Wigmore Mondays: Elias + Navarra = Mendelssohn Octet

Elias String Quartet (above – Sara Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violins), Robin Ireland (viola), Marie Bitlloch (cello)); Navarra String Quartet (below – Magnus Johnston, Marije Johnston (violins), Rebecca Jones (viola), Brian O’Kane (cello)

Beamish String Quartet no.3, ‘Reed Stanzas’ (2011) (5:25-20:49) (Elias Quartet only)
Mendelssohn Octet in E flat major Op.20 (1825) (27:02-58:58)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 25 June 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

You would do well to find a really quiet spot before listening to this concert. That is because Sally Beamish’s String Quartet no.3, written for a first performance at the BBC Proms in 2011, begins with a distant offstage violin solo.

In her work Beamish is tapping heavily into the folksongs of the Hebrides, and the Elias Quartet second violinist Donald Grant, well versed in that literature, is an ideal player to begin the work (from 5:25), with all the inflections the style of writing brings. As the ensemble join nearly two minutes later Beamish’s harmonic workings become clearer, but the distinctive folk melody continues to pull the ear.

A set of ‘stanzas’ provide development and variations on the theme, with the one from 8:15 changing the mood considerably from wide open to closed in. From 11:25 violin and cello join in a duet, before the music breaks into a quicker and much more assertive section. Then after some pretty frenetic dialogue, the mood cuts once again towards that of the opening, moving back towards the original folk melody, which subsides to silence once again.

The performance here was an intense one, its colours and harmonies showing a clear debt to Britten, whose quartets Beamish was listening to at the time. Yet there is no fully blown pastiche here, with a distinctive style of quartet writing that stays very open and direct in its communication. It was great to see Sally Beamish in the audience.

The Elias Quartet were then doubled in number by the Navarra Quartet to play one of Mendelssohn’s many early chamber music masterpieces. The Octet is a real one-off, mastering a form few composers since have managed to achieve. It is all the more remarkable when you consider Mendelssohn completed the work at the age of just 16!

The piece begins with typically youthful Mendelssohn qualities of enthusiasm and vigour, but with a melody that immediately sticks in the head (from 27:02-41:02). The second theme (29:07) is a nice complement, serene and thoughtful. What really stands out is the fullness of texture when compared to the string quartet before, Mendelssohn beefing up the sound with the two cellos and violas at the lower end in particular. Yet he thinks nothing of changing the mood quite considerably in the course of the first movement, with a sudden vulnerability introduced around 35:50 that checks the positive thoughts around it – until a rush back to the original theme.

The second movement (from 41:30-48:18)) is a slow Andante, and it exploits the uncertainty briefly aired in the first with a darker outlook but also a romantic sense of longing. It too thinks nothing of moving to a faster section, quite a fraught exchange of ideas.

The third movement scherzo (48:39) is the most celebrated of the four movements, containing strong pointers towards Mendelssohn’s Shakespearian music, and especially the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This one too is fleet of foot, with silvery shadows darting around the texture all the way through to the end at 53:03. At this point we surged into the finale, a thrilling dialogue between the four different sections of instruments (two lots of violins, violas and cellos) before a sweep to the finish at 58:58.

This was an excellent, joyous performance from the two ensembles, even if just occasionally it had too firm a foot on the accelerator pedal, with some of the tuning in the first movement going slightly awry as the ensembles pushed further forwards.

Further listening

There are no recordings currently available of Reed Stanzas, though a natural progression for further listening is a disc containing Beamish’s first two string quartets:

If the Mendelssohn appeals, this version from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble combines the Octet with a much later work, the wonderful and underrated String Quintet no.2:

For more early Mendelssohn, you simply have to try the amazing Piano Quartets, written when the composer was just 14, and showing an uncommon mastery of writing dramatic music for the piano:

Wigmore Mondays: Trio Wanderer & Christophe Gaugué play Fauré & Haydn

Trio Wanderer (above – Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Vincent Coq (piano); Christophe Gaugué (viola)

Haydn Piano Trio in A flat major HXV:14 (1790) (1:47-20:05)
Fauré Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor Op.45 (1886) (23:34-54:44)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 11 June 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The piano trio is a common means of expression in chamber music, but in the last few years its live profile has taken a hit, with the retirement of the legendary Beaux Arts and Florestan Trios.

Having achieved 25 years together as an ensemble, Trio Wanderer have a very important role to play in keeping this music visible (and audible!) to concertgoers, and at the Wigmore Hall they demonstrated why they are such a highly regarded act.

It is gratifying to note their most recent recording goes back to Haydn, and a choice selection of his Piano Trios. The composer – acknowledged godfather of the symphony and the string quartet – played a similarly important role in raising the profile of the Piano Trio. Initially his works viewed the violin and cello as accompanying forces rather than dominant melodic instruments, but by the end of his forty or so works in the genre he was showing signs of bucking that trend.

The Piano Trio in A flat major is numbered relatively early in the catalogue and dates from the composer’s second visit to London, where the pianist in its 1792 premiere was the fledgling composer Johann Nepomiuk Hummel. It is a highly appealing work, and here enjoyed a performance of sunny disposition from Trio Wanderer.

They were however alive to some of the work’s unexpected diversions, noting the surprise of the two-bar silence in the first movement (from 1:47 on the broadcast), and the uncertainty of its central section as the main theme underwent some quirky development.

The slow movement (9:40) took the form of an aria, with a sweet tone from violinist Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, and this led straight to an exuberant finale (14:44), with nimble passage work and cross rhythms from pianist Vincent Coq. This was one of Haydn’s forays into a ‘rare’ key – A flat major being difficult for strings to play in – but the Wanderer made it a highly enjoyable one.

The Fauré Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor was a tour de force. This is a wonderful piece, bursting with energy and passion but also taking time in its slower movements for deep, romantic thought. The stormy outer movements were contrasted by a slow movement that here vividly recalled the sleepy church bells of the village of Cadirac, on which Fauré’s writing is based.

The surging opening theme (from 23:34) set the tone, perfectly phrased, with the balance – often tricky to weight with such an active piano part – ideally set. Christophe Gaugué’s viola delivered a beautiful second theme (24:27), while the ensemble in unison found a rare moment of tenderness in this movement for the third (26:21). When the main tune returned (29:36) there was even more intent and power behind it, brilliantly conveyed.

The scherzo (33:50) was dazzling, Vincent Coq somehow phrasing a really tricky theme to perfection, with precise rhythmic accompaniment from the three strings. The slow movement (37:34) undulated softly, bringing visions of hazy fields in hot weather, before the reverie was abruptly shattered by the finale (46:57), back into the passionate groove, delivered with impressive intent by the ensemble. Tempo choices were assertive – just the right side of aggressive – and the final sweep towards the finish carried all before it!

Further listening

You can hear recordings of these works made by the Trio Wanderer for Harmonia Mundi. The Haydn has only just been released as part of a double album of some of the composer’s finest Piano Trios; the Fauré is recorded with Antoine Tamestit and dates from 2010.

Fauré has more wonderful chamber music up his sleeve, and if you enjoyed this performance of the Piano Quartet no.2 then the Piano Quintet no.1 is highly recommended as a next step:

Wigmore Mondays: Hille Perl & Lee Santana – Dreams and Dances of the Sun King

Hille Perl (viola da gamba), Lee Santana (theorbo, above)

Louis Couperin (c1626-1661) Prélude in D minor (1:54-3:08)
Jean de Sainte-Colombe (1658-c1701) Les Couplets (3:10-8:50)
Marin Marais (1656-1728) Suite du troisième livre de pieces de viole – Allemande, Courante, Sarabande & Gigue (10:23-14:18)
Antoine Forqueray (1672-1745) Le Leclair from Pieces de viole (15:57-22:38)
Marin Marais Le Badinage; Le Labyrinthe (from 4ème livre des pieces de viole) (24:32-38:06)
Robert de Visée (1655-c1732) Prélude; Les Sylvains de Mr Couperin; Muzette (all for solo theorbo) (39:16-47:33)
Marin Marais Les folies d’Espagne from Deusième livre de pieces de voile (49:34-59:18)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 30 April 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

It is not often we have the chance to enjoy a concert of music for the combination of viola da gamba and theorbo, but the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3 gave us that privilege with the vastly experienced team of Hille Perl and Lee Santana.

Perl plays a seven-string instrument, and if you’re not familiar with the viola da gamba it is essentially an early cello, but without a spike – so you have to grip it between the knees when playing to stop it from slipping. With seven strings this instrument has a wide range, and thanks to a carefully chosen programme we were able to appreciate its very different qualities at each end of its range.

In support was Lee Santana, using two different theorbos. When watching a player like this in action there is always a worry that the instrument’s long neck will take out the other occupants of the concert platform, but thankfully this did not occur! The timbre of a theorbo is very appealing, a kind of more mellow early version of the guitar, and both instruments had a lovely subtle resonance from the Wigmore Hall acoustic to help them.

Their program was based around the reign of the 17th century Sun King, Louis XIV of France, who loved to have music played for him during mealtimes and in his court. Some of the music here could easily accompany a meal, though some was pleasingly energetic and clearly written for a more vigorous form of dancing.

Perl began with a florid Prélude for solo viola da gamba from Louis Couperin (1:54 on the broadcast link), showing off the wide melodic range of the instrument, with wonderful resonance on the lowest note – an open ‘A’ string – and a broad, slightly mellow treble. Then Santana joined almost imperceptibly, in the same key, for Les Couplets, with the unmistakable lilt of a triple time dance – before a more improvisatory section over a set harmonic pattern, building to an impressive and vigorous finish.

The Marais, a collection of movements from a much bigger suite, began with an expansive Allemande (10:23), a slow dance form of German origin, then a graceful French Sarabande (12:10), with more vibrato applied by Perl. 13:28 a brisk Gigue.

The Forqueray piece (15:57), a tribute to the composer Leclair, made some formidable demands met head on by Perl’s virtuosity, again running like a form of chaconne (using a set pattern of chords). Listen from 20:16 to Perl’s rapid passagework, the bow flitting across the strings.

Le Badinage (from 24:32 repeats quite a sombre figure to hypnotic effect, crossing the strings on both viola da gamba and theorbo – and here the mellow tone of Perl’s instrument was ideal, despite an explosive interlude or two. Following this, Le Labyrinthe (28:26) felt more ceremonial, before heading into the higher register, and then stretching out into a much more substantial set of variations over a set chord progression. Once again, brilliantly played with plenty of room in terms of keeping a natural rhythm.

We then heard three pieces for solo theorbo by Robert de Visée, beginning with the free-spirited Prélude (39:16). The graceful Les Sylvains de Mr Couperin followed, then a Muzette (44:08).

Finally we heard a hugely impressive performance of the 32 variations making up Les folies d’Espagne (from 49:34), bringing both instruments together and utilising the practice of double stopping (more than one string on the viola da gamba played simultaneously). It was a stylish tour de force!

Further listening

You can listen to almost all of the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, which includes recordings already made by Hille Perl:

Wigmore Mondays: Javier Perianes plays Chopin, Debussy & Falla

Javier Perianes (piano, above)

Chopin Prelude in C Op.28/1 (1839) (1:44-2:25 on the broadcast link below)
Debussy Danseuses de Delphes (Préludes Book 1) (1909) (2:30-5:45)
Chopin Berceuse (1843-4) (5:50-10:38)
Debussy Clair de lune (Suite Bergamasque) (1890) (10:39-15:44)
Debussy Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Préludes, Book 1) (1910) (15:57-19:36)
Chopin Ballade No 4 (1842-3) (19:44-30:51)
Debussy La puerta del vino (Préludes Book 2) (1913) (32:47-36:15); La sérénade interrompue (Préludes Book 1) (1910) (36:18-39:02)
Falla Fantasia baetica (1919) 39:05-51:16

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 9 April 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The Debussy centenary has brought out some imaginative programmes from performers, and the inspiration for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert from the Wigmore Hall lay in one of Javier Perianes‘ earlier recital discs. He played much of the music in an unbroken stream, giving a lovely continuity to the music making while linking the composers too.

Debussy loved Chopin, describing him as ‘the greatest of us all, for through the piano alone he discovered everything’. Comparing the first published preludes by the composers was intriguing, the urgency of the Chopin (1:44 on the broadcast link above) countered by the sultry, easily paced Danseuses de Delphes (2:30). Chopin’s Berceuse (5:50) and the famous Clair de Lune from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque (10:39) share the same key of D flat major, and here the join between the two was exquisitely close. In the Berceuse the boat, having initially started out on a millpond, ran into some pretty gusty weather, while the dance of the moonlight on the water in the Debussy was allowed to take its time to ripple.

The following Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (15:57) was deeply atmospheric, shot through with mystery – but then Perianes turned to a powerful and very fluid account of the Ballade no.4, (19:44) passionately played and emphatically signing off the concert’s first sequence.

The second sequence was more noticeably modern, its musical language shifting forwards. La puerta del vino (32:47) crackled with tension, an insistent Habanera rhythm becoming the lynchpin for a rich vein of improvisatory work up top, while the humour of La sérénade interrompue (36:18) was brilliantly caught, with its stop-start gait and Spanish flair.

The latter quality was fully in evidence for an assertive and exciting Fantasia baetica (39:05), Manuel de Falla‘s biggest work for solo piano. This was packed with big dance crossrhythms, powerful musical statements and substantial added note harmonies. There were some very striking moments such as the big, bell-like melody from 49:13, which seems to be an attempt on the part of the piano to imitate the guitar, and Perianes swept all before him to an all-encompassing finish.

For the encore Perianes turned our glances sideways to another of Debussy’s close if less likely influences, the composer Edvard Grieg, whose piano music is still massively underrated. The Notturno (52:21) chosen by today’s pianist was beautifully judged and vividly pictorial.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Vilde Frang, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Anna Clyne, Britten & Beethoven ‘Pastoral’

Vilde Frang (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Clyne This Midnight Hour (2015) [London premiere]

Britten Violin Concerto, Op.15 (1939)

Beethoven Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68, ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Barbican Hall, London; Wednesday 21 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to the broadcast of this concert here, available until 20 April 2018

Most concerts by the BBC Symphony still feature either a world or national premiere, and tonight’s concert began with a first London outing for Anna Clyne’s This Midnight Hour. Drawing inspiration from poems by Juan Ramon Jiménez and Charles Baudelaire, this 12-minute piece duly alternates between energetic and more ruminative music in a ‘stretto’ of accumulating impetus. A pity the climactic stage loses focus in an amalgam of waltz-like flaccidness and folk-inflected jejunity – suggesting this as not one of Clyne’s better pieces.

Britten’s Violin Concerto has certainly come in from the cold over recent years. Vilde Frang was a little tentative in the initial Moderato, with its interplay of wistful lyricism and driving impetus, but the central scherzo was finely judged through to a seismic climax then dextrous cadenza leading into the finale. The earliest among Britten’s passacaglias, it makes plain his feelings over the demise of the Spanish republican movement, and Frang (below) had the measure of its sombre inwardness and high-flown rhetoric prior to a recessional of haunting eloquence.

As so often, Sakari Oramo was an astute and attentive accompanist – thereafter putting the BBCSO through its paces in a fluent and often searching account of the Pastoral Symphony. In this, as in Beethoven’s music overall, Oramo was his own man – omitting the exposition repeat in what was an incisive but never headlong reading of the first movement, followed by an Andante whose rhapsodic unfolding was accorded focus by the flexible underlying tempo and fastidious shading of string textures as has long been a hallmark of Oramo’s conducting.

The last three movements proceed continuously and if the scherzo was a little too streamlined for its verve and humour fully to register, the ‘Thunderstorm’ made for a powerful interlude before (and climactic upbeat to) the finale. As disarming melodically as it is difficult in terms of pacing, this unfolded with a sure sense of its developing variation; allied to a lilting motion which evokes a cosmic dance offered as thanks for peace in time of crisis. Maybe the closing cadence was just a touch over-emphatic, but the sense of a journey fulfilled was undeniable.

You can watch Vilde Frang talk about the Britten Violin Concerto in a BBC video here For more information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to the orchestra’s homepage – and for more on their chief conductor Sakari Oramo, click here

Meanwhile you can listen to Vilde Frang’s disc of the Britten and Korngold Violin Concertos, recorded for Warner Classics, on Spotify: