Wigmore Mondays: Inon Barnatan plays Bach, Franck & Barber

Inon Barnatan (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Toccata in E minor BWV914 (c1710) (6 minutes)
Franck Prelude, Choral et Fugue (1885) (18 minutes)
Barber Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op.26 (1949) (20 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

This was a fascinating hour in the company of American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, exploring the role of the fugue in piano music while showing off considerable artistry and technical control of his instrument.

He began with Bach, and one of the lesser heard Toccatas for keyboard. This fell into three parts (starting at 4:06 on the broadcast) and initially took on quite a serious tone before relaxing for the fugue (which begins at 5:04). Barnatan signed off expansively, in a sense preparing for what was to come.

This proved to be Franck’s three-movement Prélude, Choral et Fugue, surely written in homage to organ pieces such as Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, but working particularly well on the piano. Barnatan gave a performance of impressive stature, really getting to the nub of the deep and almost religious expression the Belgian composer achieves.

An expansive Prélude (from 12:40) was followed by a reverent statement of the Chorale in hushed tones (at 18:18), before this grew inexorably in stature, leading to a superbly controlled peak at 21:10. The Fugue was confidently delivered, gaining intensity from its initial statement (23:50) until the final peal of bells signalled its triumphant switch from B minor to B major (30:11).

The Barber Sonata was simply superb, and a timely reminder that this is a composer worth so much more than simply the Adagio for Strings. Good though that piece is, the Sonata explores much more aggressive and twisted musical thoughts, perhaps a surprising response to a commission from Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, in honour of the League of Composers’ twenty-fifth anniversary. As announcer Clemency Burton-Hill says in the radio introduction it is a formidable work, perhaps not surprisingly given its dedicatee, Vladimir Horowitz.

It is difficult to imagine a better performance than Barnatan gave here, setting the tone immediately with the jagged outlines of the first movement’s main material (marked Allegro energico, from 32:40). There was considerable drama as this tumultuous piece of music unfolded, with bits of occasional lyrical repose but ultimately big outbursts in the form of the inspiration behind the piece, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Piano Sonata.

All were given with the utmost clarity by Barnatan, who softened the mood for the second movement Scherzo (40:39), then the intimate slow movement (Adagio mesto, from 42:52) which nonetheless reached a hair raising climax some three minutes or so later. Barnatan was totally inside the music, this passage described by Barber’s biographer as ‘the most tragic’ of the composer’s slow movements. Finally a terrific final movement Fuga, brilliantly played and with some complex figurations made to look easy!

The encore (from 54:00) was wholly appropriate, Busoni’s transcription for piano of the J.S. Bach choral prelude Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, in which a sense of stillness returned.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. Inon Barnatan has not recorded any of this repertoire to date, so the versions chosen here are by established pianists Glenn Gould, Jorge Bolet and Joanna MacGregor:

You can also see for yourself what the fuss is about by watching Inon Barnatan playing the first movement of Schubert’s C minor Piano Sonata below:

Meanwhile if you want an introduction to the music of Samuel Barber, starting with the Adagio for Strings, look no further!

Wigmore Mondays: Fatma Said sings Schumann, Mendelssohn, Poulenc & Sherif Mohie El Din with James Vaughan

Fatma Said (soprano, above), James Vaughan (piano, below)

Schumann 6 Gesänge Op. 89 (1850); Singet nicht in Trauertönen Op.98a/7, Liebeslied Op.51/5 (both 1849), Requiem Op.90/7 (1850)
Mendelssohn Die Liebende schreibt Op.86/3 (1831), Ach, um deine feuchten Schwinge (Suleika) Op.34/4 (1837), Hexenlied Op.8/8 (1827)
Poulenc Les chemins de l’amour, from Léocadia (1940), 2 poèmes de Louis Aragon (1943)
Sherif Mohie El Din Three Poems by Amal Donqul (1989)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

As a demonstration of artistry, this was quite some Wigmore Hall debut for soprano Fatma Said, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. The Egyptian singer used four languages in the course of an hour, and showed an aptitude for contrasting musical styles in a cleverly constructed programme.

It was good to hear less familiar Schumann songs as a starting group (from 1:32 on the broadcast) The set of six, published as Op.89, were written in the composer’s second ‘year of song’, the productive 1850. They set words by Wilfriend von der Nenn (a pseudonym for Wilhelm Schöpf), and show off an economy and intensity of word setting, with none lasting more than two minutes.

Said caught the agitation running through Es stürmet am Abendhimmel (There are storms in the evening sky) (1:32), set up by a wonderfully turbulent introduction from the excellent James Vaughan. A flowing Heimliches Verschwinden (Stealthy departure) (3:07) led to the yearning harmonies of Herbstlied (Autumn song) (5:12), then the softer hearted Abschied vom Walde (Farewell to the forest) (7:38). Both performers threw wide the curtains for a bracing Ins Freie (Out in the open) (9:45), before Röselein, Röselein! (Rose, little rose) (11:54) began with a striking solo, setting its dreamy mood.

A group of three more Schumann songs followed, the bright and carefree Singet nicht in Trauertönen (Do not sing in mournful tones) (15:20) leading to Liebeslied (Love Song), where there was a nice rapport from both performers in the song’s ebb and flow (17:38). Requiem (19:46) had a restrained and respectful air.

Mendelssohn’s songs are less-often heard, but carry melodic invention along with often incredibly challenging piano parts! A thoughtful Die Liebende schreibt (The beloved writes) (24:55) and the more urgent Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen (Ah, West Wind, how I envy you) (27:51) were nicely done, but the Hexenlied (Witches’ song) (30:34) was something else, the high notes nailed impressively by Said while Vaughan handled the flurry of notes with apparent ease.

The pair then turned to Poulenc, whose songs are the jewel in the crown of his musical output. We heard three brief but meaningful numbers, Les chemins de l’amour (The paths of love) (34:44) caught the efforts to stay cheerful despite the approach of World War II in 1940, while C (38:51) dealt with the immediate and horrific aftermath. Fêtes galantes (41:40) was a bit too breathless, but maybe that was the point as it raised a laugh!

Said then turned to ‘home away from home’, introducing three songs by Egyptian composer Sherif Mohie El Din, a welcome move that introduced a new sound world to the Wigmore Hall as well as showing the soprano’s clear passion for music and words of her first language.

The musical depiction of The Rain (from 44:22) was vivid and featured well-placed silences, the piano part enhancing the effect of raindrops. Could the river flow forever (46:50) had darker shading, while the final Against whom?  (49:57) was a tortuous and anguished study of feelings felt during surgery.

The performers generously gave us two encores – a further Egyptian song, Daughter of the Sultan by Gamal Abdel-Rahim (54:41) and then, after the radio went off air, Old Sir Faulk by Sir William Walton, with accompanying gestures from the soprano.

This emphasised how at home she is on the stage, and capped an extremely impressive and enjoyable recital, where a blend of musicianship and communication of the messages behind the text was always the primary goal. Both performers succeeded comfortably.

Further listening

You can listen to recorded versions of the repertoire in this concert on this Spotify playlist, apart from the Sherif Mohie Eldin songs which are not on the streaming service:

Meanwhile here is a link to the Sherif Mohie Eldin official YouTube page, including the three poems performed in the concert:

Wigmore Mondays: Isabelle van Keulen & Ronald Brautigam play Beethoven, Fauré & Szymanowski

Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Ronald Brautigam (piano)

Beethoven Sonata for piano and violin in G major Op.30/3 (1801-2) (from 1:37 on the broadcast)
Szymanowski The Fountain of Arethusa from Myths Op.30 (1915) (from 19:51)
Fauré Violin Sonata no.1 in A major Op.13 (1875-6) (from 26:34)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

Full marks to the Wigmore Hall for their choice of established recital partners and an invigorating program to start the 2018 BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert series. Isabelle van Keulen and Ronald Brautigam were clearly brought in to blow away the January blues and dispel any ‘back to school’ feelings among the audience, and they did so with freshly minted interpretations of Beethoven, Szymanowski and Fauré.

Beethoven’s eighth published Sonata for piano and violin, the third of his Op.30 set, began the concert (from 1:37 on the broadcast link). This spring-like work flew off its perch with a flourish, and once a few minor tuning issues at the outset were settled van Keulen and Brautigam enjoyed the close-knit ensemble playing in the first movement.

The second movement, a slow Minuet (from 8:00), was delivered as a passionate song and dance, a little quicker than expected, while the third movement (from 15:00) threw open the doors once again, van Keulen enjoying its folk dance associations.

The first of Polish composer Karel Szymanowski’s 3 Myths, also Op.30, had added electricity. Heralding a new sound world for the composer, The Fountain of Arethusa began with a watery cascade of notes from Brautigam (from 19:51), matched by tensile high register playing from van Keulen, both vividly portraying the fountain but also exploiting the sensual harmonies and rich textures. Hopefully van Keulen will go on to record the composer’s works for violin and piano.

The concert finished with one of the sunniest of works for the combination. Fauré’s Violin Sonata no.1, his first work in the form, surged forwards from the outset (from 26:34), the longer melodic phrases beautifully measured on the violin, while Brautigam’s sensitivity in balancing a busy piano part was a notable achievement.

The second movement (from 35:35) introduced darker, shaded thoughts and grew to a passionate climax of real stature. The third movement Scherzo (from 41:55) was a delight, showing off the qualities that secured an encore at the work’s first performance in Paris in 1877. The finale (45:45), initially elusive, brought all these elements and more together, and finished with an impressive sweep.

There was room at the end for an appropriate encore, giving homage to centenary composer Lili Boulanger. She died in 1918, aged just 24, and her Nocturne (from 52:13 on the broadcast), beautifully shaded here, was an atmospheric example of her unfulfilled potential.

Further listening

You can listen to recorded versions of the repertoire in this concert on this Spotify playlist. Meanwhile if you enjoyed the Fauré and Szymanowski in particular, this lovely disc from Augustin Dumay and Maria João Pires shows the depth of European repertoire from the 20th century for violin and piano.

Wigmore Mondays: Céline Moinet & Florian Uhlig – Schumann Romances for oboe and piano

Céline Moinet (oboe, above – picture Francois Sechet), Florian Uhlig (piano, below)

Schumann 3 Romances Op.94 (1849)
Nielsen 2 Fantasy Pieces Op.2 (1889)
Clara Schumann 3 Romances Op.22 (1853)
Robert Schumann 12 vierhändige Clavierstücke für kleine und grosse Kinder Op.85/12 – Abendlied (1849)
Pasculli Concerto on ‘La Favorita’ by Donizetti ()

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 4 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

Robert Schumann was a composer equally at home in short musical forms as he was in longer constructions – but it seems his most intimate thoughts can be found in the shorter pieces, either his songs or his chamber music. Schumann’s lyrical style of writing means that pieces like the 3 Romances, written for Clara as a gift, transfer effortlessly between treble instruments such as the violin, clarinet or horn. These three, however, work best on the oboe, its tone perfectly suited to the reflective and slightly mournful outer pieces.

The two Nielsen pieces are early works, written by the composer shortly after his graduation from the Copenhagen conservatoire – a Romance and an Intermezzo in the form of a Humoreske.

Returning to Schumann, we hear an arrangement of a piano piece for children, and then three Romances by Schumann’s wife Clara. These were originally written for the violinist Joseph Joachim, but like her husband’s music they transcribe for oboe and piano with ease.

Finally a piece by Antonio Pasculli, regarded as the best oboist of his time – and one who enjoyed arranging operatic themes for the oboe in highly virtuosic pieces with piano accompaniment.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Schumann 3 Romances Op.94 (1:34) (12 minutes)

The first piece (1:34) is lyrical but slightly downcast in its musical though, a time for reflection. The mood becomes more upward looking for the second piece (4:55), Schumann switching towards the major key for a gentle tune that he contrasts with an energetic central section (from 6:04). The third piece (8:54) begins with the bare bones of a melody, played by the oboe and piano together, with darker shades to the texture and harmony that never fully leave the music.

Nielsen 2 Fantasy Pieces Op. 2 (from 15:13) (6 minutes)

Nielsen gives the oboe a sweet melody for the first fantasy piece, a Romance (15:13) but characteristically alters the harmonic setting to throw it just a little out of kilter.

For the Intermezzo – a Humoreske – from 18:32, an impish and slightly mischievous approach makes for a charming piece, especially when the harmony moves into the major key.

Clara Schumann 3 Romances Op.22 (from 22:36) (10 minutes)

The first Romance is a genial piece that goes on to test the oboist’s control of the upper register. There is fluid interplay between the oboe and piano before the piece softens at the close. From 25:34 the second piece moves into a minor key, and once again a darker outlook. The third Romance, from 28:22, is the most expansive of the three, with flowing piano and a long legato oboe line, before Clara introduces a more playful aspect to the oboe’s lines.

Schumann Abendlied Op.85/12 (from 32:56) (2 minutes)

A short but sweet lullaby from Schumann’s Music for Children (Large and Small!), Abendlied (An Evening Song) is beautifully played.

Pasculli Concerto on La Favorita by Donizetti (36:44) (12 minutes)

A carefully considered piano introduction sets the scene, in the spirit of the best concertos, with the oboe following 40 seconds later. The slower introduction includes some extremely tricky passagework for the oboe, but also some broader melodies from Donizetti’s opera. Then after a cadenza from the oboe, the pace quickens (41:45) in a march. Now the oboe line is incredibly demanding, twisting and turning in rapid figurations in what feels like a thorough test of stamina rather than anything more musically meaningful!

Thoughts on the concert

This was quite a short recital for the Wigmore Hall lunchtime, but was beautifully played by Céline Moinet, who showed off technical prowess but more than anything a keen ear for and aptitude with the music. She inhabited Schumann’s world easily, finding the thoughtful intimacy that he pours into his shorter works, not to mention the darker side they inevitably hint at.

For the Pasculli she was really able to cast off the shadows, but here Florian Uhlig’s virtuosity and prompting were just as important, the pianist mastering some tricky runs in response to Moinet’s ever greater athletic feats. That she managed to bring across Donizetti’s operatic melodies was no mean feat, and the end was thrilling in its bravura.

Further listening and reading

You can listen to Céline Moinet and Florian Uhlig in their new album Schumann Romances, available here on Spotify:

Meanwhile Moinet’s previous disc, Meditations, brings together a lovely combination of French, Italian and German works – some original, some arranged:

Wigmore Mondays: Andrei Ioniţă & Itamar Golan – Bach, Shostakovich & Bartók

Andrei Ioniţă (cello, above – picture Daniel Delang), Itamar Golan (piano, below)

J.S. Bach Cello Suite no.1 in G major BWV1006 (c1720)
Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40 (1934)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 27 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

There is a frustrating lack of information around J.S. Bach’s music for solo cello. Frustrating because the music itself is so good, a cornerstone of the instrument’s repertoire that satisfies experienced players and novices alike. In an interesting program note for this concert Richard Bratby outlined how Bach’s Six Suites for solo cello could indeed have a biblical theme running through them, a conviction that the cellist Steven Isserlis holds, though as he is the first to admit there is no hard and fast evidence for this.

The Suites are beautifully structured, with a Prelude giving way to five different dances – two relatively quick (in this case Allemande and Courante) – then one slow (always a Sarabande) and then two more quick (here two Bourrées) and always ending with a triple time Gigue.

The first cello suite has music you may recognise from Master and Commander among many other film and TV uses.

The Shostakovich is one of the most-played works for cello and piano from the 20th century, and it is easy to see why when you hear it – packed full of incident and tunes. It was written at the start of a new era for the composer, his wife having just moved out – and found him in a particularly rich vein of creativity, completing the half-hour work in just over a month in 1934. It was written for the cellist Viktor Kubatsky, who with the Stradivarius Quartet had taken part in the premiere of the composer’s 2 Pieces for String Octet in 1925. Shostakovich had yet to write any of his 15 string quartets, or his concerti for violin and cello, so this marks his first large scale writing for a stringed instrument. It received a mixed reception, some of its critics branding it too simplistic, but its lyricism and humour have given it a wide audience.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

J.S. Bach Cello Suite no.1 in G major BWV1006 (c1720) (1:47) (16 minutes)

The suite follows the outline described above, beginning with an expansive Prelude (1:47) that uses a series of arpeggios to plot its harmonic and melodic course. The dance movements begin with a fairly relaxed Allemande (4:02), where the steps are relatively slow, but steps up in pace with a Courante (7:52).

A slow and gorgeous Sarabande follows (10:20) where the cello uses a lot of ‘multiple stopping’ – playing more than one note with the bow simultaneously – before we move to a pair of Bourrées. The first one (13:14) is boisterous, the second (14:22) more withdrawn – but the first is repeated (15:32) to reclaim the upbeat mood. Then the distinctive triple time of the Gigue (16:09) closes out the suite.

Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40 (from 20:20) (28 minutes)

The Sonata begins in relatively genial mood, with a legato approach to the cello, as lyrical as anything Shostakovich has written. Soon, however, the clouds begin to form – though they are not visible anywhere when the cello gives out the second main theme of the first movement (22:35), a beautiful moment where it sounds suspended in mid-air. The movement ends deep in thought, but with a little frisson of worry around the edges.

That worry is emphatically thrown off in the bold as brass second movement (32:20) where both instruments go at it hammer and tongs. After that outburst we return to quiet and an introspective slow movement (from 35:45), where Shostakovich captures that exquisitely private intimacy only he can in a chamber setting.

When we emerge from deep thought the piano gives out a witty theme (44:06) to signal the start of the finale, where both players duck and dive through a set of highly enjoyable tunes and countermelodies. This is Shostakovich having fun – but even then there is a note of caution in the background.

Thoughts on the concert

Andrei Ioniţă gave a thoughtful performance of the Bach First Cello Suite, though could perhaps have shown us more of the sunnier side of the music, which can come through in the Courante, first Bourrée and Gigue especially. The Courante felt too fast – certainly something you’d have trouble dancing to! – though it did show off his quickfire technique, of which more later. The Sarabande could perhaps have been more outwardly expressive too, though the Gigue had a nice rustic feel.

The Shostakovich was a different story, Ioniţă and Itamar Golan straight to the heart of the work with an intimate yet wholly involving performance. The cellist’s tone was ideal, and so was the balance struck with the piano, who intervened in crushing style where necessary but drew back in the quieter moments. The bracing second movement was powerfully wrought, both players sparring with the gloves off, but the slow movement was especially affecting, helped by Ioniţă’s control of the high melodic line. The finale was brilliantly done, bringing just the right measure of humour and introspection to the performance.

With some time left Ioniţă and Golan gave a generous encore, an arrangement of Bartók’s Six Romanian Folk Dances for cello and piano (from 49:43 on the broadcast). This had all the flair and pizazz you would expect from a native Romanian, brilliantly played and with all the melodic inflections beautifully realised. The accuracy of the harmonics in the third dance (51:41) had to be seen to be believed!

All in all an excellent concert from a prodigious talent, who can only benefit from having someone as experienced as Golan – who has in his time accompanied Mischa Maisky and Maxim Vengerov – alongside him.

Further listening and reading

You can watch Ionita in the final of the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition below, where he plays more Shostakovich:

Meanwhile the pieces making up the concert are grouped in the following Spotify playlist