Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Bach, Janáček, Messiaen, Martinů & Edmund Finnis @ Wigmore Hall

Britten Sinfonia soloists [Thomas Gould (violin), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Emer McDonough (flute), Huw Watkins (piano)]

J.S. Bach Violin Sonata no.1 in B minor BWV1014 (1720)
Janáček Pohádka (1910)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1952)
Finnis Five Trios (world premiere tour) (2019)
Martinů Trio for flute, violin and piano (1936)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 13 February 2019

Photo credit Harry Rankin (Britten Sinfonia)

Review by Ben Hogwood

For years now Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series has been a steady delight, a way to discover the new and rediscover the old in chamber music. Using interesting combinations of instruments and building consistently innovative programs around them, the group offer a very accessible way in to discovering classical music’s treasures of the small scale.

This latest series, given in Norwich, Cambridge and London, is no exception, exploring 300 years of chamber music for flute, violin, cello and piano. Pianist Huw Watkins was the one constant for the whole concert, which at London’s Wigmore Hall gave off the unmistakeable aroma of spring.

Watkins and Thomas Gould began proceedings with a very tasteful account of Bach’s Violin Sonata. It is always good to hear Bach with piano accompaniment, for the music is so versatile that it suits the colours available. In a work like this particular sonata, where the piano plays much more than the role of a traditional accompanist, the textures were ideal. The violin, too, had more notes than normal thanks to Bach’s ‘double stopping’ writing, and Gould played these passages beautifully.

Janáček’s Pohádka represented quite a step forward stylistically but the transition was natural, and the fierce lyricism so often associated with the Czech composer was brought to the fore. Caroline Dearnley enjoyed the song-like passages and Watkins gave great clarity to the busy accompaniments, neither musician stinting on the intensity of Janacek’s writing as the plot of the fairy tale took hold.

The same could be said of Le merle noir, Messiaen’s only published work for flute and piano. An important work that signals his intent to accurately reproduce birdsong on traditional instruments, it is a remarkable piece – and Emer McDonough brought to it a wide range of colour. Most importantly she made it sound natural, for while the notes are all written out the intention of the piece is to sound as instinctive as possible. Again Watkins was the catalyst with some carefully voiced and wholly complementary thoughts.

Each ‘At Lunch’ concert features a new work on its world premiere tour, and the springlike atmosphere was ideal for Edmund Finnis and his Five Trios, for the conventional piano trio grouping of violin, cello and piano. Finnis finds an unusual amount of space in his music, and here his blend of quick movement over slow, drone-like figures opened out the textures very attractively.

There was very little bass in the five trios, notable for their translucence and bright textures. The first introduced softly oscillating figures, while the second spread shafts of light from spread piano chords and string harmonics. The dappled sunlight streaming through the Wigmore Hall roof was the ideal companion for the rippling textures of the third piece, but then in the fourth we enjoyed a bolder statement from the cello, its fuller sound ringing through a haze of sustained piano and glassy violin. To finish, the prayerful fifth piece completed a meditative ten minutes from a composer whose rarefied textures are well worth further investigation.

The Britten Sinfonia members closed their generous concert with Martinů’s Trio for flute, violin and piano. So prolific was the Czech composer that it is easy to overlook his achievements, particularly in the chamber music field. While it can on occasion be tricky to recall some of his melodies after the first hearing of a piece, the overall feel of his writing is uniformly positive and, in this case, capable of making the audience smile and clap spontaneously.

The third of four movements was responsible for the clapping outburst, a wonderful piece of effervescent writing betraying his Parisian location when writing it. The outer movements were a little grittier but still charmed with their syncopation, colour combinations and piquant melodies. The tender second movement was heartfelt too.

The standard of musicianship in this concert was extremely high. Particularly memorable moments include Emer McDonough’s final movement cadenza in the Martinů, where Watkins held the performance together admirably despite the tricky rhythms, the graceful playing of Thomas Gould in the Bach and Caroline Dearnley’s rich cello tone in the fourth of Edmund Dinnis’s trios, not to mention the expressive Janáček.

Once more from this source, an enlightening hour of music in an imaginative context. If you live in London or the East of England you really should catch them live soon!

Further listening

You can listen below to an interview with Edmund Finnis, talking with Dr Kate Kennedy about Five Trios ahead of the Wigmore Hall concert://embeds.audioboom.com/posts/7174837-edmund-finnis-talks-about-his-new-work-five-trios/embed/v4?eid=AQAAACp5ZVy1em0A

You can also hear a new release of Finnis’s music for orchestra here:

Meanwhile the remainder of the program is grouped together on this Spotify playlist:

Live review – Viktoria Mullova, Matthew Barley & LPO / Orozco-Estrada: Dusapin premiere

Viktoria Mullova (violin, below), Matthew Barley (cello, below), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada (above)

Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 28 November 2018

Enescu Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A, Op. 11 No. 1 (1901)
Dusapin At Swim-Two-Birds (LPO co-commission: UK premiere) (2017)
Martinů Symphony No. 4, H305 (1945)
Ravel La Valse (1920)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This centenary year of the establishing of a greater Romanian state (aka the National Day of Romania) brought tonight’s varied programme from the London Philharmonic under Andres Orozco-Estrada, now into his third season as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor.

Enescu‘s First Romanian Rhapsody might have seemed almost too obvious a choice, but this sophisticated piece suffused with the ‘confidence of youth’ is hardly a populist crowd-pleaser, so making Orozco-Estrada’s rather superficial approach the more disappointing. The opening exchanges were prosaic, the ensuing episodes lacking in wit and (to quote Richard Bratby’s note) insouciance and the heady climactic stages rather jog-trotted their way forward without much hint of that deftness and effervescence as can still excite audiences nearly 120 years on.

The first UK hearing of a major work from Pascal Dusapin is never to be passed over, with At Swim-Two-Birds continuing the series of concertante pieces running through his creative maturity. The title is that of Flann O’Brien’s 1939 novel, which considers Irish culture from a decidedly post-Joycean perspective, but Dusapin’s concerto hardly reflects this beyond its being a double concerto in two movements – both interweaving incisive passages with those that float suspended above their recurring key-notes. Viktoria Mullova (above) and Matthew Barley (below) were fully responsive to their solo and duet writing, whether in the intricate dialogue of the first movement or emerging cadenza-like writing of its successor; during which Dusapin’s predilection for ricocheting percussion and translucent textures came enticingly to the fore.

Such qualities are no less central, albeit put to very different ends, in the Fourth Symphony that Martinů wrote towards the end of the Second World War – when a victorious outcome could openly be expressed. The result is its composer’s most affirmative such piece, though there are many instances of ambivalence and Orozco-Estrada was attentive to such as those moments of stasis in the first movement’s subtly curtailed sonata design, offbeat accents that impede forward motion in the scherzo (its folk-tinged trio enchantingly evoking Dvorak), or sudden and teasing shifts in perspective which rein-in the emotional fervency of the Lento. The finale, too, has glimpses of doubt but Orozco-Estrada marshalled momentum unerringly through to a peroration that caps what should now be a repertoire work in outright jubilation.

An impressive reading, then, which found the partnership between orchestra and conductor at its finest. After this, was La Valse (or anything else for that matter) really necessary? Not that this performance was without its merits, Orozco-Estrada mindful to avoid letting an endlessly fascinating and always unnerving work descend to the level of mindless showpiece, but the music’s reserves of irony and violence sounded merely hectoring when heard in this context. That said, the visceral close was finely navigated by an LPO intent on projecting every bar.

This enterprising and often exhilarating concert was enthusiastically received by all those present. Hopefully Orozco-Estrada will tackle further Enescu and Martinu in future, while a too little known piece as Prokofiev’s Russian Overture fairly cries out for his advocacy.

Wigmore Mondays – Marwood, Power and Crawford-Phillips play Brahms

Anthony Marwood (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano) perform music by Rebecca Clarke, Martinů and Brahms

Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 28 September 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06dbdk3

on the iPlayer until 27 October

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. The Horn Trio is very rarely heard in the version for violin, viola and piano, but a recent recording from Maxim Rysanov and friends is included:

What’s the music?

Rebecca Clarke: Dumka for Violin, Viola and Piano (1941) (8 minutes)

Martinů: Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola (1947) (16 minutes)

Brahms: Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano (1884) (28 minutes)

What about the music?

rebecca-clarke

The music of Rebecca Clarke has taken a long while to reach our concert halls, but thankfully it is not the rarity it once was. A viola player of some distinction, she wrote a wonderful competition-winning Sonata for viola and piano in 1919. This Dumka comes towards the end of her career as a composer, though she lived for nearly 40 more years without consistent inspiration to compose. The piece alternates slow, melancholic figures with an attractive and dramatic dance.

Like Clarke, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů had relocated to New York, and his Three Madrigals for violin and viola, essentially a late wartime work, were inspired by hearing the English Singers in concert in Prague. They were written for the brother and sister duo of Joseph and Lilian Fuchs. Though instrumental the pieces are clearly written with voices in mind, and through clever use of double stopping techniques (where the instruments play more than one string at once) it often feels as though more instruments are in the room.

Brahms wrote his Horn Trio, for horn, violin and piano, in memory of his recently-departed mother. A profound work, it contains a passionate and often stormy pair of slow movement, placed first and third, and two faster movements – a triple time Scherzo of more lyrical design and then a finale tailor made for the horn, sending the audience away with a vision of adversity conquered by strength.

Performance verdict

This was a very well-chosen program by the three friends, and it was especially rewarding to hear the music of Rebecca Clarke, a composer who is gradually feeling her way back to the exposure she deserves.

The Dumka performance was deeply felt, the slower music elegiac in tone through Marwood and Power’s closer harmonies.

These two excelled in Martinů’s Three Madrigals, which were surprisingly vigorous in content. The central madrigal was the charmer, its trills like autumn leaves in the breeze, calm but yet strangely restless.

The Brahms is an emotional work that tugs at the heart strings in the third movement Adagio, where the trio found the depth of the composer’s feeling. Yet the horn, for which this piece was ultimately written, was conspicuous by its absence and the viola – nicely played as it was by Lawrence Power – could not hope to fully deputise. Without the horn the fast music felt too polite, with no brassy rasp to enjoy in the Scherzo, nor fullness of tone towards the climax of the first movement. The finale was too fast, and although it is great ‘chase music’ this was a helter-skelter dash, the strings skating swiftly over thin ice rather than ducking and diving.

What should I listen out for?

Rebecca Clarke

2:13 – the stringed instruments are in close unison at the start, with a gentle melancholy running through their musical thoughts.

4:03 – the pace quickens and now the music dances, the stringed parts moving more independently of each other but still in close musical discussion. Their destination is less certain, as though dancing around the room unpredictably, and the mood becomes fractious.

7:58 – after the music reaches an emotional high – though not wholly positive – we return to the relative calm of the opening music, violin and viola back in close harmony.

Martinů

13:10 – the first madrigal is typical of Martinů, bustling into action with busy figurations from both instruments. There is energy aplenty, and it sounds as though both instruments are engaged in deep and earnest conversation. Martinů throws in some unexpected harmonic diversions to keep the listener on their toes. There is no let up, the music rushing towards a bright conclusion at 17:03.

17:27 – a complete change of mood for the second madrigal, a mysterious and enchanting piece that often sounds like the rustle of wind in branches. Martinů uses double stopping and trills here to give a fuller sound. Gradually the music becomes more positive and full in texture, Martinů working around to the same key of the first madrigal. The close harmony mirrors the brother-sister relationship of the dedicatees. The trills return at the end but are now settled.

23:51 – the third and final madrigal, an open-air burst of positivity! Again the music is busy, and here as elsewhere Martinů seems to be thinking of the dances of his home country. The trills return briefly at 27:41, before Martinů launches back into his main idea. In this performance the tempo is quick!

Brahms

32:33 – the first movement begins, marked Andante (at a walking pace). This is a slow walk at the beginning, with serious thoughts at a subdued volume. Soon the music becomes more animated, supported by a characteristically full-bodied and flowing piano part. In this version the violin and viola are close in harmony and dynamic; when the horn is involved it takes a greater lead. At 36:14 the viola introduces a halting second idea.

Around 37:00 the tone darkens, anticipating the sombre mood of the third movement, but this does not last too long – and at 39:02 Brahms can be heard at his most passionate before the movement ends.

40:09 – the second movement, a Scherzo. The restless piano establishes the triple time while the strings pull against the rhythm with syncopations – all typical Brahms qualities. The theme appears again at 41:41, then receives a stern development. At 42:45 Brahms effects a transition into the Trio section, which is slower, darker and reflective – and then at 44:26 the Scherzo returns.

47:29 – the mood darkens considerably for one of Brahms’s most profound utterances. This is the only instance in his music where Brahms uses the term Adagio mesto (slow and sad), and the heavy tread of the piano, and the instance at 49:19 where the stringed instruments are alone, are both instances that tell of the grief felt at losing his mother. It is not all doom and gloom however, for there are shafts of light at 52:08 – before the heavy heart is laid bare again towards the end.

54:26 – in which Brahms swiftly clears away his grief to write a wonderfully positive finale with a spring in its step, the three instruments seemingly chasing each other in flight. Nothing more to be said, except enjoy the wonderful music!

Further listening

There are not many opportunities to hear horn, violin and piano together – and since that combination is the original trio Brahms wrote for, the recommendation is for that version in a recording made for the Swedish record company BIS, by Marie-Luise Neunecker, Antje Weithaas and Silke Avenhaus.

Also on that recording is the trio for the same combination by Ligeti, which makes a vivid and intriguing contrast – titled as it is Hommage a Brahms:

Steven Isserlis and friends – Czech chamber music

czech-chamber-music
Fate by the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, 1920

Jeremy Denk (piano), Joshua Bell (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Steven Isserlis (cello), Wigmore Hall, 20 May 2015.

As Steven Isserlis wrote so eloquently in the program notes for this concert, ‘Why is it that so much Czech music is loveable in such a unique way?’

This, the first of two parts, revealed a quartet of composers intent on spoiling the listener with a mass of tunes (teacher Dvořák and pupil Suk) or using their music to express the highly charged climate in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (Janáček and, from a distance, Martinů)

Jeremy Denk, Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis and Lawrence Power planned this concert to perfection, the abundance of tunes placed first and last, with the deeper moments in between.

It is doubtful Suk’s Piano Quartet, the first published piece of a precocious seventeen year old, has ever had a performance like this, bursting with pride and enthusiasm. After a forthright statement of the first tune from the ensemble, a beautiful solo from Isserlis revealed the work’s softer underbelly, which came to the fore in a similarly affecting tune in the slow movement, the cello releasing a beautiful mellow sound.

Janáček’s Violin Sonata wore a permanently furrowed brow. The icy reach of the muted violin in the last of the four brief movements was key to summing up a work that bristles with anger, though redemption was briefly found in the second movement Balada, with a theme of silvery consolation.

The second of three cello sonatas by Bohuslav Martinů was next. Isserlis has championed these works for more than 25 years, and gave a commanding performance of a moving work. Written in America in 1938, the composer having successfully fled Paris and the Nazis, it is a deeply felt and resilient utterance, especially in the second movement where time stood still.

As far as the tunes were concerned, the best was saved until last. Dvořák’s Piano Quartet no.2 positively bursts with Czech melodies – which are revealed to be surprisingly close in mood and contour to the American tunes he was to use towards the end of his career. Here they were swept along in a wonderful performance of good feeling, played with great sensitivity by Jeremy Denk, whose phrasing was key to the utmost charm of the Scherzo, the tender Adagio and the rustic finale.

Yet this was music for a team of friends to enjoy, the music surging forwards with a positivity rarely experienced to this extent in the concert hall – and happily caught by microphones, hopefully for a future release on Wigmore Hall Live. Those Czechs, they knew a good tune – and these four were the best possible Bohemian Rhapsodists in waiting!

The music from this concert can be heard here on Spotify. Part two of this series is at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 23 May, and will include the Dvořák Piano Quintet and the Piano Trio by Smetana.