Wigmore Mondays: Lise de la Salle plays Bach, Liszt & Brahms

Lise de la Salle (piano) photo (c) Nicolas Brodard

J.S. Bach Italian Concerto in F major BWV 971 (1735)

Liszt Fantasie and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H S529 (1855)

Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24 (1861)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 9 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A nicely planned hour’s recital from Lise de la Salle, focussing on the collision between two different historical periods in music.

The so-called ‘Romantic’ composers rediscovered the music of Bach half way through the nineteenth century, and this led to a series of important performances and rearrangements of the composer’s music. Liszt paid his own characteristically larger than live homage in a fantasy based on the notes of the composer’s name (B-A-C-H translating in German as Bb – A – C – B natural, or H). Brahms, while not directly referencing Bach, built a hugely impressive seam of variations and a fugue on a theme from one of Handel’s Harpsichord Suites. Lise began her recital with Bach’s own act of homage, though this was a concerto for piano only written in the style of his Italian contemporaries.

Follow the music

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

Bach Italian Concerto (12 minutes, beginning at 1:39 on the broadcast)

Listen out for the lively first movement, marked ‘Allegro’ (from 1:39), then an intensely lyrical slow movement marked ‘Andante’, written in the style of an aria (5:12). Then the last movement brings a lively conclusion to the piece, packed as it is with a stream of melodic content (10:56)

Liszt Fantasie and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H (13 minutes, from 14:45)

Liszt’s gestures are typically bold at the start, where the B-A-C-H theme is stated boldly – but then because of the chromatic nature of the theme the music becomes very mysterious around five minutes in (20:00 or so). Then, from 21:30, we get ‘high voltage’ Liszt in the form of some tempestuous piano writing, where de la Salle responds to the challenge very impressively. Then, from 25:09, we get a big piece of chorale (hymn like) writing, before the theme is stated again and a thoroughly convincing ending ensues.

Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24 (27 minutes, from 28:50)

In a prolific burst, Brahms wrote no fewer than 25 variations on Handel’s theme. The theme itself is played in the original form, and then the variations begin at 30:02. Brahms achieves a staggering variety of moods, speeds and phrases, moving away from Handel’s outline to explore new tonalities and rhythms. For a notable contrast listen out to the light footed, graceful Variation 3 (31:43) and the following Variation 4 (32:24), a strident march. On more than one occasion Brahms moves to the relatively downbeat minor key, dramatically so in Variation 13 (40:20) – which he follows with the capricious Variation 14 (41:54). The variations are noticeably more playful at this point in the work, but once again Brahms’ serious side exerts itself as we lead towards the fugue. This begins at 51:22, Brahms stating the melody and then bringing in each part with incredible precision, each strand fusing seamlessly.

Thoughts on the concert

This was a fascinating combination of pieces, played with technical brilliance by de la Salle – though her projection was at times on the loud side, meaning that the Bach especially felt as though it was played in capital letters – and the last movement felt rushed.

The Liszt was impressive and big boned, while the Brahms – though perhaps not getting the full contrast of moods – was beautifully and affectionately worked. The staccato eighth variation was especially impressive in its clarity, as was the quickfire fourteenth, though when the Fugue appeared it was initially difficult to grab the rhythm. That said, an impressive reading from a pianist growing in stature.

Further listening and reading

If you like the idea of Romantic composers taking their lead from the Baroque, then I think you’ll like this album from Murray Perahia. It brings together the ultimate Bach revival composer – Mendelssohn – with arrangements of Bach by Busoni.

You can catch up with Lise de la Salle at her website

Meanwhile her Liszt album from 2011 is available on Spotify below:

Wigmore Mondays – Hanno Müller-Brachmann & Hendrik Heilmann in Mahler

Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone), Hendrik Heilmann (piano)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann pic © Monika Rittershaus

Mahler Kindertotenlieder (1901-4) (27 minutes)

Mahler Rückert Lieder (1901-2) (21 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 10 July, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

First, a health warning. These songs have subject matter and musical content that is not for the faint of heart! Yet if you can allow for Mahler’s preoccupation with death and its implications, then there is much to appreciate here in the vivid power of his writing, and it does offer some consolation to the pain and strife elsewhere.

Mahler was drawn to the text of Friedrich Rückert, and set it on several occasions. The first ‘cycle’ of the poet’s works was Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the death of children), which drew from the composer some remarkably bleak and intense music, responding as he was to the death of eight of his siblings during their childhood. The bitterest of ironies was that only four years after the completion of the work, the composer’s daughter Maria died from scarlet fever aged just four.

This lends a painfully poignant air to the music, fully exploited here by the outstanding German bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann and his descriptive musical partner, pianist Hendrik Heilmann. The singer’s tone was slightly nasal in the delivery of these songs, but right from the start of the opening poem, Nun will die Sonn so hell aufgeh’n (Now the sun will rise as bright, from 1:51 on the broadcast link) it was used very carefully to give an idea of the hollow grief for those involved.

The second song, which seems to tell of a child suffering from an incurable disease (from 7:55), laid bare its grief, as did the third (12:58), talking of ‘O du, des Vaters Zelle, Ach zu schnelle Erlosch’ner Freucenschein’ (‘O you, the joyful light…too soon extinguished’). This was similarly dark, reaching an uncomfortably powerful climax from 16:40.

And yet, the radiant brightness of the sun was gradually used to convey the release of grief and the promise of hope in the future, the young lives laid to rest. This was heard fleetingly in the middle of the second (around 10:35) and third songs, usually where Mahler moved to a major key, but in the fourth, where the poet muses how ‘they have only gone for a long walk’, Muller-Brachmann and Heilmann made clear the serenity of the end (from 20:50), where ‘the day is beautiful on these hills’.

Finally, In diesem Wetter (In this weather, 21:38), where the tension broke loose in the form of a storm, dramatically conveyed by Heilmann, before Müller-Brachmann hurled forth a vocal bristling with anger and panic. This, too, subsided to a form of peace, the five songs finally allowed a resting place.

After this more Mahler was a risky move, but with such authoritative singing it made sense to go into the five Rückert-Lieder, which by and large offer a less stark approach. Liebst du um Schönheit (If you love for beauty, 31:12) offered a lighter mood, and more vibrato from the singer, who then exploited the dark humour from the start of Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder! (Do not look at my songs!) (33:30).

The distracted Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world) was a beauty, the most fragrant of the songs heard so far, beautifully introduced by Heilmann 34:45 and softly sung. Yet there was a feeling of inevitability about the approaching and devastating Um Mitternacht (At Midnight, 37:56) where a cold shadow fell over the hall. Interestingly this was sung at a lower pitch than is normally the case, suspended in G minor rather than the B flat minor normally used.

Finally a song of true peace and rest, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world, 44:50) was introduced with all the time in the world by Heilmann, who dictated the slow but lovingly wrought interpretation.

These were superb, thoroughly authentic Mahler performances, draining every last piece of intensity from the words and, equally importantly, from the piano part. It almost seemed churlish to offer encores, but there were two from Mahler’s pen. The first, a carefree folk setting Ich weiss nicht, wie mir ist! (I do not know what’s wrong with me, 53:45) was followed by the outrageous Lob des hohen Verstandes (Once in a deep valley, 56:23), the singer doing his best to bray like a donkey and coo like a cuckoo or nightingale as he depicted a singing competition between them!

Further listening

The works in today’s concert were orchestrated by the composer, and can be heard on this new release from the superb Alice Coote, showing their versatility for either male or female voices. The female voice lends a special potency to the text of Kindertotenlieder in particular:

It is also worth including a link to what is for many one of the greatest vocal recordings, Dame Janet Baker’s interpretations of the Mahler cycles in this concert, together with the Lieder eines fahrenden gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). All are conducted by Sir John Barbirolli:

Finally, in response to the encores, a listen to Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn (with Müller-Brachmann singing), a collection exploring the composer’s fascination with folksong and a child’s way of thinking, often about nature:

Wigmore Mondays – Clara Mouriz & Joseph Middleton: Songs of the Antique

Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Purcell/Britten Alleluia (pre-1702, realised by Britten 1960)

Alessandro Scarlatti Son tutta duolo (c1699)

Anchieta arr. Dorumsgaard Con amores, la mia madre (unknown)

Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets (1842-6)

Duparc La vie antérieure (1884)

Hahn Tyndaris (1900)

Ravel Kaddisch (1914)

Falla 7 Spanish Popular Songs (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 June, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert that confirmed the versatility of Clara Mouriz and Joseph Middleton. Their performance, titled ‘Songs of the Antique’, concentrated on songs whose music or text looks a long way to the past for inspiration.

The mezzo-soprano has a rich and powerful voice in the middle register especially, which came to the fore in passionate accounts of the Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets, but also in the solo writing of Ravel and the quasi-orchestral scope of Duparc.

First we went right back to the Eighteenth century for an Alleluia – a song originally attributed to Purcell but found to be by John Weldon. Britten, as part of his Purcell revival, provided a complementary piano part, one that shadows the spun out vocal. This vocal won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Mouriz mastered it brilliantly here (from 1:49 on the broadcast link provided).

The Scarlatti, an excerpt from the opera La donna ancora è fedele, made a nice contrast (3:52). Unlike his brother, who wrote copious amounts of keyboard music, Alessandro wrote many operas – and the excerpt here shows how fluid his vocal writing could be. Meanwhile the arrangement of Anchieta’s folksong, thought to be from the fifteenth century, had a primal quality in this interpretation – with elegantly shaped piano from Middleton (7:01).

The Liszt was a highpoint of the recital, not just for Mouriz’s fire and passion but for Middleton’s word painting with the piano part. Liszt was borderline-obsessed with the sonnets, complementing his two vocal settings of the trio with powerfully descriptive pieces for the piano. The vocal line is highly charged in all three songs, and strongly Italian in musical flavour as well as language. Sonetto 104, Pace non trovo (I find no peace) surged forward turbulently in the piano part, a restlessness matched by Mouriz’s outpouring (from 10:31).

The Sonetto 47, Benedetto sia ‘I giorno (Blessed be the day) was notable for ‘the sighs and tears, the longing’ found by Mouriz at 20:07, while the final Sonetto 123 I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I beheld on earth angelic grace) was beautifully sung (from 23:10), Mouriz mastering the wide ranges and dynamics Liszt asks for. Middleton’s decorative piano part was brilliantly done too.

After this we had the relatively rare chance to appreciate the songwriting guile of Henri Duparc, a French composer whose life was tragically cut short due to neurasthenia. He left just thirteen published songs, of which La vie antérieure is an expansive example. It began optimistically (30:13) but turned rather sour towards the end, this performance carefully paced and given impressive detail by Middleton.

Hahn’s Tyndaris offered more optimism after the Duparc (from 34:35) while Ravel’s Kaddisch, from his Deux melodies hebraïques, had a powerful declamation that Mouriz used to take over the hall (36:15).

Finally the Spanish mezzo-soprano was completely on home turf for Falla’s brilliantly written songs, a whole wealth of different characters and emotions coming out in this performance (from 42:22).

We had the famous Seguidilla murciana (43:00) where ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’, the mournful Asturiana (45:10), a brisk Jota (47:58), a soft Nana (Lullaby) (51:03), a brighter Cancion (52:48) with darker lining and finally the dramatic Polo (53:42), where the piano’s repeated notes appear to describe the stabbing pain in the singer’s heart.

As a richly deserved encore the pair gave a soulful performance of a Spanish funeral song, Let my soul mourn (57:08).

Further listening

The works in today’s concert are on Spotify and can be heard below:

As a contrast, why not try an album of orchestral music by the Spanish composer Turina, featuring at its centre the collection of Poema en forma de canciones:

Meanwhile, you can watch Clara and guitarist Sean Shibe perform Asturiana, from the Falla songs, below:

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:

Wigmore Mondays – Phantasm and Elizabeth Kenny play dance music of the 17th century

Phantasm (above), Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo)

Lawes Royal Consort No.10 (c mid-1630s)

Locke Consort of 4 Parts No 5 (c mid-1650s)

Lawes Royall Consort No 5 (c mid-1630s)

Locke The Flatt Consort ‘for my cousin Kemble’ (c mid-1650s)

Lawes Royall Consort No 6 (c mid-1630s)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22 May, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Want to know what dance music sounded like 400 years ago?

Well the answer to that question – in England at least – lay at the heart of this fascinating lunchtime in the company of Phantasm. The group are a viol consort, a kind of early form of string quartet, playing authentic viols – two trebles, a tenor, and a bass. The trebles are violin equivalents but are played like very small cellos, the instrument held in the lap. The tenor is an elegant looking instrument, around two-thirds the size of a cello and played in the same way, while the bass is essentially an ancestor of the modern cello, without the spike to keep it from slipping. Joining the four was Elizabeth Kenny, playing the distinctive lute relative, the theorbo.

They made a lovely sound in the music of William Lawes and Matthew Locke, two Englishmen of the early to mid-17th century. The contrasting styles were effective – we heard three Royal Consorts from Lawes, intended for the court of Charles I, and two Consorts from Locke. The pieces were built around dance forms, but as the entertaining note from leader Laurence Dreyfus pointed out, this is not music that would have been easy to dance to. Most dance music – in the West at least – is written in units of four, so that us luddites know when to change steps, but Lawes would write in blocks of seven, nine or eleven. The music is attractive and sunny, reflecting the daylight that streamed in through the Wigmore Hall roof.

We began with the Royal Consort no.10 of Lawes (from 4:32 on the broadcast link), an elegant collection of six short dance movements headed by a brightly voiced Pavan, then two each of Allemandes (8:02 and 11:09) and Courantes (9:40 and 12:51) before finishing with an unusually chirpy Saraband (13:57). The Allemande is a dance of German origin, the Courante and Saraband from France.

Then we moved on to Locke’s much more worrisome Consort of 4 Parts no.5 in G minor, abruptly changing mood from unexpectedly bleak to fiery exchanges in the Fantasy movement (16:23), then enjoying a stately Courante (20:22), a thoughtful Air (21:35) and brighter Saraband (23:12), which had a strange, abrupt finish. These were brilliantly characterised by the five players.

Returning to Lawes, we heard the Royal Consort no.5, beginning with pair of Airs at once serene (26:21) and lively (29:30). Then there was a short Allemande (31:06) and a pair of Courantes (32:16 and 33:53) before the highlight, a wonderful echo effect during the rustic Morriss (35:07) and an almost otherworldly Saraband (35:47). All were played with poise and flair, prompted by Elizabeth Kenny’s subtle theorbo playing.

Once more we took a darker turn for Locke’s The Flatt Consort ‘for my cousin Kemble’, so-called because of its minor key. The music, beginning at 38:55, was once again very changeable, moving between slow and fast, quiet and loud. The three contrasting sections with which it ended wore a gruff face (45:21), or a poised, elegant one (45:56), and finally resorted to a driving, brusque tempo from 47:24.

Finally we returned to Lawes for another cheery Royal Consort – no.6 – comprised of an Air (50:22), Allemande (51:55), Courante (53:44) and a brisk, energetic Morriss from 55:40 to finish, Kenny’s theorbo using a distinctive twang.

As an encore the group offered two numbers from the Royall Consort no.4 (58:01 and 59:28), again bright and breezy.

This was a superb concert, given with great enthusiasm, drive and poise, featuring five performers at the top of their game but playing very much as a group, and mastering the quirky tuning of their instruments to make a wonderful sound. I will definitely be catching it again on the iPlayer!

Further listening

You can hear the Lawes suites on the Spotify link below…from where you can access more from the composer.

Locke is more difficult to pin down…but the link below will take you to his dramatic incidental music for The Tempest: