Under the surface – Kuula Orchestral Music


Composer: Toivo Kuula (1883-1918)

Nationality: Finnish

What did he write? Kuula is not well known outside of Finland, but in his home country his reputation rests largely on his vocal music, the record company Ondine describing him as ‘a colourful and passionate portrayer of Finnish nature and people’. His catalogue includes numerous works for male choir.

What are the works on this new recording? For this disc of some of his orchestral music, Leif Segerstam has chosen the most popular works in the two South Ostrobothnian Suites­ – the Finnish region where Kuula lived. They led to him being dubbed as a successor to Sibelius. Complementing these are the Festive March and the Prelude and Fugue. All the works date from the last decade of the composer’s short life.

What is the music like? Much of it is attractive, if a little undemanding. The Prelude and Fugue feels as though it is trying a little too hard to impress, but the Festive March is a natural and spontaneous composition that sounds like Brahms on holiday.

Perhaps because they describe the Finnish country, the South Ostrobothnian Suites are the most colourful music here. The first suite is especially notable for the graceful, silvery Folk Song, where the strings taking the lead, while there is a surprisingly rustic feel to the Devil’s Dance. Meanwhile in the second suite a clean orchestral picture emerges for The Bride Arrives, while Kuula shows a gift for picture painting in the evocative woodwind calls towards the end of Rain in the forest. Perhaps the most memorable picture painting occurs in the gamelan figuration of Will-o-the-wisp, the last number in the second suite – which is beautifully played by the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra and their conductor Leif Segerstam.

What’s the verdict? If you like classical music to be slightly in the background then this is ideal, music that doesn’t make too many demands on the listener but is nonetheless rewarding when painting a picture of Finland. It is true the attractive cover draws you in, but on many occasions here there is music to match.

Give this a try if you like… Dvořák, Grieg or lighter Brahms

Spotify Playlist

You can listen to excerpts from the disc at the Presto website (be sure to click on the ‘Listen’ tab)

Meanwhile you can hear the composer’s complete songs for male voice choir on Spotify here:

Wigmore Mondays – Emerson String Quartet in Bartók and Brahms


Emerson String Quartet – Eugene Drucker & Philip Setzer (violins), Lawrence Dutton (viola), Paul Watkins (cello) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 16 November 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 16 December


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, as recorded by the Emerson String Quartet themselves:

What’s the music?

Brahms: String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.51/2 (1873) (32 minutes)

Bartók: String Quartet No.4 (1928) (26 minutes)

What about the music?

It is odd to think of Brahms suffering from any lack of conviction, given the consistently high quality of his output – but the shadow of Beethoven and Schubert was so long that he waited a long time before issuing any symphonies or string quartets. On the symphony front he waited until the age of 43 before publishing his first work in the form. The string quartets arrived a little earlier, the pair of works issued as Op.51 completed around his fortieth birthday.

They are extremely accomplished works, and as is the case with much of Brahms’s writing there is a lot going on in each part. Because of that it often sounds as though more than four stringed instruments are playing, and in the A minor work the Emersons perform here there is consistent melodic interest, Brahms often referring to several recurring ideas. This piece flows beautifully, and is clearly the work of an organised mind! Despite that there is clear emotion too.

The same could be said for Bartók, who achieves an incredible balance of structure in his String Quartet no.4 of 1928, while at the same time writing music of remarkable poise and power. This work is in five movements and is written like a mirror. Movements one and five are fast-ish sections carrying similar material, the instruments often working together. The second and fourth are ‘scherzos’ – fast music with a humourous side – though the humour here comes across as more devilish. The second movement is played with the mutes, while the second is wholly pizzicato (plucked). The third movement, the emotional centre, is a famous example of the composer’s night music, where a heady atmosphere is set by the other three instruments against a folk-inspired melody on the cello – which eventually transfers to violins and back.

Bartók’s Hungarian roots are very much on his sleeve here – but like Brahms he writes with his head as well as his heart, with not a note wasted.

Performance verdict

Electricity is in the air when the Emersons play Bartók, and something about the recent personnel change with Paul Watkins coming in seems to have fired the quartet afresh. It helps also that first violinist Eugene Drucker appears to be in much better health – back-wise at least – and these elements appear to have fired a new-found enthusiasm.

Watkins was a focal point in the third movement of what proved to be a stunning performance of the Bartók. When the Emersons recorded the six quartets of the Hungarian master in 1988 they laid down what for me were standard bearing feats of technical prowess. Here, at the Wigmore, they showed those were emphatically no fluke, and some of the sounds issuing from the four instruments I can genuinely say I have not heard from a string quartet before. The scratchy sound from Lawrence Dutton’s viola at the end of the second movement Scherzo, the weird, accordion-like chords halfway through the third – both were eyeopening moments.

The Brahms was inevitably a more sober performance but here too there was characterisation and much warmth, especially in the fast part of the scherzo and in the finale. Some of the composer’s quartet writing is extremely busy in this quartet, but under the Emersons we got clarity if perhaps an over-rich sound at times in the slow movement.

What should I listen out for?


1:53 – the quartet begins with a smooth theme but with a certain amount of anxiety too. There are a lot of different melodic threads here but Brahms keeps them closely united. A lilting theme at 3:16 is a little more relaxed, but still with a lot of nervous energy going on elsewhere. When this theme comes back, at 8:05, the mood is a little sunnier – but elsewhere the anxiety seems to remain.

12:09 – the slow movement of the quartet, marked Andante moderato (which means ‘moderately, at a walking pace). This has a lyrical feel to it, and is given in a tender mood. Again Brahms works very smoothly, with little to no join between the different sections. The key of A major (as opposed to the overall key of the work, A minor) presents a much sunnier outlook too.

21:54 – a movement marked as a Minuet, which seems to acknowledge the historical use of this dance in the string quartet by Haydn and Mozart. Yet this is classic Brahms, with a slight syncopation running through the tunes and an elegance to the quartet writing. At 23:33 the mood changes with a much faster ‘trio’ section, the main material returning again at 24:51.

27:18 – a forceful tune begins this movement from the first violin, and is then taken up on the viola. A sweeter second theme then makes itself known at 28:07, but the work ends forcefully – almost defiantly – at 34:06.


36:31 – Immediately the power of this work is set loose as the four instruments play closely together. There are jarring dissonances but also bittersweet folk melodies, passed between the instruments. Bartók often pairs the instruments in melody, as he does with the first violin and cello at 38:59. Then he explores contrasts between loud, jarring statements and really quiet answers, until a bruising passage brings the movement to an end at 42:33.

43:06 – the second movement is marked Prestissimo, con sordino­ – which means ‘very fast, with the mute’ – the small contraption each string player fits over their bridge to dull the sound. It gives an eerie effect, especially with the writing Bartók uses here, where the instruments sound like moths circling around a flame. The effect is that of night-time music – as it is also for the following:

46:50 – Bartók gets some really striking sonorities in his writing for strings here, with some held chords from the three upper instruments before a soliloquy from the cello at 47:11. The atmosphere is heady, and to get the most effect you are advised to listen in a quiet room or on headphones! Further solos from the violin follow, and the music becomes more animated, before the cello takes over again at 50:54.

52:59 – the fourth movement, a mirror of the second – only this time the instruments are required to use pizzicato – which is plucking the string. Sometimes Bartók asks them to twang against the fingerboard, which produces a snappy sound (53:45 for example). Even here there are striking melodies.

56:26 – a savage Hungarian dance begins, in a similar profile to the first movement, all players close together in range. The power of the unison playing is something to behold, especially as a lot of the time the players have been using double stopping (more than one string at a time). The frequent use of open strings leads to a coarse sound. The finish at 1:01:56 is particularly emphatic.


As an encore, not on the radio, the Emersons gave the Cypress No.3, a song by Dvořák which he arranged for string quartet. It is a beautifully warm piece of music.

Further listening

The Emersons’ Bartók recordings of 1988 were a landmark for the quartet, and it is well worth revisiting them. All six quartets are superbly performed, though one recommendation on its own would be the String Quartet no.2 – whose second movement Scherzo (the second track on Disc 2) has incredible forward drive.

Skampa Quartet at the Wigmore Hall – Writing home

Writing Home – the Skampa Quartet and Krzysztof Chorzelski at the Wigmore Hall


Skampa Quartet (Helena Jiříkovská and Adéla Štajnochrová (violins), Radim Sedmidubský (viola) and Lukáš Polák (cello), with Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 8 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 7 July


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here:

What’s the music?

Suk: Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn ‘St Wenceslas’ Op 35a (1914) (6 minutes)

Pavel Fischer: String Quartet No 3 ‘Mad Piper’ (16 minutes)

Dvořák String Quintet in E flat major (1893) (34 minutes)

What about the music?

After the recent successes of Steven Isserlis and friends in playing Czech chamber music, the Wigmore Hall welcomed back the Skampa Quartet to explore more of the same. Few thrills in classical music beat Czech musicians enjoying the melodies and rhythms of their home country, and here the Skampa have picked a very satisfying program.

First up are the Meditations on an Old Czech Hymn ‘St Wenceslas’, written by Dvořák’s son-in-law Josef Suk, himself an accomplished composer of much orchestral music. This piece was written as World War I began, providing a boost to national morale in either of its versions, for string quartet or for string orchestra.

Dvořák himself was abroad when writing his third published String Quintet in E flat major, completed at Spillville in Iowa in the space of five weeks. This was the same place in Iowa where he wrote the celebrated American string quartet – and for the work that occupies Op.97 in his published catalogue (the ‘American’ is 96) he simply adds a second viola.

In the middle of the concert lies the third quartet of Pavel Fischer, a founder member and first violinist of the Skampa Quartet. Fischer has become interested in combining chamber and world music, as he has done here with a depiction of different pipers – Scottish (Mad Piper, a depiction of Piper Bill, who played while under fire during the D-day landing at Normandy) and Bulgarian (Sad Piper).

Performance verdict

The Skampa Quartet have long been one of the very best of their kind, and in Czech music there are few ensembles to equal them. This performance reminds us why, from the deeply soulful Suk to the strong folk flavours of the Pavel Fischer piece, which works really well in this performance – both tuneful and obviously ‘outdoors’.

The jewel in the crown, though, is the Dvořák, which receives an ideal performance here, its combination of American and Bohemian flavours perfectly blended.

What should I listen out for?


1:54 – We first hear a solemn intonation of the hymn from the quartet, given with very little vibrato, reminding us that the original hymn dates from around the twelfth century. Gradually Suk imposes his thoughts on the music as it gradually gains weight to a climactic point around 4:00, making a powerful impact. Then from around 6:00 there is heavier, gritty music, the full quartet digging their bows into the strings, then the first violin reaching for the heights. Then the music subsides, concluding softly at 8:34.

Pavel Fischer

11:10 The first movement (Mad Piper) shows how well the sonorities of a string quartet lead themselves to depictions of a bagpiper. The musical language is tonal, leading to an eloquent tune from the viola at 13:15, beautifully inflected here.

17:09 The second movement (Carpathian) begins with a quick pizzicato (plucked) line from the cello that sounds a bit like a walking bass, supporting a rough-shod and folky violin tune. This becomes more vigorous by turn.

18:56 The third movement (Sad Piper) gives its principal melody to the viola again, making a uniquely downcast and bird-like call.

22:28 The distinctive snap of the bow being hit on the string acts as a percussive beat to this final movement, called Ursari. Both violins duet in the distinctive melodies, which have a ‘knees-up’ quality, before the frenzied cello comes in, and then the action passes to the viola. At 24:34 a striking passage in the music takes us to a relatively ‘straight’ C major – but there is a jaunty finish in store from the ensemble at 26:50.


29:30 Dvořák has the uncanny knack of taking his listener outside with almost the first note of any of his American works, and he does so once again here, with the wide open textures and slightly plaintive melody – until the main theme makes itself fully known at 30:46, a firm and almost defiant tune. At 31:15 this is countered by a more obviously American tune on the viola.

A lot of these tunes use the pentatonic scale, which you can read more about here The movement continues with fluent writing for the quintet, with tautly argued versions of the tunes, the first of which returns at 36:02.

39:14 The second movement, a ‘Scherzo’, is one of the composer’s best loved, written with endearing mischief. Barely has the movement started when you realise you are actually hearing its main theme. Then, at 41:10, there is a tender tune from the viola that stops you in your tracks if played as beautifully as it is here! It is a very close relative of tunes used by the composer in his New World Symphony, and is picked up by the first violin before the main tune of the Scherzo itself returns at 43:13.

45:23 – the third movement, a slow movement marked ‘Larghetto’ (in a slow tempo), begins in the same key that the second movement left off. It presents a lower texture of cello and viola, playing a relatively mellow and tender tune that spends half its time in the minor key, half in the major – giving it a ‘darkness to light’ quality. This tune then passes through a sequence of variations that enable Dvorak to show his mastery of development, putting the original tune in some very different guises (52:10, for instance, a vigorous transformation!)

55:43 – the last movement begins with a catchy tune. Clearly Dvorak likes his audiences to leave with a tune to whistle! He adds a second one in a minor key for good measure at 56:59, providing an effective contrast – skilfully easing back into the main tune at 57:41. The minor key tune appears again at 1:00:19 – before Dvorak once again brings us to the main tune at 1:01:03. By now it’s a fully-fledged earworm! The piece is wrapped up with a short but emphatic coda from 1:03:22.

Further listening

While we’re enjoying Czech chamber music it seems churlish not to mention a new disc from the Pavel Haas Quartet, just released on Czech record label Supraphon, which features the two string quartets of Smetana. These are abundantly tuneful pieces, enormous fun to listen to but with a depth to them that shouldn’t go unnoticed – the first charting the composer’s loss of hearing with a dramatic twist in the last movement.

For more concerts click here

Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe at the Wigmore Hall – A fitting tribute

Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe at the Wigmore Hall – A fitting tribute


Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 1 June 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):


on the iPlayer until 30 June


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here

What’s the music?

Brahms: Scherzo from the ‘FAE Sonata’ (1853) (6 minutes)

Dvořák: 4 Romantic Pieces, Op.75 (1887) (13 minutes)

Franck: Violin Sonata (1886) (28 minutes)

What about the music?

A well-chosen program of music for violin and piano, drawn from the period in the late nineteenth century known as ‘Romantic’. Yet as well as being from that period it is Romantic in nature.

Brahms wrote three substantial sonatas for violin and piano, each of them admired, and he also wrote a sonata in collaboration with Robert Schumann and his pupil Albert Dietrich. It was a gift to their friend Joseph Joachim, himself a composer and also a virtuoso violinist who was to inspire many more works from Brahms, Schumann and Dvořák among others.

The 4 Romantic Pieces of Dvořák were not written for Joachim, and are not greatly demanding technically – but are a perfect illustration of just how tuneful the composer’s music can be, and how through great simplicity he could write music of great expression. There is charm and wit in abundance here, music that seems to celebrate the great outdoors.

The Violin Sonata by Belgian-born French citizen César Franck is one of the chamber music masterpieces of the nineteenth century. Treating the two instruments very much as equals, it is memorable firstly for its dreamy first movement theme, which creeps in like a summer breeze, then for the darkly passionate movement that follows it. After the freedom of the third movement Franck plays his trump card, a ‘canon’ – that is, where violin and piano play the same melody but a little distance apart. This one is a beauty.

Peter Cropper. Credit: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Credit: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Performance verdict

This was a particularly moving concert, given a short while after the announcement of the death of Peter Cropper, first violinist with the Lindsay String Quartet and a close personal friend of Martin Roscoe. Not only was Roscoe intent on going ahead with this concert, he and Tasmin Little chose to dedicate their performance of the Franck Sonata to his memory – and in doing so they paid a deeply meaningful tribute.

The Franck is a lovely work and both Little and Roscoe brought out the deep-seated passion of the second and third movements, dovetailing beautifully with the charm of the outer movements. Roscoe was extremely responsive so that the melodies were passed back and forward with ease and enthusiasm.

The Dvořák Romantic Pieces were also extremely appealing, their apparent simplicity still given plenty of depth in this performance, with an especially poignant last piece. Warmth and wistfulness combined irresistibly in the first and third pieces, while for the second country dance it was as though someone had flung open the windows of the hall!

It was like that too for the Brahms Scherzo, which Little began almost before Roscoe had sat down, such was her eagerness to get on with it. The music surged forward as though intent on devouring everything in its path.

What should I listen out for?


1:26 A surge of excitement as the piece begins, the violin using its lowest string and the ‘G’ an octave above it. The swaying motion of the theme is typical of Brahms, who often writes in triplet rhythms, and it creates an appealing syncopation, an ebb and flow between violin and piano.

There is a triumphant coda from 6:30, crowning this piece by the young Brahms with a flourish.


8:32 The first piece is warm and a little wistful, affectionately played.

11:48 The second piece is a grander affair, but also takes on the form of a country dance.

14:34 Marked ‘Allegro appassionato’, the third piece at first sounds remarkably similar to the first, being in the same mood and key, but becomes more passionate with Little playing two strings at once

16:43 A shadow falls over the sunshine created by Dvořák in the first three pieces, with music of introspection and contemplation. There is however still a positive ending.


23:40 A dreamy introduction from the piano, which hovers on an exotic chord until the violin comes in with the tune, also in a dreamy state. The mood becomes more passionate – amorous perhaps – and Franck manages that expression with very little variation to the tune itself.

30:00 The second movement begins with the turbulent rumblings of the piano, which give way to a passionate violin theme. At 33:35 this reaches a natural climax, before the turbulent theme is heard again. The onward flow of the music is impressive here, a torrent of notes – so much so that there is applause at the end of this movement!

38:05 – A ‘recitative’ forms the third movement – that is a passage of freedom for the violin, after the piano has set the scene. This gives it the opportunity to show off in a semi-improvised way, and after this the violin and piano exchange ideas, leading to a natural climax point at 41:10, the music at its most passionate again. There is a strong reference to the sonata’s opening at 43:30 – an example of Franck’s ‘cyclical’ way of writing, where he brings back themes from earlier in the work.

45:07 The canon, as described above, begun by the piano and followed by the violin. Franck writes it rather sweetly, with an innocence that proves touching throughout, but again it grows in stature. The violin and piano spend much of the movement imitating each other’s melodies in this way, with references to the first movement, before returning to the main music at 49:57 and then an uplifting finish.


53:00 An encore of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance no.5, probably in the arrangement by Joseph Joachim, as described above. Little plays this with great theatricality, Roscoe very sure-footed (or should that be handed?!) by her side.

Further listening

A rather attractive companion piece to both the FAE Scherzo and the Franck Violin Sonata is BrahmsViolin Sonata no.2, a summery piece that finds the composer in relatively relaxed mode. A nice complement to this is the shorter but quite fiery Légende by the Polish composer Henryk

A rather attractive companion piece to both the FAE Scherzo and the Franck Violin Sonata is Brahms’ Violin Sonata no.2, a summery piece that finds the composer in relatively relaxed mode. A nice complement to this is the shorter but quite fiery Légende by the Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski. Meanwhile a piece that joins everything together nicely is another red blooded piece of chamber music by Franck, his Piano Quintet, which in the right performance offers some high voltage music making! The one on this playlist, by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, leaves absolutely nothing to chance.

Meanwhile a piece that joins everything together nicely is another red blooded piece of chamber music by Franck, his Piano Quintet, which in the right performance offers some high voltage music making! The one on this playlist, by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet, leaves absolutely nothing to chance.

For more concerts click here

Steven Isserlis and friends – Czech chamber music

Fate by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, 1920

Jeremy Denk (piano), Joshua Bell (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Steven Isserlis (cello), Wigmore Hall, 20 May 2015.

As Steven Isserlis wrote so eloquently in the program notes for this concert, ‘Why is it that so much Czech music is loveable in such a unique way?’

This, the first of two parts, revealed a quartet of composers intent on spoiling the listener with a mass of tunes (teacher Dvořák and pupil Suk) or using their music to express the highly charged climate in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (Janáček and, from a distance, Martinů)

Jeremy Denk, Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Lawrence Power planned this concert to perfection, the abundance of tunes placed first and last, with the deeper moments in between.

It is doubtful Suk’s Piano Quartet, the first published piece of a precocious seventeen year old, has ever had a performance like this, bursting with pride and enthusiasm. After a forthright statement of the first tune from the ensemble, a beautiful solo from Isserlis revealed the work’s softer underbelly, which came to the fore in a similarly affecting tune in the slow movement, the cello releasing a beautiful mellow sound.

Janáček’s Violin Sonata wore a permanently furrowed brow. The icy reach of the muted violin in the last of the four brief movements was key to summing up a work that bristles with anger, though redemption was briefly found in the second movement Balada, with a theme of silvery consolation.

The second of three cello sonatas by Bohuslav Martinů was next. Isserlis has championed these works for more than 25 years, and gave a commanding performance of a moving work. Written in America in 1938, the composer having successfully fled Paris and the Nazis, it is a deeply felt and resilient utterance, especially in the second movement where time stood still.

As far as the tunes were concerned, the best was saved until last. Dvořák’s Piano Quartet no.2 positively bursts with Czech melodies – which are revealed to be surprisingly close in mood and contour to the American tunes he was to use towards the end of his career. Here they were swept along in a wonderful performance of good feeling, played with great sensitivity by Jeremy Denk, whose phrasing was key to the utmost charm of the Scherzo, the tender Adagio and the rustic finale.

Yet this was music for a team of friends to enjoy, the music surging forwards with a positivity rarely experienced to this extent in the concert hall – and happily caught by microphones, hopefully for a future release on Wigmore Hall Live. Those Czechs, they knew a good tune – and these four were the best possible Bohemian Rhapsodists in waiting!

The music from this concert can be heard here on Spotify. Part two of this series is at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 23 May, and will include the Dvořák Piano Quintet and the Piano Trio by Smetana.