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:

Wigmore Mondays: Aleksey Semenenko & Inna Firsova – Grieg, Ysaÿe, Debussy, Tchaikovsky & Paganini

Aleksey Semenenko (violin), Inna Firsova (piano)

Grieg Violin Sonata no.3 in C minor Op.45 (1886-7) (1:40-23:34)
Ysaÿe Violin Sonata in D minor Op.27/3 ‘George Enescu’ (1923) (25:34-32:13)
Debussy La plus que lente (1910) (34:17-38:16)
Tchaikovsky Valse-scherzo in C major Op. 34 (1877) (38:55-45:06)
Paganini, arr.Kreisler La Campanella (1826) (46:30-54:16)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 5 November 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

There were fireworks at the Wigmore Hall rather earlier than planned on this particular November 5th. The reason for this was the inflammatory partnership of violinist Aleksey Semenenko and pianist Inna Firsova, whose high voltage program of Grieg, Ysaÿe, Tchaikovsky and Paganini really got the heart rates fluttering.

The duo began with one of Grieg’s finest chamber works, the Violin Sonata no.3. While his first two works in the violin sonata are dressed in relatively sunny clothing, this third one has a lot more grit and determination in the notes. This was evident right from the start (1:40 on the broadcast, marked Allegro molto ed appassionato), a memorable theme given authoritative treatment by Semenenko and Firsova. The music drew back for some more intimate thoughts, but soon, as the main theme gets developed, a deeply passionate dialogue between violin and piano played out.

The second movement, a Romance (10:13), began with a clear and delicate melody from Firsova, a beautifully poised response to the first movement. Soon however a more agitated section started (12:18), led by the violin, but soon the glassy, soft-hearted music returned. The third movement Allegro moderato (16:06) began with a melody that feels like a folk tune, especially with the rustic piano accompaniment, and we were back into the urgent mood of the first movement. At 18:53 a rich second theme could heard, played by Sememenko with a very full, gorgeous sound, if just occasionally over-reaching on his tuning.

The Ysaÿe Sonata is for solo violin, directly inspired by the music for violin of J.S. Bach – but with considerably more display factored in. It is third of a set of six he completed in a short space of time and published as Op.27 in 1923. That said, the Belgian composer still writes with a keen sense of form, and this compact sonata, dedicated to fellow violinist / composer George Enescu, packs a lot into its six and a half minutes. So too did Semenenko, whose dazzling virtuosity (from 25:34) added to a beautiful tone gave it the best possible platform. Some of his bowing was razor sharp, especially in the fast music, but the attack was always impressively clean.

Semenenko and Firsova followed these fireworks with a pair of waltzes. Debussy’s example (34:17), originally for solo piano, is a sugar-sweet but elusive piece of work, beautifully harmonized by Firsova in this version. Tchaikovsky’s (38:55) is another story, a swaggering dance piece that both performers relished, swaying in and out of time with the familiarity of seasoned partners. It was all instinctive and brilliantly done, with Semenenko’s bow acting like a pond skater over the strings at times! An earlier performance of this work from the pair can be seen below:

One of the ultimate violin showpieces is La Campanella, written by Paganini in 1826 as the third and final movement for his Violin Concerto no.2, but arranged here for violin and piano by Fritz Kreisler – like Paganini a virtuoso of incredibly high standing.

Gravity is surely defied in this version, right from the main theme (46:30) to a series of contrasting sections, each of eye-watering difficulty – try from 52:00 on the broadcast to get some incredible dexterity between plucking (pizzicato) and bowing.

Great credit should go to Irina Firsova, too, for her mastery of what is effectively an orchestral score compressed for piano. The lightness of touch meant this was never a heavy account, despite the number of notes, and Semenenko’s agility fair won the day.

A spectacular recital indeed, which I would urge you to hear from the start. The pair weren’t quite finished, though, and complemented their fireworks with a little sparkler, Tchaikovsky’s Valse sentimentale in F minor Op.51/6 (56:12-58:21)

Further listening

As a good companion to this playlist, Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova have recorded a disc of similar themes, taking a Grieg sonata and virtuoso showpieces from Tchaikovsky, Paganini and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, ending with an intense account of Schubert’s Fantasy in C major:

If that isn’t enough, and to whet the appetite for more French music for violin and piano from the Wigmore Hall in a couple of weeks’ time, here is another Semenenko and Firsova double act in music by Poulenc, Chausson, Debussy and Saint-Saëns:

Wigmore Mondays: Karina Gauvin & Maciej Pikulski – French song

Karina Gauvin (soprano, above) and Maciej Pikulski (piano, below)

Hahn Quand je fus pris au pavillon (1899) (1:26-2:41); Si mes vers avaient des ailes (1888) (2:45-5:23; A Chloris (1916) (5:26-8:40)
Debussy Nuit d’étoiles (c1880) (9:59-13:04), Mandoline (1882) (13:09-15:06), Beau soir (1891) (15:10-18:00), L’Enfant prodigue – Récitatif et air de Lia (1884) (18:38-23:44)
Poulenc Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne (1931) (25:21-26:12, 26:15-27:03, 27:07; Métamorphoses (1943) (29:31-; Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon – C (1943) (34:46-38:18)
Bizet Guitare (1866) (39:57-42:20), La coccinelle (1868) (42:27-47:36), Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (1867) (47:51-52:55), Ouvre ton Coeur (1859-60) (53:05-55:47)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22 October 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

An enjoyable tour around the French ‘mélodie’ from Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin and pianist Maciej Pikulski began with the music of Hahn. A celebrated song composer, his melodic gifts were fully evident in this selection of three, although the wide vibrato Gauvin employed did sometimes lessen its impact. A bright account of Quand je fus pris au pavillon (from 1:26 on the broadcast) showed off the breezy, outdoor approach, but the vibrato was too wide in an otherwise gentle Si mes vers avaient des ailes (2:45). The wonderful A Chloris, with its homage to Bach in the serene piano part, found ideal phrasing from Pikulski and rapturous delivery from Gauvin, if again a little too wobbly.

She was on much more secure ground in a selection of early Debussy. The composer’s first published work, Nuit d’étoiles was especially effective in its evocation of the lyre, where Pikulski was superb and Gauvin had a lovely, floated delivery. Mandoline was also a treat in the unison towards the end of the song, while Beau Soir savoured the heady atmosphere of the sunset. There followed an aria from L’Enfant prodigue (18:38), a dramatic tour de force where Gauvin took complete control, singing powerfully of a mother’s loss.

Poulenc’s songs are never less than entertaining in concert, though you have to be quick to appreciate some as they are gone in mere moments! There was a nonsensical air to two of the three poèmes, whose text are attributed to the fictitious Louise Lalanne. The first two sped by in a blur, nicely pointed and characterised, before the slower Hier went much deeper in its emotional impact.

The first of the Métamorphoses was similarly brief (29:31) but the flowing second (30:43) was a slow and thoughtful utterance, beautifully paced. The third (33:29) raced away from sight, but then as a complete contrast we had the down at heel dfgd (34:46), contemplating Paris in the wake of the Second World War.

Gauvin and Pikulski finished with a very varied quartet of Bizet songs, beginning with the bracing Guitare (39:57), with words by Victor Hugo. The piano imitated the strummed chords of the instrument and turning to sunnier climbs as C major replaced C minor (41:32) Gauvin relished the vocal demands here and in La coccinelle, another Hugo text of curious form which she characterised richly. In Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (47:51) we had the highlight of the whole recital, and surely one of Bizet’s best songs – a profound departure with a deep sense of longing that Gauvin wholly inhabited, right up to the floated final notes. Then Ouvre ton Coeur (53:05) brought flashes of exoticism with the added notes of Pikulski’s thrummed accompaniment and Gauvin’s vibrato, on this occasion perfectly judged, to the sudden cry of the final note.

Gauvin gave us one of Poulenc’s most popular songs, Les Chemins de l’amour, as an encore (57:44-1:02:24) – and though a slow version it found the bittersweet heart of the song.

Further listening

You can track the repertoire used in this concert via the following Spotify playlist:

(Veronique Gens)

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Michael Hubbard on the CBSO concert of Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series musicOMH editor Michael Hubbard gives his verdict on the City of Birmingham Orchestra and their Prom of French music.

Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Michael, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

There was always a guitar hanging in the lounge, as my father learnt a bit in the 1960s. He used to play things like Islands In The Sun, and then my mother would say “That’s enough!” and hang it up again. When I was in infant school, like anybody else, recorders became a fixture in my life. I had a descant, a tenor and a treble at various points. I never got round to the bass, only one person had that, maybe because her parents were richer.

In terms of the music I used to listen to, that was something else entirely. My mother was deaf, but she could somehow pick out some music more than others. She passed some of that on to me, and some of that was the opera side – especially Puccini – but there was music from King Sunny Adé through to Tina Turner, too. My father’s music taste could be discerned a little from what he used to play on guitar. When I was a little older I was able to go through his music and play some of it, from Johnny Cash to Abba. I know my mother’s teenage fixation was Elvis Presley. So although I had no formal music knowledge before I started learning an instrument, there was I suppose a lot of music around – but I had to look for it.

When were you first aware of classical music?

I was doing things in school, music class – and starting to pick up names like Purcell. When I started flute lessons at the age of 11, more of those composers became names to me, but up until then it was essentially things I heard on the radio. I had very little knowledge at that time.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I could probably name about 300 and they’d change every time I tried to answer… so this will be the first three that come to mind.

Jean-Michel Jarre was a massive hero of my early teens. He is probably the main reason why the first musical instrument I was really interested in was the synth. I was self taught; when my grandmother died she said in her will, ‘he must have a keyboard’, and my mother stuck to that. She brought me the keyboard I wanted, a Yamaha PSS-680, with its mini keys. I went on to Korgs and Rolands after that, and eventually had a couple of years of piano lessons, which supplemented the flute tuition I’d been persevering with. Knowing my way round a synth – and covering Jarre tracks with it – opened the door to composition, and before long I’d written some rudimentary pieces. I could never have done that with just a flute, on my own – the synth allowed me to play everything. Like Jarre. His enormous Fairlights were of course a world away from my Yamaha, but here was a doorway through which I wished to step.

There was also a sense of drama in what Jarre was doing, it was like ‘I’m taking over Docklands for a concert’, or ‘I’m taking over a space shuttle launch site’. I loved that, that everything stopped because music was that important. The very idea he was putting out there was ‘I AM – LOOK’. The idea that drama could be a thing that is art – something you could express from yourself as opposed to someone scripting it for you, it could be you creating it, and you could take over the whole district of a city with your lights and your sound – was amazing to me. I had videos of the Docklands concert and Rendezvous Houston. I think they helped me become aware that hiding in the corner in the hope of never being seen was a life strategy that I’d already taken too far.

Another very big influence on my life was Erasure. Vince Clarke was composing on guitar but transferring his ideas across to synth. I think I’d pigeonholed synths and guitars in different worlds until I understood his process. You composed on one or the other, and that instrument of composition would then define your music and your artistic statement. Nonsense, of course. 1984 was for me a pivotal year as I discovered the UK Top 40 on Radio 1 and its visual highlights on Top Of The Pops. The charts were, it quickly became apparent, full of gays – as well as (half of) Erasure, there was Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, and especially Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the list went on.

Through them and their conduit, the BBC, I became aware of a larger world. Andy Bell could appear in gold lamé hotpants to sing Sometimes on prime-time BBC1 and millions of our countrymen – not least my parents – would watch. I began to realise that we probably reacted differently to this performance. With my age still in single figures, the lyrical meaning of Frankie‘s Relax, I confess, passed me by – but Erasure’s songs, beginning with the chorus of Sometimes, had me analysing and reanalysing all sorts of assumptions. It marked at least the beginning of an awakening.

I’d already bought my first album on cassette tape, but my first CD album was for someone of my age not an obvious choice – Delirium by Capercaillie. En route to America for the first time, I was in a duty free shop with my father. He’d been concerned I wouldn’t have enough to occupy me on the plane, and took me into a shop and get me an album to listen to. I could choose from whatever was there. I can’t think what caused me to choose Capercaillie – I didn’t then know the band was named after a bird, or anything about their music. I did know they were Scottish, having scanned the sleeve notes, and somehow I’d lasted this long on the planet without owning any music by Scots, despite most of my family hailing from north of the border. Maybe it was a curiosity to hear if we’d have a shared connection.

Delirium merged synth sounds with their Gaelic folk music, and the latter was an otherworldly thing to my ears – I had no idea what those lyrics were about. I listened to the reels and jigs, and I wanted to listen to more of them. By extension from there started to listen more broadly to folk music. Capercaillie’s Delirium is not pure folk, but they are steeped in its traditions, and it opened that world up to me and gave me landmarks to mark the course of exploration.

The Proms does that too. You go along to see something that, as a piece of sheet music written hundreds of years ago, could be stultifying, but actually it’s alive because people are on stage and giving their own interpretations – like tonight’s Prom, with the trombonist in the orchestra in Boléro.

What did you think of the music in tonight’s Prom?

It was my first time ever hearing Boléro live, although like most people I expect I know it very well. It was my first time hearing anything by Debussy live, and had never heard anything by Lili Boulanger. I’ll work back, because I have Boléro in my mind at the moment.

I think it’s a pivotal piece of music. It’s not that exciting because once you’ve heard it you know where it goes, but that’s also true of most trance singles released on Positiva at the turn of the century. It’s a dance music track in embryonic minimalist form, building layers, reshaping loops, falling back. It’s also a pop music track because it’s instantly memorable. And it’s a classical music track because it uses an orchestra – it’s many different things. I want to know how it affects the broader world beyond classical, not if it was too fast or too slow, or which genre it neatly fits into. It’s probably not Ravel’s best in his own mind, but it’s certainly his big crossover hit from beyond the grave.

With Debussy I found myself not focusing on the musicians, but drifting. Not that it was bad, but I think that’s what it was about. I started thinking of other images the music was putting in my mind, in a way that Boléro didn’t. The first piece (the Prélude à L’apres-midi d’un faune) I thought was better at doing that than the Nocturnes. It was a nice warm-up, and I could see why it was first. Nobody stood out, it was a piece that brought everybody together. There was one thing happening organically. I couldn’t sing you a note of it now, but it engendered thoughts of other things.

With the Boulanger I found it very quiet, despite everything on stage – which felt like a choice that the performers had decided to restrain things. I thought that was odd.

What was your experience of the arena compared to elsewhere in the Royal Albert Hall?

For the Debussy I think I would rather have been sat down, but not for Boléro. It was odd to be standing up for classical, I would have expected to sit down and would rather do that I think.

Verdict: A qualified SUCCESS, even more so with seats!