Wigmore Mondays – Juilliard Quartet play Lembit Beecher & Dvořák ‘American’ string quartets

Juilliard String Quartet: Areta Zhulla, Ronald Copes (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Astrid Schween (cello) (photo: Claudia Papapietro)

Lembit Beecher One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time (2018) (2:25-23:52 on the link to BBC Sounds below)
Dvořák String Quartet in F major Op.96 ‘American’ (1893) (26:42-54:11)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 14 January 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The Juilliard String Quartet are a very different proposition now to when they were formed in 1946. In the analogue recording years string quartets were almost wholly formed of white male players, and it has been very satisfying to see the trend broadening in the last couple of decades. The Juilliards themselves appear to have hit on a perfect blend of youth and experience, with first violinist Areta Zhulla joining their ranks for the 2018/19 season. On this evidence it has given them a real shot in the arm, helped by their willingness to bring with them a new work from Lembit Beecher. This gave their Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert a symmetrical feel, for Beecher’s new work for string quartet draws from Europe and more specifically Estonia – while Dvořák’s most celebrated ‘American’ String Quartet finds him writing in America but using a melodic style common to both the USA and the Czech Republic.

Beecher first, and the European premiere of One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time. The intriguing title takes as its lead an Estonian melody, a waltz written by Beecher’s grand uncle Ilmar Kiiss, now in his mid-90s. This meaningful piece of music puts its head above the parapet in the first two of the three movements making up the quartet, before fully revealing itself in the third. The movements themselves represent different generations and their telling of the same story, which becomes less detailed as one generation passes to the next. As a result the first contains more definitive incidents, the second is more shadowy and less focussed in detail but poignant in mood, and the third, while recalling the attractive waltz in charming detail, is slower in its movements.

In concert this is a very effective piece of music not just to listen to but to watch. The busy conversations of the first movement (2:25 on the broadcast link) feel as though Beecher had set words to music, removing them just before performance, and making the first violin the loudest voice. This reaches a natural apex through Zhulla’s faultless higher register playing (from 5:10), before subsiding in volume and intensity, to some unusually emotional figures around 7:15 that simply dies on the string.

The second movement (from 11:51) uses subtle but effective techniques such as harmonics to create the shadowy effects, while from 14:51 a sudden injection of pace and volume gets an excitable conversation going again. The tender waltz theme would seem to be from 16:58 on the viola, before the violin ascends to the heights.

The third movement (from 18:39) has mottled textures and a slight lethargy, as though the memories are more difficult to place. Again the violin’s voice is loudest, but the shady movements of the others and the closing tremolos (from around 22:25) give a fragile and autumnal air to proceedings. All these elements were superbly marshalled in performance by the Juilliard Quartet, and made you want to hear more of Beecher’s music.

The Juilliard’s performance of the Dvořák, meanwhile, was a joy. This much-played work – one of the most popular string quartets there is, together with the Debussy and the Ravel works – rediscovers its freshness here. This is thanks in part to Zhulla’s clear affection for the piece. After Roger Tapping’s viola gives a silvery exposition of the first tune, she leads with a beautiful tone once again (26:57), enjoying the outdoor nature of the pentatonic melodies – which, as Gerald Larner’s programme note helpfully point out, seem to be equal parts Bohemia and Iowa. (The pentatonic scale, as its name implies, is made up of just five notes – in this case F (the home key), G, A, C and D). Although Dvořák was on a lengthy vacation when he wrote the string quartet, and was doubtless influenced by the melodies he heard in America, there is never the feeling that his Czech heritage is far away. The sentimental second theme (28:21) bears this out.

Meanwhile Zhulla and cellist Astrid Schween capture the bittersweet main melody of the slow movement to perfection (37:18) and (38:03), the rocking motion of its accompaniment acting as a lullaby. The ensemble enjoys the scampering figures of the Scherzo (44:47) before a brief Trio section (46:58) brings forward what the composer believed to be the song of the scarlet tanager in the first violin. The Scherzo resumes shortly after at 47:44.

The finale (48:52) is bold and positive in this performance, the quartet enjoying the abundance of tunes available to them – most of them taking in the pentatonic scale once again, with a rustic, outdoor feel.

With the bonus of a Haydn encore in the same key and mood (the Minuet from his Op.77/2 quartet at 56:06), this was the ideal January concert, an inspiring and optimistic pairing of works that celebrate the diversity of culture but also look at the heritage of each and bring them together. A lesson for the future in this country, perhaps?

Further Listening

Lembit Beecher’s One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time is not currently available online; however you can listen below to his previous work for string quartet, Small Infinities:

The Juilliard String Quartet recorded Dvořák’s American string quartet all the way back in 1968 – yet that version does not appear to have yet reached Spotify. The below link is to a recent disc from the Škampa Quartet, coupling the quartet with the String Quintet in E flat major published immediately after. It is similarly free-spirited:

Further Reading

Lembit Beecher’s composer website contains detailed information on his output, with a healthy dose of videos and audio tracks. Meanwhile you can read more about the Juilliard String Quartet at their website. For a biography of Antonin Dvořák, this dedicated site to the composer is recommended.

Wigmore Mondays – Carducci Quartet play Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt & Dvořák

Carducci Quartet (above, © Andy Holdsworth) (Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming (violins), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), Emma Denton (cello)

Philip Glass String Quartet no.3, Mishima (1985)

Arvo Pärt Summa (1992)

Dvořák String Quartet in F major, Op.96 American (1893)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19 June, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert presenting Dvořák’s American String Quartet in a very different context to the one we normally see. The Carducci Quartet approached this lovely, tuneful work from the direction of Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, and their different takes on minimalism. By doing this we got to compare the way each composer works and how they write for string quartet, and then had a chance to enjoy the way Dvořák repeats a lot of the themes in his own piece.

Philip Glass first, and his String Quartet no.3, written as part of his music for Paul Schrader’s film about Yukio Mishima. Some of the soundtrack has music for full orchestra but the string quartet are used for childhood flashbacks, and form an intriguing and character-building whole.

Glass took the five such movements and made them into a string quartet, in music of unexpected tenderness and sensitivity. That said, the first movement, 1957: Award montage, feels like a smaller string orchestra given the full bodied scoring (from 1:28 on the broadcast) November 25: Ichigaya (5:59) is a slow, reflective passage that sounds uncannily like the slow movement of the Dvořák to come. Grandmother and Kimitake (from 7:39) is a forceful, sharply defined piece of writing, brilliantly played here, while 1962: Body building (10:58) starts slower, using the mid to lower ranges of the quartet, before picking up again. Blood oath (12:49) has furtive arpeggios that gather power, while Mishima – Closing (16:13) is warmly reflective of what has gone before.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become one of the most popular living composers. His musical style draws from his experience of chant music and bells, and is referred to as ‘tintinnabuli’, drawing from the Latin for bell. One of the first works to use this approach was Summa, written for string orchestra but equally at home in its string quartet setting (from 22:00). Its five minutes pass in blissful simplicity.

And so to the American Quartet (28:04), the perfect piece for a summer’s day. The Carducci immediately find the warmth of Dvořák’s tunes, which may have been written in America but are full of longing for his home country of Czechoslovakia. Most of them use a ‘pentatonic’ scale, which is a scale with five notes rather than the octave’s eight (explained here

The first movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo (meaning fast but not too fast, from 28:04) is full of the fresh outdoors and has some very hummable tunes. Contrasting the mood a little is the Lento slow movement (from 35:23), which gives more prominence to the cello for its gorgeous slow theme. It is sensitively played here by Emma Denton, especially when it returns at 41:13.

The third movement, marked Molto vivace (lively) is quite mischievous (from 42:47) and a little slower than quartets tend to take it in this performance. The sunny outlook remains, the quartet really enjoying themselves – though there are shadows in the central section. The finale (from 47:02) is marked Vivace ma non troppo (lively but not too fast), and zips along with yet more melodic inspiration. The Carduccis give this an ideal performance, thoroughly enjoying the lively and rustic melodies.

Further listening

The works in this concert are on Spotify and can be heard below:

If you want to hear more Glass then the Carducci have recorded his other quartets, and they are softly hypnotic:

Meanwhile a very appealing two-disc collection by the Chilingirian Quartet puts Arvo Pärt’s Summa in context with works by his contemporary John Tavener:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Dean Francis on Bartok and Dvořák

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
dean-francisThis is the first in a new series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Dean Francis (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 25.

Alban Gerhardt (cello); Ildikó Komlósi (mezzo-soprano), John Relyea (bass), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Charles Dutoit

Dvořák Cello Concerto in B minor (1895)
Bartók Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1911)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Dean, what was your musical upbringing?

It was really wide and varied. I grew up with my great grandparents, and they came over from Jamaica in the 1960s. I was heavily influenced by that, and was listening to blue beat and ska. In Jamaica the musical influences are really wide, so they’ll listen to a lot of country like Kenny Rogers or church-influenced stuff, Jamaican gospel and American gospel. I used to hear tapes with church services and things.

My grandparents listened to more reggae – Bob Marley, John Holt, Gregory Isaacs – but my mum was born here and went to school in West London, and she listened to stuff like Boy George and punk, Prince, The Cure, literally everything! My auntie was only a couple of years older than me and she would be listening to Bros and Mariah Carey!

My own personal influences were hip hop early on. I think my first concert was either Cypress Hill or The Beastie Boys, and the first record I bought was a Barrington Levy record, so I was all over the place really! Nowadays I think kids have a watered down view of music, it’s made specially for them. We used to listen to what our parents listened to, in my house at least – not the latest kiddie sound. There was no jumping about to stuff like Miley Cyrus, the stuff I’d listen to would be at family parties, dancing with adults.

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

Ice Cube. His music was descriptive of what was going on at the time in America, and it’s almost the polar opposite of the lyrical content of mainstream hip hop now. I guess his life is quite inspiring, starting in NWA and going on film. I grew up with the Predator and Lethal Injection albums at the time.

Going back to reggae I would say someone like Buju Banton, I listened to him a lot, and met him, before he went to prison. Another reason for liking him is his music is good, but if you listen to him talk about what was going on in the world, the politics of the time – living in the West you get a very different view of the politics because of the media.

Even in Jamaica, although it’s The West, you realise that people have got a lot more common sense than you might expect in relation to places perceived as ‘more learned’. They are closer to nature, doing more practical jobs and living off the land, so they have a different view of the world. You don’t get people getting bullshitted, people are smart and on the ball – and so he was telling me stuff about life and wisdom, and he was inspiring in his mindset and how driven and aware he was of whats going on politically.

More recently I would say Loco Dice, because I’ve had some good moments out with him DJing with good friends. His music has energy that brings people together, and that transmits itself in the music he plays. So that’s my three – but you could ask another time and I’d give you a different answer!

I think I tend to like music that has an energy and makes a connection with people. I get bogged down by dirge! I would always listen to something like the Arctic Monkeys over Katie Melua, say!

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

The school I went to had a lot of classical music. It was quite funny and we had a teacher who drank whisky at the primary school I went to! He would play the piano, and I think he used to like Holst. It was quite good, even though we didn’t appreciate it at the time. I think everybody at some point should be exposed to the music of the world, it helps, you know?

With real electronic music and some of the music they play now, it can dumb you down because you’re not exposed to real instruments.

Really I’ve taken it upon myself to go to things, I’m not really averse to any kind of music. If people have invested their time and craft, it will be worth seeing. It’s like sport, you know, you watch it at the Olympics because you know it’s the best of its kind. There is so much classical music in films you don’t realise it’s happening as well!

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I thought it would be more stuffy, but because it’s classical I would say you get an older demographic. That’s good in one way but it would be good for younger people to think it’s accessible. I think it’s a perception thing, and a shame really – it’s just music at the end of the day! There shouldn’t be that perceived snootiness. It was a really good experience though.

What did you like about it?

I like the emotion of the music. Some of the descriptive parts of moods and nature, like water and fire in the Bartók, that’s really good if a good composer can capture those moments.

What might you improve about the experience?

Not much really, but more how they can engage younger people so that it doesn’t become too stuffy.

What did you think of the Dvořák?

I liked that, especially the first movement. The second movement, it felt less interesting to my ear, but it was all really good. It reminded me a bit of a 1930s or 1940s Western, I can’t remember what. It wasn’t quite as good as the second piece!

What did you think of that, the Bartók?

I really liked the bits of impending doom, but it was also contrasted with light moments. When you’ve got a night where you’re reading the words it makes it very obvious what the composer is trying to do. It’s a like a piece of art with the audio describing the tour.

Would you go again?

Yeah, definitely. It would be a great place to take a date!

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can read Arcana’s review of the whole Prom here – and you can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer

BBC Proms 2016 – Bluebeard’s Castle & Dvořák Cello Concerto with Alban Gerhardt

gerhardt

Alban Gerhardt pictured during his performance of the Dvořák Cello Concerto, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 25; Royal Albert Hall, 3 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The course of this Prom ran true to the plot of the psychological drama that unfolded in the second half. Bluebeard’s Castle was a darkly lit tour de force, but before that we had the small matter of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto to attend to.

The best-loved of all cello concertos, this is a piece where the cello really sings, but has to come from within the orchestral sound to do so. Alban Gerhardt was the ideal vehicle, with probing insights and a wonderful, song-like delivery that brought out the best of Dvořák’s bittersweet lyricism. His duet with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra woodwind and brass, subtly but expertly managed by the seemingly ageless Charles Dutoit (now 80!) was sublime.

bluebeardThings took a much darker tone after the interval as Bartók’s first stage work exerted a chilling grip on the Royal Albert Hall. There was little to no coughing here, all eyes focused on the sonorous John Ralyea (Duke Bluebeard) and his latest ill-fated lover Judit (Ildikó Komlósi). Their exploration of the seven doors of Bluebeard’s Castle were vividly brought to life by Dutoit, using all his expertise with French orchestral music to bring out the parallels in the Hungarian Bartók’s own writing, but also finding the darkness beneath that really drives the work.

Komlósi was superb, every sleight of her eyes telling a thousand words, while harps, strings, horns, woodwind and brass all told the silvery tale in turn. Ralyea, meanwhile, brought his incredibly sonorous tones to the spoken introduction, setting the scene perfectly. Unsettling through the drama was – perhaps unwittingly anticipating The Shining, and the use of Bartók’s music in one of its crucial scenes – this was a performance holding the audience captive from the first dark note to the last.

Ben Hogwood

Alban Gerhardt – a Proms interview with the cellist who sings

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Alban Gerhardt has not played his cello for 12 days…but on the evening Arcana calls for a chat he is about to pick it up, finally.

“It’s fantastic not having played for that length of time!” he enthuses. How will he get back into the saddle? “I start off with very basic exercise, just playing open strings and long notes – nothing else really. It’s all about getting to know it again, and I play so slow that I won’t get any notes wrong or play anything false. Then tomorrow I will restart the Dvořák, which I haven’t played in a long time!”

He is referring to the Dvořák Cello Concerto, which he will perform at the Proms this year – Prom 25, to be precise, on Wednesday 3rd August at the Royal Albert Hall, where his accomplices will be the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Charles Dutoit. “I definitely haven’t played the piece this year”, he confirms, “but I think I am starting next year with it a couple of times. I’m very glad to have been playing other things, otherwise you start doing crazy stuff with a piece. If you do perform something more than 50 times without a proper break the danger is you start doing those things to entertain yourself.”

As is customary with all Arcana interviews, I move on to ask the cellist if he can recall his first encounters with classical music. “Mine were pre-natal! My mother was a singer, so I heard her singing and practising, and when I was born I was crawling between the music stands. I don’t actually have any memory without music, it has been the all-dominating thing for me. My mother would sing a lot, and then the cello was the next choice, as I found I could sing with that.”

His love of the cello developed as an extension of the voice. “In my second lesson I learned how to make the music vibrate, to use vibrato, and it made so much sense to me. My mother had a natural vibrato from between the ages of three and four and I picked it up. I had a minority complex about my voice, but when I got the cello it all happened and I ran screaming through the house, I was so happy!”

Gerhardt has performed the Dvořák concerto at the Proms before, stepping in for the indisposed Heinrich Schiff in 2001. “It was a huge thrill, to be playing such a big piece on the biggest stage of all.” How will this experience be different for him? “I think by now I am so old” (he’s only 47! – Ed) “but I am very much looking forward to working with Charles Dutoit again. The stage doesn’t matter so much anymore, I find, and I don’t get inhibited or frightened. I do respect the stage more though, wherever I am. Everybody deserves a good performance wherever I am, and it shouldn’t necessarily be better just because I am at the Proms. The last time I played it was exhausting because you have to produce more sound in the Royal Albert Hall. In the last six years I have been playing with earplugs, as I used to force my sound, and that has helped enormously.”

This year the BBC Proms is focusing intently on the cello, with ten concerto performances and four premieres. Does that reflect the instrument’s popularity? “I would love to say yes, but I don’t know”, he says candidly. “There are many seasons for each of the orchestras where the violin and the piano are far more in demand. It might reflect the number of wonderful cellists there are these days, though I do find I am missing a bit, a wonderful protagonist like Mstislav Rostropovich who created works and was such a natural force for the instrument. He was not created by any PR or fancy stories, but there was a huge hunger in this guy. Now we have specialists and PR people – they are wonderful players but none are of that stature so far. It could be a couple of people standing up for the instrument, but then maybe it’s Rostropovich’s fault, that nobody has stepped up like that since him! Maybe Casals did, but there has not been anyone quite of the same stature. It feels like we are still trying to catch up.

Gerhardt has yet to record the concerto, save for a disc given away with a past issue of the BBC Music Magazine, but from the sound of things is not in a hurry to do so. “I’d like to one day, but there is no rush. It should be in the perfect setting. I don’t want to do it for the sake of it. It is such an important piece, such a symphonic work. To make it special it would have to be recorded with genius people. I think ahead of the Dvořák I have pushed for the Bach suites, but that is maybe the next thing I would love to tackle.”

And what of the considerable honour of performing the piece at the Proms? “It will always be special, the excitement is so much bigger. I believe my father played at the Proms with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1960s. I think it was when Herbert von Karajan came to the Proms for the first time (this appears to have been in January 1973 according to the Proms website) and it was a very political occasion. He told me that when the oboist Lothar Koch gave the ‘A’ the whole audience hummed it! The orchestra thought it was sabotage, but then they realised the orchestra was so excited. When I was asked to the Proms around 20 years later I played Shostakovich in the late 1990s. I got frightened, but now I am excited to play for this unbelievable audience.”

He goes on to discuss the advantages of planning for the festival. “At the Proms you can schedule almost anything and people come! For instance this year Steven Isserlis is playing a new orchestral version of Thomas Adès’s Lieux retrouvés, and it is one of my standout Proms, as I love Isserlis. I am sure it will be full.” There is a note of regret, too. “I wish this could be translated into other seasons, because I think it proves you don’t always need the big names like Beethoven and Brahms to fill a hall. Music is for all seasons, not just the summer!”

Staying with the Proms theme of the cello, does he think it true to say the instrument is popular for new works? “Not so much in the last 40 years”, he says. “Not since the Rostropovich commissions. We live in times where there is a much shorter life, things expire quickly, and so to get a piece into the repertoire is impossible. This has happened with the Dutilleux concerto perhaps (Tout un monde lointain) but not since then, especially if you compare those pieces to Shostakovich and Prokofiev.”

He muses on the reasons for this. “It is difficult for a player to learn without having a pianist accompany them, and for that you need a piano reduction. People love modern music, and there is lots being written, but it’s been written, played once and then never again. Maybe that’s how it was 300 years ago, after all Bach had to write a cantata every week! It is nice to go back to a piece and rediscover it though. I have been able to do that with some contemporary pieces which is great as you can do so much more with them. With the Dvořák I can tell a story with it, and I can channel my energies so that I am not dead by the end of the first page, and can carry through the whole piece!”

What of recommending a piece of cello music to Arcana readers? “The Wigmore Hall Director John Gilhooly did tell me that Lieux retrouvés is a fantastic piece”, says Gerhardt, “and he thinks it is one of the greatest pieces written in the last few years. I think that is my favourite last cello recording, the one made with Isserlis and Adès themselves. I do love to go to concerts rather than stay at home and listen though, I am not a big consumer of recordings. Having said that this one is also special for the Janáček and Fauré pieces they include, it has a beautiful combination of works. They are such fantastic musicians, and at times they remind me of Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten in partnership.”

It is nearly time for Gerhardt to head home and pick up his cello. “I will summon the energy over the next six days to completely fall in love with the piece again”, he declares. “I have a complete score and will go back to basics, to look at the part without any marks on the page and look at what the composer really had in mind. Otherwise I find that I do things in the moment and repeat them. A clean score, with no markings, fingerings or bowing instructions, brings you back to the composer.”