LSO: Always Playing – Katia & Marielle Labèque, Szymanowski and clarinet masterworks tonight @ 7pm

There is an enticing potpourri of 20th and 21st century music from the London Symphony Orchestra on tonight’s installment of the LSO’s online series ‘Always Playing’.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the orchestra in the Hungarian Peasant Songs from Bartók before they are joined by tenor Edgaras Montvidas for Szymanowski‘s seldom heard but exotic ballet Harnasie. Then clarinetist Chris Richards steps up as the soloist for works composed by Stravinsky and Bernstein for the great Woody Herman</strong).

However the main work of the evening's concert is a big, half-hour concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra from Osvaldo Golijov. Nazareno, completed in 2009, is based on themes from La Pasión según San Marcos, and is fronted by the Labèque sisters, with percussionists Gonzalo Grau and Raphaël Séguinier.

The performance, from Thursday 13 December 2018, can be seen on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7pm tonight here:

In concert – Piotr Anderszewski, CBSO / Omer Meir Wellber: Bartók & Bruckner

Piotr Anderszewski (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Omer Meir Wellber (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 10 March 2020

Bartók Piano Concerto no.3 (1945)
Bruckner Symphony no.6 in A major (1879-81)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is a measure of how far Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony has come from being one that even dedicated exponents avoided to one relative newcomers tackle as a way into this composer. The indisposition of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla could have seen its removal from this evening’s programme, though Omer Meir Wellber (who for the past season has been chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, among his portfolio of notable positions) was clearly unfazed by this most technically exacting and emotionally unpredictable among Bruckner symphonies.

As was evident from the start of the Majestoso, the City of Birmingham Symphony’s violins rendering its indelible rhythm with real incisiveness and Wellber duly steering a purposeful course through this most animated of Bruckner’s symphonic movements, while never at the expense of those more lyrical and monumental themes to come. The climactic transition into the reprise was thrillingly done, and how persuasively Wellber pointed up the coda’s breath-taking modulations then its surging peroration whose sudden slowing-up was ideally judged. The Adagio was hardly less fine, with the CBSO strings securing burnished eloquence in its alternation between lament and rapture – underpinned by a majesty no less tangible than that in the following symphonies for all its restraint and, in the closing pages, gentle evanescence.

Other conductors might have found greater wit and insouciance in the Scherzo, but Wellber yielded to few in his delineating of its quizzical and propulsive gestures; nor did the trio want for elegance, for all its final phrase was ‘leant on’ a little too insistently. Notoriously difficult to make cohere, the Finale felt all of a piece with what went before – Wellber mindful that its ultimate affirmation is not without its quixotic or even ironic asides; moreover, that its formal divisions are secondary to its being in constant transition, on the way to an apotheosis where this movement audibly chases its tail as an unlikely and even uproarious means of bringing the work full circle. Quite a piece and quite a reading as set the seal on a performance that, if not the last word as interpretation, was never less than confident and assured in its traversal.

Coupling Bruckner with Bartók might seem a risky strategy but, in the event, the Austrian’s ‘cheekiest’ symphony followed-on ideally from the Hungarian’s deftest piano concerto. Piotr Anderszewski’s (above) take on the Third was one of judicious touches, not least an initial Allegretto tougher and more demonstrative than usual, without sacrificing this music’s innate sense of ingratiation. What followed was arguably too slow for an Andante, though how acutely the pianist brought out its ‘religioso’ marking in those poised exchanges of soloist and strings then woodwind – the brief central scherzo a ‘night music’ as delectable as it was evocative. Nor did Anderszewski under-characterize the final Allegro, its underlying vivacity accorded heft and not a little ambiguity on route to the most agile and uninhibited of Bartók’s codas.

A successful concert, then, which should certainly find favour on the (regrettably truncated) European tour the CBSO now undertakes. It is back in Symphony Hall for Verdi’s Requiem, then a varied programme that features the UK premiere of Julian Anderson’s Cello Concerto.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded the Bruckner before there is a recent version available from their former chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, and the London Symphony Orchestra. The playlist also includes the CBSO, Rattle and pianist Peter Donohoe in a 1992 recording of the Bartók:

For further information on the current season of CBSO concerts, visit the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Mondays – Meta4: String Quartets by Fanny Mendelssohn & Bartók

Meta4 [Antti Tikkanen, Minna Pensola (violins), Atte Kilpeläinen (viola), Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, Monday 17 February 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A pleasingly varied program from the Finnish string quartet Meta4, not least because it gave the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3 audience a chance to hear Fanny Mendelssohn’s String Quartet, many undoubtedly experiencing the piece for the first time.

Often overshadowed by her brother Felix Mendelssohn’s musical output, Fanny was clearly a highly accomplished composer in a time when women were not encouraged to follow such musical disciplines. Only now is the quality of her music fully revealed, and this String Quartet stands side by side with the seven completed works of her brother. This one, as its composer freely admits, stands in the shadow of the late quartets of Beethoven.

The work’s dimensions are relatively unusual, pointed towards the third movement by two relatively short movements, slow and fast respectively, and it spends a lot of time in C minor as well as the ‘home key’ of E flat major, creating a tension between darker thoughts and sunnier climes. There is an enjoyable disregard for convention in the slow first movement (from 2:41 on the broadcast), with a broad and quite free approach that Meta4 have fully under their wing, the three standing players swaying and moving around the stage in response to the music.

While this could have been off putting there was no doubting their commitment and involvement, ensuring the first movement Adagio was thoughtful and profound. The following Allegretto (6:55) was quite wary initially, its C minor fluttering speaking of unease, but its central section scurried forward with an energetic fugue started by Atte Kilpeläinen’s busy viola (from 8:01).

The Romanze (10:57), beautifully played, was back in C minor but grew to be the centre of the performance, the soft heart of the movement becoming something really substantial and emotive in this performance. Meanwhile the spirited and full bodied finale (18:18) signed off in a lively fashion, powering forward through unison from viola and cello to a headlong sprint for the finish. Occasionally the intonation was a little off in the upper reaches of the violin line, but this was otherwise a very fine performance.

Bartók’s cycle of six string quartets rank among the very finest achievements in the form, and are rightly a cornerstone of any aspiring group’s repertoire. The First is the longest, in keeping with his earlier works as displaying deep Romantic-inspired passion but changing the musical language, finding a more individual voice as it strays further from tonality. The work came after several discarded attempts in the string quartet form, suggesting Bartók knew already that this would be one of his primary means of expression – and is regarded by many commentators on the composer as the work where his mature style arrives.

Much of the passion in this case was invested by the composer in a relationship with the young violinist Stefi Geyer, dedicatee of the Violin Concerto no.1, and the quartet is effectively a detailed account of their relationship and its ultimately tragic ending. That said, it is effectively a transition from the darkness of the breakup to the light and positivity of what might lie ahead.

Set in three substantial movements, this work often sounds as though there are more than four instruments playing, thanks to the use of multiple stopping (playing more than one note at a time on an instrument).

The first movement, described by Bartók as a ‘funeral dirge’, begins in shadow (26:39) but grows gradually in expressive intent. The quartet stay largely together in their outpouring, though a striking change of emphasis occurs at 31:04 when the cello takes on a drone-like figure. The music is briefly more assured, before dropping back to more threadbare, muted sounds.

The sorrowful first movement is effectively an introduction to the second (35:43) which pulls away from the slow tempo and starts noticeably to look up and outward. The textures become fuller, the dialogue between instruments is much more pronounced and the rhythmic definition starts to make itself known, as though Bartók wants to incorporate more of the traditional music around him. There are still pauses for reflection, but essentially the mood is one of grit and determination.

The third movement (46:06) is marked Allegro vivace – a real sign that the composer wants to get on with things. The cello takes up the mantle, its weighty dialogue with the viola inspiring full-bodied ensemble passages and more obviously folky asides.

The musical language flits between tonal statements, with bold tunes, and sections of music with a much less obvious centre. At 50:42 the music retreats, the quartet together but murmuring confidential asides to each other. The music builds and the statements become wilder and more sweeping. There are big chords from 55:49 where the sound could perhaps be bigger…but then Meta4 are saving themselves for a final push, finishing with a wonderfully robust and rustic chord.

As a side note, it was refreshing to see Meta4’s colourful attire for this concert, brightening up a dull February lunchtime! There need be no rules for dress in classical music like this, and it was good to see the quartet wearing what they felt comfortable with.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet in E flat major (1834) (2:41)

Bartók String Quartet no.1 (1908-9) (26:39)

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, which includes Meta4’s own recording of the Bartók from 2014:

It has taken an awful long time for the music of Fanny Mendelssohn to break through to anywhere near the centre of classical repertoire – which is unforgivable really, given how good it is. The playlist below collects her Piano Trio and Piano Quartet, bisected by a Piano Sonata in C minor:

Bartók, meanwhile, is an ever-present as one of the 20th century’s musical innovators. The string quartets form the backbone of his career, and the cycle by the Takács Quartet is certainly one of the finest:

You can see details of Meta4’s Bartók release here:

Talking Heads: Paavo Järvi

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

If anyone typifies the flexibility of the modern conductor today, that person is Paavo Järvi. Like his father Neeme and younger brother Kristjan, he has an eye-watering workload and schedule, but such is his deep love for his art that it is not a factor in his musical life.

When our conversation starts, Järvi has just finished rehearsing in Estonia – in his home city of Tallinn. This time his role is that of a visiting conductor, in charge of the NHK Symphony Orchestra. The Japanese group, now 95 years old, appointed him as their chief conductor in 2016 and recently extended the arrangement until 2022. Their recent recording releases present a partnership that can only be described as going from strength to strength.

On the night of our conversation they have a concert in Tallinn itself, followed by a visit to the Royal Festival Hall in London three days later. Their program is an enticing one, beginning with Takemitsu’s orchestral piece How slow the wind. Järvi confesses to being a slow starter with his music. “I have been an admirer of his music for a long time, but recently in the last couple of years we have recorded his works with the orchestra. It has just been released in Japan, and it includes all of his orchestral music. In the last couple of years it was a big project that we took on, especially with him being so big in Japan. He died before I ever had a chance to meet him unfortunately, but as you know he is a major figure in Japanese musical life. His is the only real name from the Western world that we would know as being from Japanese music. I grew up knowing the name but not the music. It’s been a new experience for me but something I am very proud of, a new musical experience.”

One of the NHK Symphony Orchestra’s recent releases with Järvi is a searing account of Mahler’s Symphony no.6, which they gave to great acclaim in London in 2017. Wishful thinking it may be, but I suggest that some of Takemitsu’s writing draws from Mahler’s ability to write chamber-like music in the depths of the Sixth. “I think it is more likely that the influences are Messiaen”, says Järvi, his sonorous voice deeper than ever. “It was Messiaen who taught him, and the line goes back to Debussy before that, but there are echoes of certain other worlds in Takemitsu’s music for sure. Mahler could have been one of them.”

Sol Gabetta joins the orchestra for Schumann’s Cello Concerto, a work which has seen its fortunes on the stage revitalised in more recent years, before Järvi leads the orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Symphony no.2 in E minor. This is a work he recorded with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra back in 2006, but as he admits his view of the piece has changed since then. “It has changed, and I have changed in that time too”, he admits. “I have fewer inhibitions since I made that recording, and I am not as cautious about the piece as I used to be. It is one of the most Russian works of Rachmaninov’s output, but it cannot be taken too literally. The orchestra have played the Second quite a lot, and it is extremely familiar music within Japan. There is certain music that they play really well, and the Second Symphony is certainly one of those pieces.”

Nor have they required much persuasion or coaching to make the move to Mahler in their recorded output. “The orchestra is extremely well versed in German Romantic music, and they have had a lot of conductors who have encouraged them to play it. Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm used to conduct regularly in Japan, and so did Eugen Jochum. Most of the Western conductors came with their own orchestras. A lot of Western conductors were connected with the NHK Symphony Orchestra – Wolfgang Sawallisch, Herbert Blomstedt and Horst Stein just to name a few – so they know the repertoire extremely well.

Alongside the Mahler release is a programme of Bartók orchestral works, comprising the Divertimento for string orchestra, the Dance Suite and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Jarvi prides himself on the output, and the overall orchestral sound, which has an extraordinary clarity. “That’s something we have been trying to get”, he admits, “the directness of sound, so that it is transparent and clear. We had to work on that a bit for the Bartók, but as you can hear the orchestra is very versatile.”

The London leg of the NHK’s mini tour will take place on Estonia’s Independence Day, which Järvi describes as ‘a very nice coincidence’. This helpfully leads me on to a new recording he has made with the Estonian Festival Orchestra of the music of fellow countryman Erkki-Sven Tüür. The main work here is his Symphony no.9, dedicated to Järvi himself, with orchestral pieces Sow the Wind… and Incantation of Tempest.

He describes the new Ninth. “It’s a big piece, and very interesting. It describes the Estonian history from its beginnings right up to today, so it is a very long narrative – but it is very atmospheric too. He (Tüür) is a master of creating great layers of sound. I think it’s an epic piece, and because I have a lot of years performing his music it is very special for me as a culmination with the Estonian Festival Orchestra. It makes it even more special because it is very close to home.”

Järvi’s familiarity with the music of Tüür goes right back to the 1990s, and a disc of new music by him and fellow Estonian contemporaries. “It’s a great place for new music”, says Järvi of his home country. We have a lot of good new music, and established composers like Arvo Pärt and others.” In spite of his worldwide travelling, he keeps up with developments. “ It’s not difficult to keep in touch with the possibilities for Estonia”, he says, “as they are all there with the internet. I am always looking at what’s happening in musical life in Estonia, and even when I am far away my heart is here all the time.”

This year will see the tenth season of the Pärnu festival, founded by Paavo Järvi in 2011 together with his father, Neeme. How does he look to bring new audiences to classical music? “This is what we are always thinking about”, he says with feeling. “I don’t have a magic formula, other than one has to do it really well and be engaged. If the programme is interesting then that is the first important thing. The other thing is to enjoy the music. Very often with orchestras it can look like business as usual, and they play as if they are working.”

That was emphatically not the case with the Estonian Festival Orchestra when they made their BBC Proms debut last August, and who were noticeably all smiles. “I think that’s the way it should be”, says Järvi. “It is very hard for me to imagine playing music and looking like you’re not enjoying it, it’s not logical to me. Orchestras that come together occasionally, like the festival orchestra does, have an advantage, but it has to happen with every orchestra. It’s such a very logical thing, and if you enjoy it makes sense to do something which is very contagious. Energy comes through being contagious!”

The NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi perform Takemitsu, Schumann and Rachmaninov at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday 24 February.

You can listen to the orchestra’s new recordings of Mahler and Bartók on Sony Music on Spotify above, and follow the link to find samples and buying options on the Presto website – the Mahler here and the
Bartók here.

Järvi’s disc of Tüür’s Symphony no.9 will be available on the Alpha label in March – for more details click here

Wigmore Mondays – Jerusalem Quartet play Haydn & Bartók

Jerusalem Quartet [Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, Monday 20 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo of Jerusalem Quartet Felix Broede

The subtitle for this concert on the BBC Sounds website is ‘Quartet Masters’ – which is spot on when you consider the contributions both Haydn and Bartók made to this intimate form of chamber music. The string quartet – two violins, viola and cello – has presented composers with both challenge and inspiration over its 250-year existence, and even as I type this there is no sign of the form dying out.

A big part of the credit should go to Haydn, whose quartets are often used at the beginning of a program such as this. Sometimes that means the consistent quality of his work is overlooked, but there was no doubt of that happening in this performance from the Jerusalem Quartet.

Theirs was a red blooded performance, with a glossy texture to the luxurious string sound, aided by plenty of vibrato on the string. Such an approach would not have worked in the composer’s earlier quartets, but was more appropriate here for one of the six published in 1799 as the composer’s Op.76, his most mature statements yet as a quartet composer.

The ‘Fifths’ is so named because of the melodic interval Haydn uses between the two notes at the very start (2:10 on the BBC Sounds link) This motif becomes an integral part of the quartet, and as the first movement progresses it can be frequently heard. The Jerusalem Quartet’s bold performance gains more charm in the second movement (9:25), a light and relatively gentle dance. Alexander Pavlovsky’s intonation went a little awry here but not for long.

In the third movement, a darkly coloured Minuet (15:18), the quartet impress greatly, divided in two as the two violins’ melody is shadowed by the grainy tones of viola player Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov in impressive unison. The clouds part for a central Trio section with a rustic feel (16:44) before the obdurate theme returns (18:16) The fourth movement, initially quite furtive (19:10), blossoms into an affirmative finish.

Bartók had already confirmed his outright mastery of the string quartet form by the time he reached his Third Quartet of 1927, and the Fourth, completed a year later, achieves if anything a greater level of innovation in sound, together with strong melodic content and the use of connecting ideas between the five movements.

Bartók was obsessed with symmetrical forms, and the dimensions of the Fourth feel wholly right. Its five movements have two intensely concentrated pieces at their outer edge. Movements two and four are Scherzos – which implies they should be witty but the second is ghostly and the fourth otherworldly. The third movement is one of the composer’s classic evocations of the night, with pictorial references to insects and birds as well as dislocated elements of Hungarian folk music.

This performance was right on the money. From the start of the first movement (26:27) the tension is palpable, with a driven approach emphasising Bartók’s dissonant writing but also his melodic invention. The resolution in a pure C major is all the more telling because of it. The second movement (33:10) is marked to be played with all four players using mutes (‘con sordino’) and the ghostly entrails that result chill to the bone – in this case even on a cold January day. The four players shade their contributions exquisitely, preparing us for the central third movement (36:22), a great example of Bartók’s ‘night music’.

The emotional centre of the quartet, this is where time almost stops, and the Jerusalem Quartet captured this feeling immediately with their long, held chords and the songful lines from Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello and Alexander Pavlovsky’s violin. These held a profile close to folk melodies, the other three instruments standing watchfully by.

The fourth movement (42:50) broke us out of these nocturnal dreams, using pizzicato only (each of the four instruments required to pluck rather than use the bow) The folk-like ‘snaps’ against the board of the instrument were very effective, especially on the cello, but so was the thrumming of the violins and viola, which had an enchanting quality.

Finally the fifth movement (46:20) brings a lasting resolution, though it starts with great cut and thrust, using music of dissonance. Later a light-hearted diversion into more folk-based material breaks out, after which we head for a wholly convincing ending, summing up the whole performance perfectly.

A very fine concert, this, which was capped by an encore of the third movement (Minuet) from Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor K421 (54:24). Not only did this piece share the same key of the ‘Fifths’ quartet, it is one of a set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn, so brought the concert full circle with music of both grit and charm, rather like that of its dedicatee.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Haydn String Quartet in D minor Op.76/5 ‘Fifths’ (1797-8) (2:10)
Bartók String Quartet no.4 (1928) (26:27)

Further listening & viewing

You can watch the Jerusalem Quartet play Bartók’s String Quartet no.4 in a live concert here:

The Jerusalem Quartet have recorded both the works played in this concert, which can be heard on the playlist link below:

Bartók’s cycle of six string quartets is one of his very greatest achievements, and you can track the development of his style by listening through chronologically. The later quartets in particular give the most reward to repeated listening, for even 100 or so years on these works are not easy to grasp straight away! The cycle from the Emerson String Quartet remains one of their best recordings:

Haydn is the father of the string quartet, and his Op.76 set – again six quartets – represents the pinnacle of his compositions for the relatively new sound world of two violins, viola and cello. These are good natured works but have considerable depth too, as this recording by the Hungarian Takács String Quartet proves:

Mozart’s six quartets dedicate to Haydn are among his finest chamber works. This recording from the Hagen Quartett includes a particularly fine account of the D minor work from which the Jerusalem Quartet took their encore: