV659 (5 minutes, beginning at 4:10 on the broadcast)

A sublime arrangement when played with care, as it is here, allowing the longer melodies to unfold with the minimum of fuss. Bach still manages to achieve interplay between the parts but this is a much slower piece, and there is a great depth of feeling in its inevitable progression. Busoni’s arrangement is largely faithful, though he does allow the bass line to acquire a double part on several occasions, broadening the overall sound.

Marcello arr. J.S. Bach Adagio from Oboe Concerto in D minor (5 minutes, from 9:38)

Queffélec leads straight into the Marcello without a break, which makes sense as its D minor key and the G major of the Bach are closely linked. This is a sublime and almost timeless piece of music, the background chords gently pulsing on the left hand as the right hand expresses itself. Gradually the music grows in intensity, before subsiding again.

Handel arr Kempff Minuet in G minor and Chaconne in G major, HWV435 (17 minutes, from 14:30)

The Minuet is slow – especially for a dance – and restrained, given an intensely intimate air through the arrangement and the choice of tempo in this performance. It leads into the Chaconne (19:07) where a bold and bright statement of the chosen chord sequence, with associated trills, is followed by no fewer than 25 variations on the set sequence. Around the 23:00 this features some dazzling runs on the right hand, and again at 27:40 – though in between Queffélec channels Handel’s innermost thoughts. At 29:08 we get another statement of the full bodied sequence first heard at the beginning.

Scarlatti Sonata in B minor, Kk27 (1739) (4 minutes, from 32:30)

One of Scarlatti’s 550-or-so Sonatas for solo piano! These pieces are all around five minutes long and usually given in two halves, but other than that are remarkably free in form. This particular example is a free flowing stream of notes that could easily be inspired by Bach.

J.S. Bach Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV826 (1727) (21 minutes, from 36:50)

This Bach work is a collection of connected movements, starting with a relatively stern Sinfonia, setting the scene (from 36:50). Then the dance sequences start, beginning with an Allemande, a slower and thoughtful dance from 41:55. The Courante gets under way at 46:40, a swaying dance, and is followed by a slow and graceful Sarabande (48:55). 53:10 sees the perky Rondeaux begin, Queffélec enjoying the distinctive melody and the flowing counterpoint that follows. Bach is especially clever in this movement by taking his main theme and moving it around the beat. The Rondeaux moves straight into the Capriccio (54:33), which initially sounds rather serious but then takes flight, the two hands literally chasing each other around the keyboard.

Thoughts on the concert

A wholly captivating recital by a pianist with a refreshing lack of mannerisms or frills. Anne Queffélec brought timeless qualities to the music of Bach, Marcello and Handel, making each performance feel like a direct communication to a single member of the audience.

During the Handel Minuet especially I felt myself subconsciously leaning forward, so persuasive and intimate was the account, with incredibly soft timbres and sensitive use of the pedal. Here Queffélec was moving dangerously slowly, as she also did in the Marcello ‘Adagio’ and the Bach chorale prelude, but there was never a feeling of these interpretations becoming contrived, more a sense that the pianist had reached a different spiritual and emotional plain.

Further listening and reading

Anne Queffélec has recorded some wonderful albums, one of which – a Scarlatti collection – was reviewed on Arcana back in 2014. You can hear it on Spotify below:

Back in 2009 she released a Chopin album – which is particularly relevant as she chose an encore for this concert of the Fantaisie-Impromptu, heavily influenced by Bach and Scarlatti. You can hear the album below: