Wigmore Mondays – Jean Guihen Queyras & Alexandre Tharaud play Debussy, Poulenc, Marais & Bach

Jean Guihen Queyras (cello, above), Alexandre Tharaud (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 28 October 2019 (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 credits Marco Borggreve

Who could possibly be better suited for this concert among today’s musicians than cellist Jean Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud? The long-established pairing constructed a hugely enjoyable programme of dance-based music for the combination, from two composers who were still writing for the viola da gamba to two writing for the modern cello but harking back to that older era.

The viola da gamba was on its way out when J.S. Bach and Marin Marais wrote their respective pieces for it. They did not know at the time, but it was about to lose its popularity to the cello, which – with one less string and eventually a spike for the player to hold it in – gradually took over.

Bach’s sonata, for viola da gamba and harpsichord, is equally rewarding when played by cello and piano as here, with great sensitivity and a lyrical line to the melodies from Queyras. The first movement Adagio (1:43 on the broadcast link) was beautifully weighted, as was the quicker but equally graceful Allegro (3:18). Both players found the deeper emotion of the Andante (7:06), Bach moving into the key of B minor for some aria-like soul searching. The final movement Allegro (11:03) was a delight, the benefit of an established musical partnership clear to see and with nicely judged ornamentation from Tharaud.

Marais wrote extensively for the lower end of the stringed instrument family, and his Pieces de viole contain music that is as challenging for the players as it is rewarding for the audience. This three-movement suite, arranged for the modern cello by Christian Döbereiner, contained a slower Prélude (16:53) and Sarabande grave (25:33) that Queyras and Tharaud played eloquently, the cellist finding wonderful clarity in his higher range. These shorter movements framed the main act, several variations on the popular tune La Folia titled Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), which, while apparently played without repeats, is where we had the real fireworks. There was terrific playing from both and a heightened sense of drama ran throughout.

Poulenc originally wrote his Suite Française for orchestra in 1935 as part of a ballet score, but it proved equally effective in a piano arrangement made later that year. This version for cello and piano was made in 1953, for performance by the composer with French cellist Pierre Fournier. Based on the music of 16th century composer Claude Gervaise, it is a charming suite of seven dance movements looking back some four hundred years, merging the musical language of that time with Poulenc’s perky writing and crunchy harmonies. It was brilliantly realised here.

The seven dance pieces are as follows: a lively Bransle de Bourgogne (30:13), a consoling Pavane (31:40), then a cheeky Petite marche militaire (34:00). The suite continues with an eerie Complainte, the cello in its highest register (35:17), then a largely reflective Bransle de Champagne (36:26), graceful Sicilienne (38:10) and ceremonial Carillon (39:29)

Debussy’s Cello Sonata (43:07) is one of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire, a late masterpiece with clear instructions that the pianist should ‘not fight the cello, but accompany it’. At its centre is a remarkable, forward looking second movement with an improvisatory air and extended episodes for pizzicato (plucked) cello.

This was a terrific performance, Tharaud starting off with a forthright opening statement but responding with great care to the nuances of Queyras and his beautifully shaded tone. The pair caught Debussy’s moods – his bold statements but also the furtive corners of the piece, which sometimes feels like it is hiding in the undergrowth on a hot summer evening.

Both elements were clear in the first movement, and also in the second (47:15), a Sérénade where Debussy’s fragments were all joined together. Queyras had the perfect range of pizzicato colours, but also the clarity of tone right at the top of the register. Tharaud complemented him with the ideal lack of sustain on the stumbling piano figurations and the weight of his responses.

All the while this music was headed for the quickfire finale (50:33), which in its short bursts of melody had charm, worry and glorious colour in equal measure, never quite letting go completely until the final bars and Queyras’ authoritative statement.

As a generous encore the pair complemented the Debussy with Rodion Shchedrin’s entertaining In the style of Albéniz (55:28), not dissimilar to the second movement of the Sonata in its evocative tones but more outrageous in its melodies and harmonies. Queyras and Tharaud set it up brilliantly to cap a memorable recital.

Repertoire

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

J.S. Bach Viola da gamba Sonata no.2 in D major BWV1028 (before 1741) (1:43)
Marais (1656-1728) Suite in D minor: Prelude (16:53), Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), Sarabande (25:33)
Poulenc Suite française (1935, arr. 1953) (30:13)
Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor (1915) (43:07)
Encore – Shchedrin In the style of Albéniz (1973)

Further listening

You can listen to the music heard in this concert on Spotify below, including Queyras and Tharaud in the works by Poulenc and Debussy:

Poulenc also wrote a Cello Sonata, which forms part of an album with works for cello and piano with works by Debussy, delivered by the Queyras and Tharaud pairing here:

As this concert illustrated, French composers were particularly skilled at taking inspiration from the Baroque and Classical periods of classical music (from c1650 to 1800). The playlist below enjoys some of the best examples, headed by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin but also including works by Fauré, Debussy and Poulenc:

Wigmore Mondays – Lawrence Power & Simon Crawford-Phillips: Le tombeau

Lawrence Power (viola, above), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 21 October 2019 (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 credit (Lawrence Power) Giorgia Bertazzi

BBC Radio 3’s curious title for this concert was Adventures with a viola, despite Lawrence Power spending the last third of the concert playing the violin. Such is his talent on both instruments that the switch appeared to be effortless, part of an adventurous programme exploring the idea of paying musical homage.

To that effect, the first three pieces in the concert were linked. François Couperin’s expansive Prélude from the Première Suite pour viole (from 3:09 on the broadcast) exploited the lovely tone Power could get from the lower reaches of his viola, which helped accentuate the composer’s chromatic writing. A joint arrangement with Simon Crawford-Phillips of Ravel’s Menuet from the wonderful Le tombeau de Couperin followed (6:40), a fitfully effective version that was perhaps too fast in its execution, rather glossing over the cold central passage and the charm of the Menuet theme itself. The lack of repeats in this gorgeous piece of music accentuated the pair’s quick approach, despite a clever pairing of themes towards the end.

Australian composer Arthur Benjamin is not at all well known in these parts, but has an important role in musical history as a tutor of some repute. His own music can be overlooked because of that, and on this evidence unreasonably so – for Le tombeau de Ravel (10:58) was a pretty adventurous collection of a prelude, six waltzes and a coda, extremely well performed by the duo here. Having originally written it for clarinet and piano, Benjamin followed Brahms’s example by producing a viola and piano version, the instruments having a very similar range. The gruff start leads way to contrasting dances of affection and a quickfire number (17:00) requiring (and receiving) great virtuosity and dexterity from Power. There is charm in this music, too, as the next pizzicato waltz indicates, with tumbling figures from Crawford-Phillips, before a ghostly waltz with harmonics at 20:17 offers a starker picture. This is contrasted by a rousing finish.

We then heard a striking version for viola and piano of Three Berceuses from Thomas Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel. They are based on two of the duets from Beatriz and Eduardo, the opera’s doomed lovers, and an eerie cradle song. These brought a wide range of colour and virtuosity from Power, with Crawford-Phillips providing expertly judged punctuation. The first Berceuse movement (26:30) was down at heel, with wispy outlines from the viola, then the second (29:44) had more expansive phrases, ending with crushing left hand octaves from Crawford-Phillips. The ghostly ‘round’ of the third (34:04) had the most memorable melody, ending on a decidedly macabre note as a mother cradling a dead lamb rather than her son attempted to rock it to sleep. Power’s harmonics on the viola were cold indeed.

A second group of homages followed, Power switching to violin for the duration. It was piano alone for Stravinsky’s brief but poignant Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (39:56), setting the chorale theme from his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Crawford-Phillips managed the voicing of the parts beautifully. Tributes to Debussy followed from Erik Satie and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Power reading the poem Debussy before Crawford-Phillips played the Satie Élégie (41:59). We then moved to a much more substantial tribute to the Spanish poet in the form of Poulenc’s troubled Violin Sonata.

The work itself had a tricky germination, its composer rejecting a couple of versions while not settling for the completed work either, returning to it in 1949. It is a dramatic piece, paying homage to the poet Lorca in assertive music that spills over into aggression in the first movement (44:10). In the second, an Intermezzo (50:37), Power and Crawford-Phillips painted exquisite shades through the bittersweet musical language, while the finale (56:38) was powerfully wrought, even more so when apparently hitting a wall (59:58) and sinking into desolation. A commanding performance proved Power’s aptitude in switching between musical instruments.

Repertoire

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

François Couperin Prélude from Première Suite pour viole (1728) (3:09)
Ravel, arr. Power & Crawford-Phillips Menuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) (6:40)
Benjamin Le tombeau de Ravel (1958) (10:58)
Adès Three Berceuses from The Exterminating Angel (2018) (UK premiere) (26:30)
Stravinsky Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) (39:56)
Lorca Debussy (1921-24) & Satie Élégie from Quatre petits melodies (41:59)
Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3, rev. 1949) (44:10)

Further listening

You can listen to most of the music heard in this concert in the available versions on Spotify below, with the exception of the Adès, which has understandably not yet been recorded:

Meanwhile Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips can be heard in Arthur Benjamin’s Le tombeau de Ravel as part of this collection on Hyperion, where Power once again switches instruments for the composer’s violin works.

Poulenc‘s instrumental sonatas represent some of his very finest work, and this collection from the London Conchord Ensemble brings them all together:

Wigmore Mondays – Adam Walker, Tabea Zimmermann & Agnès Clément: Music for flute, viola and harp by Bax, Debussy & Gubaidulina

Adam Walker (flute, above), Tabea Zimmermann (viola) & Agnès Clément (harp) (both below)

Bax Elegiac Trio (1916) (1:40 – 11:15 on the broadcast link below)
Debussy Syrinx (1913) (12:47-14:28; Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) (17:34 – 35:44)
Stravinsky Elégie for viola (1944) (37:21-43:24)
Gubaidulina Garten Von Freuden Und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joy and Sorrow) (1980) (45:38-1:02:34)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 April 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Photo credits: Adam Walker (c) Marco Borggreve, Agnès Clément (c) Tysje Severens

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The combination of flute, viola and harp is relatively unusual but has inspired some extremely forward-looking music since the second decade of the 20th century. Within two years of each other Bax and Debussy wrote independently for the combination, responding very differently to the potential of new and open textures.

Sir Arnold Bax was in fact the first to publish, and his Elegiac Trio immediately casts its spell through the rippling adagios of Agnès Clément’s harp (from 1:40 on the broadcast). Above this the flute of Adam Walker and viola of Tabea Zimmermann exchange airy thoughts, introspective but also free of constraint. The watery sound is beautiful and weightless, but Bax’s thoughts become more substantial. The music comes to rest in the major key, having started in the minor, with the feeling of troubles put to rest.

Of all the pieces written for solo flute, Debussy‘s Syrinx (12:47) is both the most magical and the most innovative. And yet when you listen to it there is no effort at all required, the languid lines instinctive but leading to an impressive climax. Adam Walker plays superbly here, ending in the lower register lost in thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp (from 17:34) is also a piece deserving of its description as magical, and is regarded as one of the signposts to modern 20th century music for its innovations in sound, harmony and melody. It is ideal when heard after Syrinx, as the flute begins – then the viola. As the programme booklet writer Paul Griffiths vividly observes, this first movement, marked Pastorale, takes time to pause in reflection, while demonstrating Paul Klee’s idea of ‘taking a line for a walk’. It’s elusive yet captivating.

The second movement Interlude (24:50) is graceful and a little dance like. Again the textures are beautifully open, helped by the tone quality of the three soloists, who bring to Debussy’s music that wonderful hazy warmth we associate with the composer at times. Then from 27:38 we hear a joyous tune from flute and viola together, over flowing harp, before the movement subsides to a soft end.

The Finale (31:08) is often singled out for its striking sonorities. The harp tremolo gives a rich backing for the very separate thoughts of flute and harp, one enchanting and the other relatively scratchy with the bow towards the bridge. At all times Debussy is keenly aware of the colours he wants to portray and the three players here respond superbly, bringing their close attention to sonic detail with a convincing unison.

Tabea Zimmermann then goes alone for the understated but striking Elégie of Stravinsky – striking because it is scored for solo, muted viola and sounds as though it has been imported from another civilization. It is also in two parts, so the initial idea (37:21) gives way to an austere dialogue between different ‘voices’ on the same instrument. The end recaps the mournful opening before dying away.

A world very far from the Wigmore Hall is also the destination for the unusual colours (for classical audiences at least) conjured up by Sofia Gubaidulina. East frequently meets West in her compositions, and in Garten Von Freuden Und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joy and Sorrow) the East is most obviously present in the harp, plucking its responses to the flute’s decorations with slides of pitch. It is eerie but also compelling.

Then from around 50:15 the viola explores its harmonics – the fingers resting very lightly on the string to get a glassy sound that appears to be far-off, but which Gubaidulina uses cleverly. The flute is still the most prominent instrument, but increasingly the viola’s ‘voices of the night’ and the harp’s insistent plucking make themselves known. The music gets more animated, taking the harp right down to its lowest range – from where the flute starts a solo ‘cadenza’ (54:00)

The garden then seems to fall under its own spell, with night noises from all three instruments, until the viola plays a powerful line rising to a height. After this the music of the opening returns, with the striking harp slides again in evidence, before fading to the middle distance.

A superb performance of this piece from three friends, for whom this was their first ever concert as a trio. That would explain the wonderful spontaneity on show, for you would never have known!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, including a live recording of the Gubaidulina and a legendary recording of the Debussy from the Melos Ensemble:

If Gubaidulina is a new name to your ears, then the strongest possible recommendation can be made for this recording of her Offertorium for violin and orchestra from Gidon Kremer, coupled with the Hommage à T.S. Eliot – a cycle for soprano and an octet featuring today’s viola player Tabea Zimmermann:

For more chamber music featuring the harp, this lovely collection from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble is a treat. It includes two works by Debussy, the beautiful Introduction and Allegro by Ravel and the delightful Serenade for flute, harp and string trio by this year’s centenary composer Roussel:

Wigmore Mondays – François-Frédéric Guy plays Debussy, Tristan Murail & Brahms

François-Frédéric Guy (piano)

Debussy Préludes, Book 2 (1912-13): Brouillards (1:27-4:25 on the broadcast link below); La puerta del vino (4:31-7:41); Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (7:46-10:37); La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (10:42-15:00; Feux d’artifice (15:03-19:07)
Debussy Images, Set 1 (1901-05): Reflets dans l’eau (20:47-25:37)
Tristan Murail Cailloux dans l’eau (2018, UK premiere) (25:40-32:30)
Brahms 4 Piano Pieces, Op.119 (1893) (34:35-48:23)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 February 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

If last year saw a surfeit of Debussy’s music in the composer’s centenary year, it was for a good reason. The composer is rightly revered as one of the leading lights of early 20th century music, and brought with him new approaches to melody and harmony, not to mention sound worlds and textures unlike anything that had been heard before.

His writing for the piano is indispensable and of a consistently high and original quality, whether taking inspiration from older forms or creating new ones. In his Préludes for the piano he builds on an approach perfected by Chopin, who used each key to create 24 such works. Debussy, however, made 24 character pieces, painting portraits either of specific or deliberately vague imagery.

In this lunchtime recital François-Frédéric Guy fully immersed himself in this revolutionary writing, showing a clear affinity with five of the Préludes from the later Book 2. The swirling mists of Brouillards (Mists) (from 1:27 on the broadcast link) are vividly portrayed, with a notable attention to detail on the weighting of the notes. The swagger of the Habanera inhabits La puerta del vino (The wine door) (4:31), with its exotic harmonies matched to a free rhythmic approach.

The parallel chords of Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses (Fairies are exquisite dancers) (7:46) are also beautifully weighted, while La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune (The terrace of moonlit audiences) (10:42) grows from its introduction with a masterful crescendo. Finally Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), 15:03) is captivating, and during it you can practically see sparklers being waved around, thanks to the twinkling figurations in Guy’s right hand.

Reflets dans l’eau, taken from Debussy’s Images Set 1, is another watery wonder (from 20:47), played here with exquisite control from both fingers and feet – the use of the sustain pedal being of great importance in Debussy’s music. The rippling sounds act as the inspiration for Tristan Murail’s tribute to the composer, Cailloux dans l’eau (25:40)

His response begins at a more measured tempo than Debussy’s, savouring the colours for longer and effectively making his water slower moving. Soon, however, the ripplies become much more pronounced and twist upwards to the higher pitches on the piano (c30:00), with frothy trills that gradually subside towards silence. Guy played this with absolute control, fully immersed in Murail’s writing.

To finish, the final works for piano by Brahms. These four pieces were written as the composer reached his 60s, and mark the end of a late creative flowering including a number of chamber works for clarinet and intimate pieces for the piano. Three of Op.119 are classed as Intermezzos, a title essentially giving the composer free rein.

No.1 feels the most free of all, with a soaring right hand line beautifully floated by Guy in this performance. A real song without words, it carries deep emotional impact here. Guy moves straight on to the second piece (38:20), a flowing piece with greater urgency and a sunnier theme in the centre.

Then at 42:27, the short third piece, with repeated notes using the ‘classic’ Brahms triplet rhythms. Guy missed a couple of notes here but gauged the piece just right leading to the heroic Rhapsody (43:51) This piece is a triumphant way to end any concert, but does finish on a darker note. Until then, Brahms develops the theme, moving by 46:30 to a mood that recalls the previous Intermezzo. Then the main tune returns with great force (47:37), and just as it looks like a sunny ending Brahms plunges us into the minor key, signing off with great fire and brimstone.

To calm the waters after this, Guy returned to Debussy, and the first book of Préludes – with the most famous excerpt of all, Clair de lune (49:52-53:55).

Further listening

François-Frédéric Guy has not yet recorded any of the music heard in this concert – however the below Spotify playlist includes some leading versions of the repertoire heard:

Unfortunately the Tristan Murail is not available anywhere yet; however his complete piano music up until 2013 can be heard here in recordings made by Marilyn Nonken:

For more Debussy, Mitsuko Uchida’s album of the Études, another extension of a form pioneered by Chopin, can be heard here in an award-laden disc:

Late Brahms is one of the pinnacles of the Romantic piano repertoire, and few recorded it with the authority of Steven Kovacevich, heard here in a wonderful album for Philips:

Live review – Leonidas Kavakos, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle: Brahms, Debussy & Enescu

Leonidas Kavakos (violin, above), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (below)

Barbican Hall, London
Sunday 16 December 2018

Brahms Violin Concerto in D major Op.77 (1878)
Debussy Images (1905-12)
Enescu Romanian Rhapsody no.1 in A major Op.11/1 (1901)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra tonight continued their ‘Roots & Origins’ project with a diverse programme ranging from the innate classicism of Brahms, through the refracted (post-)impressionism of Debussy then on to the unaffected nationalism of Enescu.

A change in the running order saw a first half devoted to Brahms’s Violin Concerto – easy to pigeon-hole as archetypally Austro-German, though fairly permeated with elements derived from popular and traditional sources. Nor did Leonidas Kavakos deliver a bland or uneventful account, maintaining palpable momentum across the expansive initial movement that carried through to an uncommonly perceptive take on Joachim’s monumental cadenza, followed by an easeful coda in which the symbiosis between soloist and orchestra was at its most tangible.

While there was no undue lingering in the Adagio, Kavakos brought out its gentle eloquence in full measure – abetted by playing of burnished warmth from the LSO’s woodwind, though there was no lack of agitation in the contrasting central section. The Hungarian overtones of the finale were then given full rein, Kavakos projecting the music’s rhythmic drive as surely as he propelled the coda to its effervescent close. Throughout this performance, Rattle was at one with his soloist in a work he has no doubt given many times during the past four decades.

A dynamic and vividly projected reading, then, from Kavakos (very different from the inward and almost self-communing one he gave during last year’s Enescu Festival), who returned for a predictably scintillating account of the Les furies finale from Ysaÿe’s Second Solo Sonata.


Debussy’s Images has long been a Rattle staple: his running-order differs from that published – though there is arguably no ideal sequence for such a contrasting assemblage. Certainly, the fatefully understated Gigues makes a plausible opening, its fugitive gestures and searching ambivalence more an evocation of the composer in his last years as of any English environs. Rondes de printemps is the positive corollary, its vernal freshness and simmering energy an indication of that renewal in French culture made explicit by the late sonatas. In both pieces, Rattle secured a superfine response from the LSO and if characterization in Ibéria was less acute, this may have been owing to the music’s broad-brush Spanish quality than to any lack of insight. Not in doubt was the cohesion that Rattle drew from this composite work overall.

Cohesion was also key to his performance of Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody. More than a medley of popular tunes, its integration is that of a borne symphonist and Rattle responded accordingly as he built momentum across the suave initial episodes before cutting loose with the bacchanal. The degree of detail lost was outweighed by the visceral excitement that held good through to the coda. A piece associated with Rattle since the early 1980s, and of which the LSO gave a memorable televised reading a decade earlier, ended this concert in fine style.

The question remains why Rattle has never added further Enescu to his repertoire. Perhaps he considers him lesser to Szymanowski, whom he has championed assiduously? Pieces such as the Second Symphony, Third Suite and Vox Maris cry out for his advocacy. Maybe one day?

For more information on forthcoming concerts from the London Symphony Orchestra in 2019, you can visit their website. Meanwhile you can enjoy Kavakos in a recent performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto below: