Wigmore Mondays: Apollon Musagète Quartet play Grieg, Puccini & Sibelius

Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski, Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)]

Sibelius Andante Festivo (1922) (1:55 – 6:00 on the broadcast link below)
Puccini I Crisantemi (1890) (6:25 – 13:45)
Grieg String Quartet in G minor Op.27 (1877) (16:00 – 52:46)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29 January 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was a well thought out and brilliantly played concert from the Apollon Musagète Quartet, bringing together three composers not normally associated with the idiom of the string quartet, and making a very strong case for their efforts.

The Andante Festivo dates from a period when Sibelius was struggling, inspiration arriving at the Finnish composer’s house only fitfully. This piece was written on one such day, with the same luminous scoring that would characterise the Sixth Symphony. Here it was given an appropriate, ceremonial air – apt given that it was written for the 25th anniversary of the Säynätsalo sawmills. The full chords were deeply resonant here, hinting at a suitability realised by the composer’s later arrangement for string orchestra.

Puccini‘s I crisantemi is if anything more familiar in the composer’s arrangement for larger forces, but it was also very affecting here. The recurring harmonies have a strong, nostalgic tug at the heart strings, and again the Apollon Musagète were as one, skilfully putting deep feeling over sentimentality.

Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor is, in my opinion, a neglected masterpiece. That is a phrase you will of course read all too often in reviews, but in my defence I have no less a figure than the composer Franz Liszt to back me up!

“It is a long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg.”

In this performance (from 16:00) on the broadcast link) the bold, solemn introduction quickly yielded to a fast movement that meant business and was already digging deep. Frequently the string writing is beefed up, and the impressive volume of this performance was balanced by a cleanliness of ensemble and attack. At 23:44, a brief pause between a big, sweeping statement and a very small response felt like the start of a new movement, so pronounced were the four players in their response.

From 28:56 the charming second movement Romanze made great appeal, with a lovely warm solo from cellist Piotr Skweres. The third movement Intermezzo (36:45) returned to the bold, assertive outlines of the first movement, resolutely sticking to a minor key – until, that is, its rustic second theme gave a jaunty alternative. This introduced a tension to the performance, as though Grieg himself was flitting between the two moods and unable to settle.

This battle of wills continued into the finale (from 43:59), the twisting lines of its brief introduction led by first violinist Paweł Zalejski until a nervy fast theme took hold. The quartet made much of Grieg’s daring harmonies, with some surprisingly bold dissonances, until finally the refuge of a major key was reached (from 51:46) Now the struggle – for performers as well as composer! – was more emphatically won, putting the seal on a really fine account of a piece that should be heard far more often.

As an encore the Apollon Musagète gave us a string quartet arrangement of Osvaldo Fresedo’s Vida mía (from 54:39), one of the Argentinian composer’s best-loved tangos.

Further listening

You can listen to recordings of the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Grieg’s String Quartet had a profound influence on Debussy, when he came to write his only work in the form sixteen years later. It is paired in a playlist here with Sibelius’ best known work in the form, his quartet known as Voces intimae:

Interview: James Heather

Stories From Far Away is James Heather’s debut album, a set of piano pieces documenting his emotional and musical response to contemporary news stories. It brings out the pianist’s more ‘classical’ side, a complement to the work he does heading up the communications team at Ninja Tune, where for the last 15 years he has supported the label’s output of pioneering electronic and experimental music. In this chat with Arcana he talks about how the two strands unite for powerful musical impact, and his hopes for the future as a performer. But first…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

The most powerful memory is of a subscription we had to a magazine called The Great Composers Of Our Lives. It was a monthly, with 40 or 50 issues in a binder, and they were different colours for different composers. It started off with the big hitters, like Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, but it was aimed at kids really. It was quite thin and picture-heavy, but it had as much about the academic aspects of the music as it had about their life story. It added a more emotional side, and that seeped in at an early age. It showed me that behind these complicated pieces of work there is a human story. I collected each one in a binder and became obsessed with it!

On top of that my grandparents were very in to classical music. When they came round my dad would like to choose a piece and put it on at just the right level, and sometimes my role was to get the ambience just right with the classical music in the background. My granddad was into classical – personally I am more into the romantic era. My granny was also into Schubert and Schumann, and both of them used to come round and jump on the piano in our house. My granddad was good; he played in the Second World War when he and his colleagues had an off moment – playing in a hotel in Italy. That’s where he met my granny, who I think was a nurse out there. He was playing the piano and she fell in love with him!

My other granny played piano and had a tendency to go off on a mad one, which sounded like Debussy on drugs – quite wayward but had a very distinctive style, quite madcap. I think you can hear that somewhere in my style of piano playing. I used to love listening to them play, and my dad also sent me to blues piano lessons. We had a honky-tonk piano initially, and I learnt the boogie-woogie scales. I can still play them, though they are not what I’ve chosen to put on record so far!

A year or two later I did the classical grades, and got to about Grade Six before going on my own path. That was really good because I learnt some key skills, the scales and theory around it all. What I was most passionate about from 11 or 12 was playing my latest compositions. My teacher was patient with me, and I used to play my new songs for five or ten minutes before the standard lesson.

Even at that age I was composing. I learned to play Beethoven’s Für elise, the Moonlight Sonata, the more simple Rachmaninov stuff, but I wanted to do my own thing. Once a week I would go to my granddad’s house, and he taught me the simple rules of composition – how to change key into another key, the chord sequences – and I was faithful to the rules he taught me but then later on in life I bent them a bit. I always thought he was a stickler for some composition rules. He used to detune his piano so that it was equal temperament; we used to spend hours doing that, and it was really interesting.

How has your style evolved in that time?

Initially I was just improvising, so I would sit down and play for two or three hours, just going off on one, and just play. I loved getting totally immersed, and subconsciously I was training, going off on different tangents of scales and learning what was working. I think I have become more refined, as before I hadn’t worked out introductions and endings. This came later when I started to listen to popular music, and learnt tricks about recurring motifs / hooks, and having a proper end! My early stuff as a young teenager was too repetitive and loop-heavy. The loud bits got loud without a progression to the loud, it wasn’t subtle enough. Now I think I’ve found my style and a way to deliver it in a way that people might appreciate more. I think when playing live it’s good to have a good moment where you improvise, and show that side of you. As you mature as a person your sound evolves of course.

Do you find playing the piano cathartic?

In the early times it was primal; I would just get up and do it. Some people use yoga and meditation but for me if I’m going home and I know I’ve got time to step on to the keyboard I’m excited, because I know I’m going to be relaxed. It calms my centre, and for me that’s what it’s all about. It’s nice to share, and I never assumed that anybody would like it. That’s great, but I’m also sensitive that you should remember the struggle, that for many years nobody seemed to care. Just because people care now, you’ve got to keep it on a level plain.

Given your family history, that must bring an extra personal edge to what you do?

Yes. I do think of my family, and certain chord sequences my grandparents played that seeped into me, and my late Dad’s unparalleled enthusiasm for music. It’s a shame they never saw me have any sort of proper success, but I wanted to protect myself in my teenage years. Everyone heard me play at family gatherings, but I never opened myself up to a wider audience. I didn’t want to be criticised, but you get over that!

Was that partly because your work at Ninja Tune deals with the reception of records and music?

I did become acutely aware of that one, and maybe I was overanalysing what people might think of my stuff – but also I don’t think it was quite ready. I was so busy doing my job that I knew I would get round to it. Who knows why we do things in certain orders?! In the ‘electronic’ and ‘hip hop’ networks I was in a 23-year old classical pianist was slightly odd, but as you get older you find people becoming more responsive to it. I love a rave as much as the next person, but I also have this other side. People knew about it but I do believe in organic stuff, and don’t want to push things down people’s throats. If they want to hear it, then great!

I think it’s good I’ve left it late to let myself ‘out’, because there are intricacies in all composition, and I hope that mine sounds like ‘me’ now. I would hate to just be adding to things. As a solo instrumentalist it’s harder, because if you’re a producer you’re working with hundreds of different sounds. I think I had to find my ‘person’, what made me ‘me’, and sometimes you don’t know that until you’re older.

One angle I would like to potentially go down eventually is that I’d like to do a piano album with a grime MC. I listen to classical music, new classical musicians – maybe 10% – but I listen to all of Wiley and Skepta’s catalogue. Stormzy at Glastonbury was amazing! I don’t just want to put on a bow tie and play a classical gig. I would like to do that as well but it’s all about the flexibility.

There is a certain element of classical music that is very upper class and perhaps more elitist, but then you’ve got all the new people coming through like Nils Frahm, and earlier on artists like Amon Tobin and Cinematic Orchestra opening things up more from the indie world. Now you look at 6Music with the Proms, and people like A Winged Victory for The Sullen, it’s inspiring. There’s not really an obvious place for my current sound as a solo pianist whose brain is more in the electronic world, so I’m going to try and find that. Where I have to add other instruments, why not do more young facing, risky things? I don’t want it to be seen as elevator music!
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Have the artists you work with at Ninja influence you musically at all?

Before I was at Ninja I had a keyboard in my room at university I was very passionate about what I did, but I had no idea how I could make it successful – a few friends liked some songs. Before that I tried to be in a band,  and also make electronic music with friends, but it was hard to get off the ground for various reasons. Then at Ninja I started to get a feel for how the industry worked. I think I’m a very loyal and hard working person, and I was surprised to get the job with no experience – but was in the right place at the right time. For many years I was very focused on not fucking it up, doing well in my position, and became very passionate about promoting the artists and was blown away by their music. Piano remained a hobby, and in London I was in small flats so had a keyboard, which wasn’t the real deal. I kept it going, and what it did for me was realising I had to up my game. Hearing Bonobo and Cinematic Orchestra, and then hearing one of my piano tracks, I was thinking that I need to up it somehow.

That’s how it influenced me, and I guess Ninja has given me a knowledge of how the industry works. I got signed kind of by accident, but had this network of people and could lean on a few for help. I never particularly sent it to the artists, I didn’t want to be the person who had a self-agenda. It made me more ambitious, because I see the ambition in our office. For the foreseeable I think I can put both hats on. Solo piano music is pretty different to what I’m doing at Ninja Tune. I’m going with the flow really, and I don’t pr myself, i got the great Duncan Clark @ 9PR for that – that would be slightly strange and not particularly healthy for me to promote me!

You played at Glastonbury this year – how was that?

It was a random one, because it was a connection through Greenpeace. I know the booker there, and he asked me to play – but there was no piano there, so I had to take my USB keyboard. It’s not my perfect performing situation, but I’m a believer in Greenpeace, so I wanted to help them. It’s also pretty cool to have said that’s my first ever gig! I’ve done Sofar Sounds and random singer-songwriter nights on the piano as a teenager, but it was my first real gig. The scheduling wasn’t perfect for my music, because the act before was a vocal-techno set, and before that there was a very upbeat brass band! Then I was playing my style of piano music, which is on one level very chilled but there are things going on in it. It was a small stage with 30-40 people but then lots on the perimeter. It was Sunday, around 5pm, the sun had just come out – and Shaggy was on the other stage, there was a skateboarding competition – lots of distractions. I had to keep going, and couldn’t hear myself properly, but did a 45-minute set and didn’t bugger it up. Some people zoned into it and contacted me afterwards. It’s not something I would rush into again but it’s an early sign of me not doing what’s expected.

I have a Solidarity of Arts Festival gig coming up in Gdansk, with Johann Johannsson, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Penguin Café. It’s like a Barbican vibe, I’m playing a 400 capacity room on a grand piano. I’m also playing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, not in the main room but the equivalent of the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m going to be the first gig in that room, and I’m really looking forward to it. Hopefully that will open up a new world. After 25 years of composing I’ll believe it when I see it, but hopefully those gigs will be the true James Heather experience!

Does the classical music you listened to growing up still resonate now?

Of course, yes. I grew up with Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata, and the whole grandiosity of it – but then it gets so quiet. Debussy, I have his ‘best of’ – and I just love it. The other day I was listening to the John Cage piece Landscapes, one of the first example of classical music and turntables, and loops. Then I put on a Gangstarr record – which shows how anything goes!

Finally, what does classical music mean to you?

It’s very hard to articulate in words. When classical music hits me in the right way it’s very profound, a transcendent experience. I think it means independence. In indie music you have bands, and in electronic music you often have duos, if you have an orchestra a lot of the time it’s coming from one composer, and it feels like a staunchly independent thing. This is the vision of one composer, and it’s like a big statement, and here are 50 musicians playing it. I think you possibly get less ‘bands’ or ‘duos’ in classical music so for me classical music means Independence. That’s a random on the spot theory!

James Heather’s album Stories From Far Away is out now on Ahead Of Our Time. For more information on James Heather, head to his artist website

Wigmore Mondays – Annelien Van Wauwe & Nino Gvetadze play Debussy, Poulenc & Brahms

Annelien Van Wauwe (clarinet, above) and Nino Gvetadze (piano, below)

Debussy Première rapsodie (1909-10)

Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962)

Schumann Arabeske in C major, Op 18 (1838-9)

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in E flat, Op 120 No 2 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 20 March, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The soft, languid tones of Annelien Van Wauwe’s clarinet were perfectly judged at the hushed start of Debussy’s Première rapsodie, the first piece in a nicely chosen set of music for clarinet and piano.

This piece is an elusive ten-minute train of thought, with two distinct ideas – the slow, sleepy opening paragraph (from 1:40 on the broadcast link) and another, spiky idea (around 3:42), begging for a jazz accompaniment. Gradually the two get closer together and the cumulative energy builds. Nino Gvetadze’s colourful piano accompaniment showed just how suitable the piece is for orchestra – which Debussy realised with a subsequent arrangement.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata is one of his last published works, written in homage to fellow composer Arthur Honegger. Central to its success is the yearning theme of the central Romanza (16:36), where Van Wauwe’s tone and phrasing was beautifully observed. The first movement (beginning at 11:24) could have been a bit more mischievous, perhaps, but the brisk and largely upbeat finale (21:22) certainly hit the spot.

Following this was a chance for Gvetadze to take centre stage in Schumann’s lilting Arabeske (25:40), where wife Clara explicitly asked him to avoid making musical references to her. I’m not convinced he kept that bargain, because the music is very affectionate, and Gvetadze portrayed that too.

We then heard Brahms’ last published chamber work, the last part of an Indian summer instigated by the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, whose quality of tone directly inspired four pieces from the composer. This included a pair of sonatas published in 1894 as Brahms’s Op.120. These are lovely autumnal works, and both performers shaded the E flat work, the more positive of the two, with appropriate care. More authority could perhaps have been given to the second movement (marked Allegro appassionato, from 43:26 on the broadcast) but the outer movements had plenty to admire. The first movement (from 35:09) was largely contented, while the last, a theme and variations (48:50), was more changeable in mood and brilliantly played here, Brahms’ inspiration as keen as ever.

A final thought – what will Brexit mean for the non-English contingent the BBC choose for their excellent New Generations scheme? One of many questions classical music and the arts will face in the coming months and years.

Further listening

Brahms’s last works for clarinet are collected in the playlist below. They are autumnal in nature but have some wonderful lyrical writing for the instrument.

Wigmore Mondays – Nelson Goerner plays Debussy & Chopin

nelson-goerner

Nelson Goerner (piano) © Jean-Baptiste Millot

Chopin Polonaise in F# minor Op.44 (1841) (11 minutes)

2 Nocturnes Op.62 (1846) (12 minutes)

Polonaise in A flat major Op.53 (1842-3) (7 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 23 November

Arcana’s commentary

For both Chopin and Debussy the piano became arguably their primary means of musical expression. Both used relatively traditional forms – studies, preludes for instance – but stretched them from conventional structures to suit their own means.

Here we heard seven of the twelve Préludes Debussy wrote as a book, the first of two, published in 1909 and 1910. These are character pieces where he was painting a picture or an impression, without always specifying his exact stimulus. Some were more obvious; others were left to the player for interpretation.

Nelson Goerner made each of these his own. The languid, humid atmosphere of Danseuses de Delphes (1:32 on the broadcast), with control and shading, set the scene and led to an enjoyable and mysterious La serenade interrompue (4:35). This was playful but wary too – dancing but not wanting to fully let itself go.

The ‘underwater rolling of pebbles’ from Verlaine’s poem could be sensed in Le vent dans la plaine (7:00), while the simplicity of La fille aux cheveux de lin (9:09) was rather moving. La danse de Puck (11:24) could have found the Midsummer Night’s Dream character in a more playful mood perhaps, while the thick atmospherics of Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (14:02) hung heavy on the air. Finally Les collines d’Anacapri (17:58) danced and shimmered, controlled but letting itself run wild too. The last four high notes were hammered out convincingly (20:37)

Goerner’s Chopin was rather different. The first of the Polonaises (22:14) was Chopin’s most ambitious work to use the dance form, using a Polonaise in its outer sections but a Mazurka in the middle (from 26:56). This central section had more charm but the outer sections were stern, almost obsessive – and brilliantly played. Their return after the Mazurka (30:05) was like two bolts of lightning, the mood almost that of a Tango from Goerner’s native Argentina.

The Nocturnes (33:40) and (40:12) could have done with a bit more air and relaxation; Goerner seemed rather anxious to push on with them. That said the trills of the first (from 37:55) were expertly managed, while the second was really nicely pointed.

The Polonaise (45:53) was heroic indeed, strutting its stuff but frequently dazzling, especially in Goerner’s white hot ostinato (49:02)

There was an encore to finish, an Impromptu of poise and grace (53:48), more of a Nocturne than the other two arguably.

Further listening

There is something rather special about Polish piano music – and to continue from the Chopin the Spotify playlist below offers up some lesser-heard treats in the form of piano concertos by Paderewski and Moszkowski, prefaced by a sprinkling of exotic Mazurkas from Szymanowski.

by Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Doric String Quartet play Debussy and Bartók

doric-string-quartet

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

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

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

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 September

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

Arcana’s commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further listening

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