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

Oberon Symphony Orchestra – UK premiere of Enescu’s Fourth Symphony

Richard Whitehouse on a major British premiere given by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra and their conductor Samuel Draper (above)

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 29 April 2017

Mahler Blumine (1884)

Bartók Romanian Folk Dances, BB76 (1917)

Schubert, realized Newbould Symphony No. 10 in D, D936A (1828) – Andante

Enescu Symphony No. 4 in E minor (1934, orchestration completed Bentoiu) UK premiere

Tonight’s concert from the Oberon Symphony featured a British premiere (the second from this orchestra) in the Fourth Symphony by Enescu. Written largely during 1933-4, this was left in abeyance with only the first movement and the start of its successor orchestrated. That the work was structurally complete enabled the composer and musicologist Pascal Bentoiu (who would have turned 90 this month) to prepare this in 1996 for performance; since when, there have been several more hearings in Romania and Germany but not until now in the UK.

Compared to the opulence of its two predecessors, the Fourth Symphony is audibly a product of the inter-war years. Playing for around 33 minutes, its three movements evince traits from Bartók and Stravinsky, but there is little overtly neo-classical about a content which features some of the most emotionally charged music Enescu wrote. Much of this impact is achieved by opening-out the nominal formal designs in a process of continuous variation that extends across the piece, and resulting in a ‘tragedy to triumph’ trajectory beholden to no precedent.

It was that sense of music in perpetual evolution that came over strongly in this performance. Adopting a trenchant yet never inflexible tempo for the opening Allegro, Samuel Draper duly brought out the drama and pensiveness of its main themes, then found no mean eloquence in the climactic stages prior to a brutal descent into silence. From here emerges a fusion of slow movement and intermezzo that unfolds uncertainly but never aimlessly across a landscape of echoes and allusions; an intensifying processional Draper controlled superbly while ensuring the melismatic solo writing was accorded necessary expressive space. There was a palpable expectancy conveyed as the finale hovered into view; this free rondo evolving as if a ‘stretto’ of mounting activity to a coda whose affirmation is informed by evidently bitter experience.

It was just such an ambiguity that came across so tangibly here, Draper maintaining seamless momentum throughout this movement’s formal complexity and textural intricacy as found its fulfilment in the tonal resolution of the closing bars with their implacable final chord. This set the seal on a reading of real conviction and insight, in which the Oberon SO has rarely played better, that communicated itself readily to the enthusiastic audience. The UK may have had to wait over two decades to hear this work live, yet its essential worth was more than vindicated.

The first half prepared well for the Enescu with a trio of contrasted pieces whose juxtaposition itself offered food for thought. Starting as incidental music then briefly finding a home in his First Symphony, Mahler’s Blumine had a wistfulness and poise to the fore here, then Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances elided keenly between incisiveness and elegance. Schubert’s ‘Tenth Symphony’ is one of music’s great might-have-been’s, the Mahlerian overtones of its central Andante made explicit in Brian Newbould’s realization as in Draper’s sensitive interpretation.

An impressive showing, then, for the Oberon Symphony as it approaches five years of making music. And, with the Fourth Symphonies of Brahms and Vaughan Williams scheduled for the next two concerts, its future programming promises to be no less ambitious and resourceful.

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Mondays – Vilde Frang & Aleksandar Madžar play Bartók and Schubert

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Vilde Frang (left, violin), Aleksandar Madžar (right, piano)

Bartók Violin Sonata no.1 (1921) (33 minutes)

Schubert Fantasy in C major D934 (1827) (21 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 16 November

Arcana’s commentary

It is easy to see why Vilde Frang is held in such high regard. This contrasting program of Bartók and Schubert showed a steely side to her playing in the former, but also a purity of tone that could be easily appreciated throughout.

These qualities served her well in a powerful rendition of Bartók’s massive Violin Sonata no.1, but she could not have made this impact without Aleksandar Madžar’s superb piano playing, notable for its clarity and rhythmic precision.

Bartók and rhythm are inseparable, and the hold that folk music has on his compositions was all too clear in the syncopations and cross rhythms that Frang and Madžar exploited here. The angular tunes of the first movement (first heard at 2:07) had an assertive mood, brilliantly played.

Richard Bratby’s excellent program note reminded us how modern the music must have sounded in 1922, when Bartók himself played piano with violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, who became an important creative muse. Frang and Madžar powered through the first movement, making light of its technical difficulties, but in the second movement time stood still. Frang’s sweet but thoughtful tune, initially heard alone (from 14:26), was complemented by a solemn and mysterious chorale from Madžar (16:00), the two forces gradually aligning but still lost in a distant world.

The finale arrived with a flourish (25:15), both performers tackling it with some relish and achieving a remarkable unity of ensemble at the end (from 32:30), finishing with a terrifically spicy, bluesy chord.

Schubert’s Fantasy in C major can seem like a long piece in the wrong hands, but here it came alive. Completed in the last year of his life, it is conceived in a single span of four distinct sections, and is a very original piece of writing. Balance between the violin and piano is key, and this was spot on for the moving opening statement, where Madžar had a lot of work to do but was always responsive to Frang’s soft intonation (from 37:09)

A bracing Allegretto section (from 40:23) led to the centrepiece, a Theme & Variations (45:44) The origin of the theme, a Schubert song, was abundantly clear in this lyrical performance, while there was some sparkling playing from Madžar as the variations took hold (try 48:57) This flair and musicality continued to the return of the soft first movement theme, now shaping up in the finale (52:36), an emotional reunion in these hands before a convincing finish (from 57:40).

This was a superb concert, affirming Vilde Frang as one of the best violinists of her generation on the concert circuit, but also illustrating just what a fine pianist Aleksandar Madžar is too. Hear this if you can!

Further listening

You can hear more of Vilde Frang in an early album recorded for Warner Classics with Michail Lifits. Here she brings a sunny tone to violin sonatas by Grieg (no.1) and Richard Strauss, full of youthful exuberance, while there is more Bartók in the form of his Sonata for solo violin, a tour de force:

by Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Doric String Quartet play Debussy and Bartók

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Doric String Quartet [Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone (violins), Hélène Clément (viola), John Myerscough (cello)]

Bartók String Quartet no.4 (1928) (26 minutes)

Debussy String Quartet in G minor (1893) (27 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 September

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 26 October

Arcana’s commentary

An intriguing clash of two of the twentieth century’s biggest composers, glimpsed at very different stages in their development. It was perhaps a surprise that the Doric Quartet chose to begin with the Bartók, with its more abrasive tones, rhythms and harmonic language, but it received an extremely fine performance here.

Bartók wrote the piece at a point where his use of ‘cyclical’ and ‘arch’ forms was prevalent in his work. The String Quartet no.4 works as an arch, its first and fifth movements big-boned compositions, while the second and fourth are flighty and elusive. The third is a typical example of the composer’s night music, supremely evocative and more than a little wary of the shadows.

If not perhaps as ‘rustic’ as some of the Hungarian quartets in performance, it was played with precision accuracy, the rhythms making themselves clear with plenty of cut and thrust. The rocking motion of the second idea in the first movement (from 3:50 on the broadcast) offered a nice contrast.

It was perhaps in the middle movements however where the Doric were strongest. The second movement, played with mutes (from 8:11) offered shadowy contours and elusive, silvery sounds – not forgetting the odd outburst – while the third, a slow movement (from 12:02), has lovely shady contours at the end (from 17:28). Best of all was the fourth movement (17:58), played pizzicato (plucked) and with some especially good snappy effects.

Bartók’s moments of simplicity were surprisingly moving, while the gritty determination on show elsewhere was very convincing – nowhere more so than the start of the last movement, a big ensemble section of terrific drive (21:08).

Debussy’s only String Quartet comes towards the start of his composing career, just as he was shaking off the overbearing influence of Wagner. It signals a conscious move towards the more ‘impressionist’ language he started using with orchestral works such as Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune, but remains packed with extremely catchy tunes, enjoyable humour and rich textures.

The Doric performance was a very good one but did on occasion lapse towards a bit of fussiness with tempo variations. It certainly started rather smoothly (30:31), blunting the edges of Debussy’s humour a bit, but lovingly played. The less witty approach could also be felt in the second movement (from 37:10) – which, incidentally, is receiving a lot of exposure at the moment thanks to the Apple advertisement below:

The slow movement (from 41:21) was a beauty, notable for some lovely, elegiac sounds from the viola of Hélène Clément (at 44:22) and a beautifully judged climax. The finale felt a bit episodic, and it was difficult to always hear Alex Redington’s line at the very top of the texture where I was sat at the end of the hall. That said, its exuberance (from 49:47) could hardly be faulted.

Further listening

If you like the music in this concert, Ravel’s only String Quartet is a logical piece to hear next. It bears many similarities to the Debussy but is if anything even more exquisitely formed. For something a bit fuller for strings from Bartók, the Music for strings, percussion and celesta is a terrific orchestral piece, full of atmosphere and drama – so much so that Stanley Kubrick turned to it as part of his horror film The Shining. The playlist can be found here on Spotify, together with the music from this concert:

BBC Proms – BBC Singers & Ensemble Intercontemporain: Boulez, Elliott Carter & Bartók

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Baldur Brönnimann conducts the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the BBC Proms on Friday 2 September, in a Prom also featuring violinist Jeanne-Marie Conquer, IRCAM computer music artists Andrew Gerzo, Carlo Laurenzi and Jérémie Henrot, and the BBC Singers. (c) Chris Christodolou

Prom 65; Royal Albert Hall, Friday 2 September 2016

Bartók Three Village Scenes (1926); Boulez Anthèmes 2 (1997); Carter Penthode (1985); Boulez Cummings ist der Dichter (1970)

Listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Tonight’s late Prom suggested a certain nostalgic element in that the composers performed were at the forefront of these concerts from the late-1960s to the early 1990s, since when the evolution of contemporary music has increasingly become divorced from notions of progress.

Not least in the case of the Three Village Scenes that Bartók wrote in response to a hearing of Stravinsky’s Les noces, and that essentially freed his music from any vestige of late-romantic rhetoric. Not heard at the Proms for over three decades, these concise pieces alive with vitality and (in the second of them) pathos responded well to the poise and precision accorded by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (who gave this piece with Pierre Boulez in 1974 and ’79) – with the BBC Singers conveying the abrasiveness and humour of the vocal writing in like measure.

Although among his late works, Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 looks back via a brief solo predecessor to the Stravinsky memorial tribute a quarter-century earlier. Less encompassing in its musical scope than his other electro acoustic pieces, it brings to a head Boulez’s preoccupation with a cumulative s verse-and-refrain format unfolding as continuous variations in sound and space. Ably as the three IRCAM engineers facilitated this latter, it was the playing of Jeanne-Marie Conquer (below) – a world-class soloist if she chose to be – which took centre stage in every respect.

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A rather different side of Boulez’s composing was evident with Cummings ist der Dichter – a work which, for all that its title came about by accident, represents an oasis of conviction from an era beset by creative uncertainty. How much of this is due to harmonic enrichment brought about by the 1986 revision is arguable, though the manner in which the text emerges out of its syllabic and parenthetical austerity to assume unexpected textural richness and intricacy was inherent from the outset, and the present account left little doubt as to this music’s eloquence.

Between these works came Elliott Carter’s Penthode, not heard at these concerts since being premiered here 31 years ago and that could not then have been heard as merely an instalment in a creative odyssey still having over two decades to run. The five paths of its title taken by five ‘broken’ ensembles, the piece unfolds as a single-movement chamber symphony whose slow underlying pulse is increasingly overridden by music of a quizzical and often humorous demeanour; not least when directed with evident verve and assurance by Baldur Brönnimann.

An increasingly familiar figure in the UK, Brönnimann is in a line of conductors – stretching back to Boulez and beyond – as ensures this music retains its relevance for later generations, such that tonight’s Prom could never be mistaken for a nostalgic look back to a lost future.

Richard Whitehouse