Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, BBC SO / Sakari Oramo – Schmitt, Franck, Ravel & Sibelius Symphony no.3

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (above)

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 27 October 2017

Schmitt Symphony No.2 in E flat major, Op.137 (1957)

Franck Variations symphoniques (1885)

Ravel Piano Concerto in D ‘for the Left Hand’ (1930)

Sibelius Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op.52 (1907)

You can listen to the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 by clicking here (available until 26 November)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Sakari Oramo‘s Sibelius cycle continued as part of a judiciously balanced programme which opened with a rare revival of the Second Symphony by Florent Schmitt. This continues the French symphonism of Roussel and Honegger; albeit with a quirkiness of melodic thought and virtuoso handling of sizable forces to confirm Schmitt as no mere epigone. Indeed, the angular wit of the first movement suggests his willingness to confront post-war modernism head on, and if the central Lent admits warmer and even tender emotion, the finale resumes the assaultive mood with an unremitting intent through to its scabrous close. Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra had the measure of this unsettling piece throughout; their responsiveness underlining that Schmitt was not one to accept the passing of his own era with even a hint of good grace.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (below) then joined the orchestra for two staples from the French concertante repertoire, separated in time by almost half a century. Good to see that Franck‘s Variations symphoniques has now re-established itself in UK concert programmes, as this unlikely yet successful hybrid of elements from symphony and concerto, as drawn into the pithiest of its composer’s cyclical designs, has a substance more than equal to its entertainment. Bavouzet and Oramo were especially fine in the expressive contrasts of its opening minutes, and if the rhapsodic musing at its centre seemed a little inflexible, then the effervescence of its final section too forcefully projected, there was no doubting the coherence and the ingeniousness of its composer’s response to a piano-virtuoso tradition he spent much of his life despising.

That the Franck outlines a ‘three movements in one’ formal design makes it a more than likely precursor to Ravel‘s Piano Concerto in D major, the most enduring of those left-hand works written for the redoubtable (if frequently wrong-headed) Paul Wittgenstein. Not the least attraction of tonight’s performance was its emphasizing the canniness of the balance between soloist and orchestra, such that the former was never less than audible in the context of what is the most overtly rhetorical and combative of all Ravel’s works. Add to this Bavouzet’s limpidity in the eloquent theme which returns intensified in the cadenza, not to mention Oramo’s control of momentum in the jazz-inflected animation of the scherzo, and what resulted was a reading attentive to every aspect of this masterpiece: one that justifiably brought the house down.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony is easy to underestimate as a transitional work poised between overt romanticism and renewed classicism. It was to Oramo’s credit that elements of both aesthetics were not only evident but also reconciled – not least in an opening Allegro which moved between fervency and incisiveness with no mean purpose. The highlight came with a central Andantino whose quasi allegretto marking may have been minimal, but whose opening-up of emotional space made for a riveting listen. The final movement was hardly less impressive in its purposeful equivocation between scherzo and finale, Oramo teasing resolve out of uncertainty so the hymn-like theme that eventually emerges built to a powerful apotheosis. A gripping performance, reinforced by the conviction of the BBCSO’s response.

For more concert information on the BBC Symphony Orchestra, head to their website

You can hear a recording of the Florent Schmitt made by Leif Segerstam on Spotify below:

Wigmore Mondays: Trio Jean Paul play Haydn & Brahms / Kirchner

Trio Jean Paul (above) (Ulf Schneider (violin), Martin Löhr (cello), Eckhart Heiligers (piano) Photo (c) Irene Zandel

Haydn Piano Trio in F# minor, HXV:26 (1795)
Brahms, arr Kirchner String Sextet no.2 in G major Op.36 (1864-5)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 23 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

In recent years the piano trio format – piano, violin and cello – has suffered a little in live performance, due to the retirement of the magnificent Beaux Arts and Florestan Trios, arguably the two best established groups in the form.

That effectively promotes the Trio Jean Paul to the forefront of the established piano trios, and their performing chemistry, built over two decades, was there for all to see in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert.

They began with Haydn, godfather of the piano trio, who effectively introduced the form with his 30 or so works for the combination. At this point in musical history the piano was the dominant force, the violin and cello effectively building on its melodic ideas. All that was to change with Beethoven, but even in Haydn’s works the spirit of exploration is making itself felt. In the unusual F sharp minor work, one of three the composer wrote in London in 1794, the ‘new’ can be felt in the strangely elusive mood and the unusual choice of keys that are much less friendly for the string players.

Contrasting with this was the massive String Sextet no.2 of Brahms, its instrumentation condensed by the composer’s friend, fellow-composer Theodore Kirchner. The arrangement had Brahms’ approval, and was made along with an arrangement of the first sextet to open up the music to amateur musicians. However it must have been a difficult beast to master with so much music for three performers! With Brahms having already written three published piano trios, and one unpublished, the need for two more is debatable – but it was interesting to hear it at this concert nonetheless.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Haydn Piano Trio in F# minor, HXV:26 (from 2:47) (14 minutes)

This particular trio is surprisingly sombre in its demeanour, and even though the piano looks to explore some brighter passages in the first movement (from 3:36) the minor key harmonic language returns to keep things relatively straight faced. The second movement, marked Adagio cantabile (from 8:22) is a different story. Set in the exotic key of F sharp major, it brings a radiant, singing line to the melody, in music that Haydn also uses as the third movement of one of his ‘London’ symphonies, no.102 in B flat major. For the finale, a kind of minuet (from 12:11), we return to a dissonant and uncertain outlook, still relatively downcast at the end.

Brahms, arr Kirchner String Sextet no.2 in G major Op.36 (from 19:06)

The work opens with quite an imposing stance, its first theme given an airy tone by the first violin. This is countered by the cello, with a rich second theme at 21:25. Brahms develops these themes intensively as the movement progresses. Then at around 29:15 the mood becomes much more thoughtful as Brahms recaps the original melodies, and this section leads to a strong, richly coloured close of a really substantial movement (33:16) – at 14:10, longer than the entire Haydn!

The second movement is a Scherzo, and is beautifully scored at the outset by Kirchner, with violin and cello pizzicato (plucking). This slightly furtive section is contrasted by a vigorous trio section (37:05) before the music subsides again to the mood of the opening – though it gathers itself once more at 40:54 to sign off in style.

From 41:35 we move into the slow movement, which is harder to define in the shadowy outlines of the melodies we hear on the stringed instruments. The underlying tension within the music is suddenly released with a quicker section at 44:56, the piano jousting with the strings, before the slow music comes back, more restful this time.

At 50:56 the final movement begins, initially in an outlying harmony but moving to G major where the music can assert itself. The energy gathers from then on, the last few minutes a triumphant assertion of the melodic ideas and the home key, signing off at 57:42.

Thoughts on the concert

Despite a very strong technical performance, it was still quite difficult to warm to Theodore Kirchner’s arrangement of Brahms’s Second Sextet. This was probably because of the knowledge that the glorious colours of the original are to an extent compromised in the arrangement, and that changing from six instruments to three makes the music sound a lot more congested.

With that said the Trio Jean Paul gave an excellent, forthright performance that took Brahms’s challenges head on, and also left room for the shadowy outlines of the third movement – where we did admittedly lose the underlying pulse for a little while. Ulf Schneider’s sweet tone at the opening of the first movement was rather beautiful however, matched in the second theme by cellist Martin Löhr. Pianist Eckhart Heiligers did extremely well with the busy part he was assigned, and the weighty finish to the work was most impressive.

The Haydn felt ‘authentic’ and captured what seems to be an awkwardness on the composer’s part in writing this work, a blend of adventurous harmonic writing and seemingly confused emotions.

Further listening and reading

You can hear Trio Jean Paul’s recording of both Kirchner arrangements of the Brahms String Sextets on Spotify below:

You may also wish to compare them with the richly scored originals, given here in a new recording by an ensemble including the Capuçon brothers, violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier:

Meanwhile for fans of the Haydn Piano Trios – which make wonderful music to work to – here is a disc the Trio Jean Paul released in 2013, including the works performed in this concert:

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: