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 – Alexander Gavrylyuk plays Prokofiev, Mozart & Rachmaninov

Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano)

Mozart Piano Sonata in C major K330 (c1783) (1:56-20:20 on the broadcast link below)
Rachmaninov Preludes: in G flat major Op.23/10 (1903), in G minor Op.23/5 (1903), in G sharp minor Op.32/12 (1910) (22:04-32:25)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1942) (34:12-51:06)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 7 January 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

On his website, Ukrainian-Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk makes the profound statement that ‘not many things in this world can unite people – no form of diplomacy could ever do that. I think that music comes the furthest in revealing that perhaps on a deeper level we are all quite similar’.

The quote is especially instructive given the work with which Gavrylyuk ended this concert, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7. Yet in these uncertain times his words are appropriate to any musical experience. Few have the purity of his Mozart, an account of the Piano Sonata in C major K330, the composer’s tenth published work in the form which was written just after he moved to Vienna. Published in his late twenties, it is very much a ‘white’ work – as in, written in the key whose scale uses all the white notes on the keyboard.

Yet, as a listen to this performance (from 1:56 on the broadcast link) will show, Mozart enjoys a good deal of chromatic movement, using the black notes to add considerable spice and intrigue to what initially seems like an extremely polite piece. Gavrylyuk plays with poise and elegance, enjoying the composer’s good manners but equally thriving on the diversions as they get more pronounced.

The slow movement (from 8:59) reveals much more of these tendencies, especially in its central minor key episode, a deeply personal piece of writing with tragic overtones (from 11:28). It casts a shadow from which the whole movement takes a while to recover, even when moving back into the safer intimacy of the major key (13:38). With a cutesy flourish the finale (15:22) returns us to happier music making, and seems to take on the influence of Scarlatti while looking forward to early Beethoven. Again Mozart enjoys more exotic melodies than the key suggests, keeping wit and positivity to the fore.

Rachmaninov’s big early success as a composer came through the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, its declamation a big hit with audiences. From this he was inspired to write 24 Preludes, one in each key, published in two subsequent books of 13 and 10 works respectively. The three heard here are fine pieces in their own right, beginning with the relatively confidential Prelude in G flat major Op.23/10 (22:04). This leads to the raw power of the Prelude in G minor Op.23/5 (25:24), one of Rachmaninov’s best-loved piano pieces, which builds into a march of real substance in Gavrylyuk’s performance. The Prelude In G sharp minor Op.32/12 (29:40) is an intriguing work, its bell-like sonorities hinting at the influence of the East and leaving quite an impression in this performance.

The reason Gavrylyuk’s statement is so pertinent to Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7 is because the piece was written – as with so many Soviet pieces of its era – on two levels. Its crowd-facing elements were to please Stalin, to ensure Prokofiev stayed in his favour with works that left his audience in an ultimately positive frame of mind. How could they be otherwise, given the ferocity of the final movement? And yet the private elements are there for all who listen closely, for this is the central of Prokofiev’s three ‘War Sonatas’, completed in 1939. The first movement may be loud and brash (from 34:12) but it also has music of barely concealed turmoil, revealed clearly in the second theme two minutes later, where the virtuosity is completely absent.

Prokofiev is one of the most percussive of earlier 20th century composers for the piano, alongside Bartók and Stravinsky, and as the first movement proceeds there is an impressive rhythmic drive. All that is removed for the profound slow movement, however (42:11), where he quotes from Wehmut (Sadness), part of Schumann‘s Op.39 cycle Liederkreis, another private clue to his predicament.

In this performance Gavrylyuk has the sonata’s measure to a tee, investing a lot of feeling in the slower music while seemingly using the louder moments to banish evil from his sight. The last movement (47:57) is thrill-a-second, the repeated three note motif in the left hand taking over and driving to a hugely impressive finish, by which time the pianist was so far back he was almost horizontal!

Appropriately we had calming Schumann for an encore, providing a consoling link to the slow movement of the Prokofiev. This was Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) from his 1838 collection Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) Op.15 (52:28).

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Alexander Gavrylyuk’s own recording of the Prokofiev:

The recording of the Prokofiev is part of an intriguing recital disc released in 2011, which includes works by fellow Russian composers Rachmaninov (his underrated Moments Musicaux Op.16) and Scriabin (his Piano Sonata no.5):

Meanwhile to further explore the Prokofiev piano sonatas, Denis Kozhukhin is an excellent guide. This album contains the other two sonatas in the so-called ‘war trilogy’ of works:

Wigmore Mondays: Augustin Hadelich & Charles Owen – Brahms, Ysaÿe & Adams

Augustin Hadelich (violin, above), Charles Owen (piano, below)

Brahms Violin Sonata no.1 in G major Op.78 (1878-9) (1:57-28:08)
Ysaÿe Sonata for solo violin no.4 in E minor Op.27/4 ‘Fritz Kreisler’ (1923) (30:31-40:44)
Adams Road Movies (1995) (43:33-1:00:24)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 10 December 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was the third Monday lunchtime in the last six weeks where BBC Radio 3 and the Wigmore Hall have been concentrating on music for violin and piano. This nicely constructed recital complemented the previous pair from Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova, and Tai Murray and Silke Avenhaus, where we had heard two of the three violin sonatas by Grieg.

On this occasion we heard a contemporary of those works, the BrahmsViolin Sonata no.1 in G major – a work written for his friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim – and one also picked up by Clara Schumann. It is a highly attractive work and received an affectionate performance here, Augustin Hadelich and Charles Owen straight into the beatific air of the first movement (from 1:57 on the broadcast) With an equally genial theme from 3:24, this was Brahms at his most radiant, with a sweet tone from the violinist and flowing countermelodies from Owen. The airy role reversal at 5:20, with Owen playing the tune and Hadelich giving pizzicato (plucked) accompaniment was a lovely moment – as was the content beginning of the coda (11:35). In between this the music was passionate and animated, Brahms developing his source material.

The second movement (from 12:34) also benefited from Hadelich’s sweetly toned instrument, shaping up to be a lovely reverie until a much more animated central section blew away the cobwebs (15:00). Returning at 16:23, the main theme gained an extra layer from double stopping on the violin (playing more than one string at once), and Owen’s piano line continued as a model of sensitivity.

Clara Schumann stated that she would happily have the last movement of this sonata to accompany her on her journey ‘to the next world’, and you could hear why in this performance (from 20:05), which brought out its bittersweet quality. Brahms moves between G minor and G major, a delicate balancing act of music that sounds a bit fretful and gentler, uplifting thoughts. Hadelich and Owen caught them perfectly here, the latter’s nicely pointed piano working particularly well on the dance-like second idea of the movement. From 25:37 the major-minor tension resumed, resolved in a serene coda from 26:20, ending quietly.

Ysaÿe wrote his six solo violin sonatas at great speed, publishing them all together in 1923. The fourth pays particular homage to Bach, incorporating the dance forms that were used in his Sonatas and Suites for solo stringed instruments. It was dedicated to the violinist-composer Fritz Kreisler, one of the very greatest string players. Not surprisingly it makes technical demands on the performer but Hadelich was brilliant here (from 30:31), careful not to overdo the virtuosity at the expense of musical communication.

The three sections of the sonata moved from a dramatic first movement Allemanda (30:31) through a slowly evolving Sarabande used by the composer as a fugue (34:50) and then a bracing Finale (37:57). The Sarabande had the most striking sonorities of the three, thanks to the inventive pizzicato techniques matched spotlessly by Hadelich, but the last movement was a tour de force with which to finish!

Following this was one of the first pieces John Adams wrote for chamber forces, his evocative trip Road Movies, after a period where he admits to ‘studiously avoiding the chamber music format’. Yet, as this entertaining three movement piece proves, his music translates effortlessly to the smaller scale. The piano (played heroically here by Charles Owen!) supplies a lot of the rhythmic impetus and the bass foundations, leaving the violin to operate more freely up top.

The first movement, Relaxed Groove, is described by the composer as ‘a relaxed drive down a not unfamiliar road. Material is recirculated in a sequence of recalls that suggest a rondo form’. Both performers got to the nub of the bluesy music straight away, and also evoked the ‘solitary figure in an empty desert landscape’ in the second movement, entitled Meditative (49:11), where Hadelich had to detune his bottom string from a ‘G’ to an ‘F’. Finally the toe-tapping 40% Swing (55:19) closed out this virtuosic piece, both players smiling as they enjoyed its grooves and motifs.

We disembarked from the Adams vehicle, but an encore was waiting to see us on our way – a rather fine arrangement by Ysaÿe of the Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor, played with appropriate tenderness by Hadelich. Owen’s flowing accompaniment, too, was finely judged.

Further listening

Augustin Hadelich has not yet recorded any of the works in this recital, but the following playlist brings together the music heard in the concert, including a version of the encore arranged by Nathan Milstein:

For those enjoying the Ysaÿe Solo Sonata, a logical next port of call would be the unaccompanied 24 Caprices by Paganini, which Hadelich has recently recorded:

For those enjoying the Adams, here is a disc including not just Road Movies but a collection of the composer’s works for keyboard:

Wigmore Mondays: Lara Melda – Ballades by Chopin & Liszt

Lara Melda (piano, above)

Chopin Ballades for piano: no.1 in G minor Op.23 (c1835) (2:11-12:09 on the broadcast link; no.2 in F major Op.38 (1839) (13:10-20:38)
Liszt Ballade no.2 in B minor S175 (1853) (22:30-39:40)
Chopin Ballades for piano: no.3 in A flat major Op.47 (1841) (41:28-49:15); no.4 in F minor Op.52 (1842-3) (50:38-1:02:39)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 3 December 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Emrah Bostan

A very well planned and presented hour of Ballades from Lara Melda, contrasting beautifully the approaches to the form by Chopin and Liszt.
Chopin’s Ballades are some of the finest works in all his output for solo piano, and contain numerous innovations in form, style and substance. The four works are very different in character, each telling a very different story – but a private one to the composer, too.

The Ballade no.1 in G minor Op.23 gives a stern call to arms at the start of proceedings (from 2:11 on the broadcast), Melda taking a long (and appropriate) pause before beginning, but starting very slowly too. Though arguably too slow, it is a dramatic interpretation, beautifully paced and technically very strong, remaining straight faced throughout but really working up a head of steam from 4:45 onwards. A slower section follows, nicely phrased, before a return to the stern outlines of the minor key, Melda’s octaves probing sharply (from 7:10). From 10:40 the music gathers itself for a powerful and deliberate (but again very effective) finish.

The Ballade no.2 in F major Op.38 (13:10) has an almost Christmassy feel to start with, the gentle theme making itself known in a rocking formation. This contrasts to a violent intervention (15:17) in a completely different mood and key, Melda keen to make a wide difference between the two approaches. Initially this is a flash in the pan, the soft theme returning at 16:18, but the brittle intervention has not gone away for long, and appears once more from 18:30. Here the pianist does not feel quite so controlled or disciplined – possibly intentionally. The quiet music does return again (20:09), crucially now in a minor key, to indicate force has not quite won the day.

Liszt’s approach to the Ballade, perhaps not surprisingly, is to make it an all-encompassing literary whole, telling the story of Gottfried Bürger’s Lenore in fifteen minutes of high drama. Beginning in the murky depths of the piano at 22:30, the more extensive Ballade no.2 in B minor S175 immediately makes an impact under Lara Melda’s direction, the probing lower range theme setting the scene. The next section, from 26:40, is jagged and unhinged, beginning Lenore’s ride on the horse with her dead lover. This macabre setting full of octaves in the piano’s right hand is brilliantly played, as is the softer, bell-like section that follows at 29:50. Then a tumultuous section shows off Melda’s ability for clarity at speed, a typical whirlwind of Liszt octaves reaching its climax at 32:10. From 34:09 a chorale-like theme begins to develop, reaching its apex at 36:57 and then subsiding to a quiet end.

Chopin’s Ballade no.3 in A flat major Op.47 (41:28) contrasts nicely with the bombast of the Liszt, its relatively reserved but lyrical opening theme one of the composer’s very best. A contrasting waltz section (43:38) is much more assertive, and finds Melda adding a nice lilt to the music. These two alternate as though in a quest for domination, and were beautifully played here. The only slight blot on the landscape was what appeared to be a memory blip from Melda on the last few chords, but she recovered to finish in the ‘home’ key.

Finally the Ballade no.4 in F minor Op.52 (50:38), arguably the most difficult of the four – and an extremely intense piece of music. Melda played it with the same assurance she gave the other three ballades, capturing the deep melancholy at the heart of its waltz-like theme. This was a very concentrated reading, leading inevitably to the quiet five chords (1:01:01) and the incredibly powerful coda that follows (1:01:38)

A fine concert, then, from a pianist with a keen sense of drama, a near-impeccable technique and a clear passion for this music.

Further listening

Lara Melda has plans to release an all-Chopin disc next year, which will be her first recording. The playlist below includes well-loved accounts of the Ballades from Vladimir Ashkenazy, while for completeness I also included the encore Melda played at the Wigmore Hall after Radio 3 had gone off the air:

Another Romantic composer to write Ballades for the piano was Brahms, whose early examples for the piano were published in 1854 as 4 Ballades Op.10. This legendary recording by the pianist Emil Gilels forms part of a disc of Brahms’ Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor, which has the same key and a similar mood to the first of Chopin’s Ballades:

Wigmore Mondays: Tai Murray & Silke Avenhaus play Grieg, Philip Glass & Saint-Saëns

Tai Murray (violin, above); Silke Avenhaus (piano, below)

Grieg Violin Sonata no.2 in G major Op.13 (1867)
Glass Pendulum (2010)
Saint-Saëns Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.75 (1885)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 November 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was an imaginative and invigorating recital from two instrumentalists at the very top of their game. It also brought forward two of the lesser lights in the violin and piano repertoire, giving exposure to composers for whom melody came naturally.

Edvard Grieg’s three sonatas for violin and piano are consistently rewarding. Three weeks previously at the Wigmore Hall we heard Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova in the Violin Sonata no.3; now Murray and Avenhaus gave a passionate performance of its predecessor.

Of a largely sunny disposition, the Violin Sonata no.2 in G major is one of the first works to introduce home-grown folksong into the Norwegian composer’s output. Tai Murray seized the opportunity for drama with an assertive introduction, countering Silke Avenhaus’s thoughtful opening in the minor key (1:49). From 3:17 they moved to the first movement proper, enjoying the attractive, dance-like melodies in a bright exchange, though this was countered by a more reflective, minor-key theme (heard again at 8:19).

Grieg used this key for the slow movement, which began in dreamy, reflective mood (11:09). Soon however the violin was soaring higher and faster, before subsiding to a beautiful, airy second theme, back in the major key (12:47). The third movement once again suggested the outdoors with the piano drone (16:55) and another folksy melody, the violin stepping in exuberantly – and another dreamy episode from 19:02. After a recapitulation of the drone material at 20:18 Murray and Avenhaus led us to a grand coda, a passionate finish in a similar vein to the soon to be published Piano Concerto.

Philip Glass’s Pendulum, originally written for piano trio, appeared here in a duo version sanctioned by the composer. Even when Glass is at his most delicate, great demands are placed on the performers, especially when set the kind of athletic arpeggio figures Murray and Avenhaus had here (from 24:30). They responded with an energetic performance but also took great care with the subtleties of Glass’s writing at the start of the piece, with a steady tread on the lower notes of the piano. The nervous energy was never far from the surface, growing as the oscillations became ever wider, leading to a sweeping finish at 31:47.

The mystery that Saint-SaënsViolin Sonata no.1 is not more often performed is solved by its fiendishly difficult but utterly exhilarating finale. Until then, the work – completed in 1885 – had already made a strong impact, thanks to the composer’s clever grouping of the four movements into pairs of two, and the irregular but strangely effective phrasing of the melodies.

From the start of the first movement (34:02) Murray and Avenhaus set a tense, nervy atmosphere, the violin and piano shadowboxing each other. The second theme (35:37) was equally nervy, despite the flowing piano’s suggestions of the Organ symphony. The recapitulation in this dramatic movement reached a climax at 39:55 with some concerto-esque playing from the piano before the flowing theme returned, Saint-Saëns moving us seamlessly into the second movement (from 43:25)

This respite, a rather beautiful reverie, was broken by the third movement Scherzo (from 48:00), a throwback to the composer’s Danse macabre, with irregular phrases and the instruments mirroring each other again. There was a flowing trio section (from 49:58) but before long we were back to the Scherzo (50:58). Another seamless transition set up the finale (from 52:05), scampering out of the blocks with some remarkable playing from both players, responding to the technical demands with apparent ease and bringing back the second theme from the first movement in a beautiful passage of playing from 56:08. Then the music built for the final time, surging into the major key where a cascade of bells rang out from the piano (57:03), before the emphatic finish.

A terrific concert, this, with no need for an encore. At its best Saint-Saëns’ music can be breathtaking, and this was one such wholly enjoyable occasion!

Further listening

Tai Murray has yet to record any of the music played in this concert, but the playlist below contains some of the best available versions:

If you particularly enjoyed the Grieg, I wholeheartedly recommend a disc bringing together all three of the composer’s sonatas for violin and piano, played by Augustin Dumay and Maria-João Pires:

It remains a mystery as to why the Saint-Saëns sonatas are not performed more often. If you listen to the collection below you will find some persuasive accounts of the Second Violin Sonata, the Cello Sonatas and works for clarinet, oboe and bassoon: