Wigmore Mondays – Pavel Kolesnikov & Samson Tsoy, Colin Currie & Sam Walton: Music for pianos and percussion

Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy (pianos), Colin Currie and Sam Walton (percussion) (pictured above in rehearsal, credit unknown)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 2 December 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

A truly memorable concert with many more instruments than performers! The Wigmore Hall stage was straining at the seams for this concert, with a daunting battery of percussion positioned behind two lidless Steinway pianos.

As BBC Radio 3 presenter Fiona Talkington confirmed, the two pianists and their percussion counterparts had only met the previous week. This is where music making can be so thrilling, for chemistry had been established and all four performers clearly enjoyed the concert experience.

That much was clear from the first, atmospheric notes of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, given in an arrangement that seems to have been the composer’s own, retaining percussion parts from the orchestral original. The Prélude à la nuit (1:49 on the broadcast link below) immediately evokes the heady Mediterranean scene, laced with a background tension that was occasionally released in faster music, thrumming like an ensemble of guitars. Ravel’s orchestral concepts are easily discerned here, with the players very closely attuned. The Malagueña (6:02) is suitably enchanting, while the Habanera (8:05), with lovely detail on castanets and xylophone, wears its Carmen influences on its sleeve. Finally the dazzling Feria (10:52), brilliantly performed, wraps up our colourful Spanish sojourn with a flourish.

The percussionists then had a break while Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy gave us a rarity in the form of Britten’s Two Lullabies. Written for a concert with South African pianist Adolph Hallis, they are barely known – but carry a number of the 22-year old composer’s musical trademarks. The first lullaby is as you would expect, gently rocking like a boat as the listener’s head nods towards sleep (19:07) but the second, Lullaby for a retired colonel (23:20), is an ‘anti-lullaby’, seemingly written to annoy its subject into wakefulness with renditions of The British Grenadiers, Men of Harlech, the Marseillaise and the Last Post. This performance caught the gracefulness and cheek respectively.

The main act, if you like, was an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary piece. Even now, 82 years on from its Swiss premiere, there are few pieces as original as Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, one of the standout pieces of 20th century repertoire but one of the least performed in that class, due to its unusual scoring.

This performance gave us the chance to appreciate Bartók’s unique sound world, from unhinged Allegros to daringly slow night music where nobody dare move a sinew. It begins in the depths (28:10) with the ominous rumbling of timpani and cold piano octaves. This is the small cell from which the piece grows, angular lines on the piano complemented by strident timpani. As always in Bartók the music is incredibly atmospheric, and when it breaks out into the faster music (from 31:30) an almost primal energy is released. Terrific playing from all four, who had only started playing this music together the previous week – with a stunning ending in pure C major.

The second music (42:13) is a classic example of Bartók’s night music. The brushes on the snare drum bring the cooler evening air into sharp focus, with an even colder unison on piano in response. This performance brings out these incredibly descriptive aspects of the writing, each detail carefully observed and pointed until – as in many slow movements from the Hungarian composer – the ground suddenly falls away and the music tears off at a pace. Soon enough a peace of sorts is restored, though again there is an eye left open just in case.

The third and final movement is the sound of unbridled joy, heralded by a rapid shift to C major and a terrific burst of energy. The xylophone (Sam Walton in this performance) has terrific clarity in its theme, which has sardonic overtones Shostakovich would have enjoyed, while the interplay between the pianos is superbly balanced. The percussion includes a driving part for both bass drum and timpani, where Bartók uses glissando to create an evocative twang, often in quieter passages. These were superbly judged by Colin Currie. The piece ends in unexpected quiet, the purity of C major ensuring it has the ideal place to rest after considerable exertions.

A truly great performance, this, one borne of musical instinct and chemistry that found all four performers going hell for leather in the quick music but exercising the utmost restraint to bring Bartók’s vivid colours through when all was quiet. Make sure you listen to it!


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

Ravel Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8) (1:49)
Britten Two Lullabies (1936) (19:07)
Bartók Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937)

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard in leading available versions on Spotify below:

Colin Currie and Sam Walton have recorded the Bartók previously, with pianists Cédric Tiberghien and François-Frédéric Guy. Details on that recording can be found together with soundbites at the Hyperion website:

Bartók wrote three pieces for Paul Sacher while in Switzerland – the Sonata as heard here, the remarkable Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta and the more rustic, folksy Divertimento for string orchestra. Both those pieces can be heard below as part of an album from Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, which also includes the ballet suite from The Wooden Prince:

Wigmore Mondays – Colin Currie Quartet in music by Pereira, Volans, Stockhausen & Reich










Colin Currie Quartet (Colin Currie, Sam Walton, Adrian Spillett, Owen Gunnell (percussion)

Pereira Mallet Quartet (2013 (1:36 – 10:08 on the broadcast link below)
Volans 4 Marimbas (2016) (12:38 – 33:21)
Stockhausen Vibra-Elufa (2003) (35:40 – 41:27)
Reich Drumming Part 1 (1970-71) (44:30 – 59:59)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 1 July 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing change to have percussion taking centre stage for a Monday lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall. Not only that but two of the four pieces had that ‘just off the shelf’ feeling, with the Joseph Pereira and Kevin Volans pieces written for Colin Currie’s ensemble. As an added bonus, South African composer Volans – 70 this year – was in the audience.

Pereira, principal percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave us bright metallic sounds from the start (1:36 on the broadcast). Crisp unison blocks of sound were broken up by quicker figures that gave the Mallet Quartet energy. With a broad range of timbres and pitches, the bursts of activity were often followed by pauses, giving a stop-start feel but ultimately heightening the drama. At 7:30 the quartet converged on a single pitch, D, the high point of the piece at which point the music takes a natural breather. Then the pitches regroup from the depths, returning to a treble pitch from which we tumble down what feels like a waterfall. Pereira’s music pictorial to the close.

Kevin Volans4 Marimbas (from 12:38) exhibited a warmer sound, the players using softer sticks to create a fluid and soothing experience, like running water. As it developed the players negotiated twists and turns skillfully, interpreting the piece an experience of ambient yet positive energy. Around the 19-minute mark the pitch rose, concentrating the mind, but then the sonorous tones of the marimbas’ lower ranges came in again.

Then at 21:45 the performers noticeably reined in the dynamic range, their sticks closer to the instruments as the sound shrunk before our ears. This is a tactic Volans has used on several occasions, working especially well here as percussion is not normally known for quiet performance! The audience subconsciously leant forward in the Wigmore Hall before the reassurance of the full marimba timbre came in again around a minute later. Towards the end it happened again and stayed quiet, proving even more effective second time around.

Stockhausen’s Vibra-Elufa, a short piece (from 35:40), was notable for its intensity and sinuous lines. Performed by Currie alone on marimba, it had moments of tender beauty but also shrill edges, especially when high in the treble range. It left an otherworldly, enchanting impression in the manner of the large-scale stage piece from which it is drawn and arranged, Freitag aus Licht.

Then we were on to Drumming, Steve Reich’s breakthrough masterpiece of 1971 that confirmed minimalism as a community-based musical form (from 44:30). It was a visit to Ghana in 1970 that convinced Reich he was on the right track with what has turned out to be his longest instrumental piece to date. Over time Drumming has evolved, and can even be divided into constituent parts, as here – with Part 1 concentrating on tuned bongos. The technical challenges remain, even over 15 minutes, with improvisational skills and a strong sense of form brought into play. Listen to the broadcast from 44:30 and you will hear how the quartet unite in big strokes of sound but gradually tumble out of phase, picking up kinetic energy as they do so, before aligning again for another commanding statement.

The players were superb, with clear visual communication the secret to a performance notable for its drive, accuracy and flair. Listen to it and lose yourself in the rhythms!
Each of the four pieces in this concert received technically brilliant performances. Currie was the natural leader but Walton, Spillett and Gunnell all stepped forward when required, emphasising the communal approach they have to their music and especially their new commissions. On the way out of the Wigmore Hall I overheard a regular saying it was one of the best lunchtime concerts he had ever been to in the venue, and I am inclined to agree!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert is not available online, with the exception of Drumming – which exists in a recording made by Steve Reich, Synergy Vocals and the Colin Currie Group. It’s as close to authentic as you could wish for!

Since that recording Currie and Reich have made a live disc from the Foundation Louis Vitton, with a broad range of Reich’s work that includes the classic Clapping Music, the choral piece Proverb, the Mallet Quartet, Pulse and Music for Pieces of Wood. Typically functional titles from the composer there!

There is not a great deal of Kevin Volans’ music on Spotify, but one very good way into his music is via the string quartet – which is where a disc from 1994 from the Balanescu Quartet comes in. Hunting, Gathering, his second string quartet, is particularly evocative:

Proms premiere – HK Gruber: into the open…

hk gruber

HK Gruber photo by Jon Super

Colin Currie (percussion), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds (Prom 5)

Duration: 28 minutes

BBC iPlayer link


The Gruber starts at 3:46 on the programme, with commentary beforehand

What’s the story behind the piece?

In an interview with Arcana, Colin Currie revealed the piece to be a memorial to David Drew, who in 1976 was appointed director of publications at the leading music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. Drew became known principally for his work revitalising the output and reputation of the composer Kurt Weill. In his obituary of the director, composer Alexander Goehr wrote for the Guardian how “he prepared scores, travelled Europe and America promoting the works, was instrumental in forming the Weill Foundation (1973) and not only changed, if not created, the public perception of the composer, but contributed to a sea-change in the development of composition in the second half of the 20th century.”

These works included Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins). Weill is a composer close to HK Gruber’s heart – and Gruber became an established composer on the Boosey roster.

Currie told Arcana about how, “The piece itself is about thwarted feelings of desperation and loss. It confronts bereavement in an angry and passionate way. It is a violent piece, and an unhappy one too – but it is also extremely lyrical and tender. The person, the subject, is clearly missed – but it is not easy to put into words.”

The Radio 3 broadcast talks of how the performance parts ‘verge on the impossible’ – and not just for the soloist!

Did you know?

Gruber sang with the Vienna Boys’ Choir as a child – and went on to play double bass in the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Initial verdict

The immediate reaction to this piece is that it will need more than two hearings to fully come to terms with the music within! It is a substantial piece of work, a work of many colours – using the multitude of percussion to the limits of its potential.

A cold emptiness is immediately evident at the beginning, the marimbas in prominence early on, as the size of the structure becomes clear. This is a slow building piece, in keeping with Gruber’s concept of it as a procession – and there are a few signposts that became clear on the first hearing.

At 8’40” in the program link there is a notable change as softly oscillating woodwind offer some consolation, then the brass have more thoughts about 11’32”, the orchestra gathering itself for a powerful onslaught towards the end of the piece – but the end is quiet.

To be honest I did rather lose the thread of the piece from halfway but I suspect that is a ‘listener fault’ rather than anything Gruber has done! Hence the need for more than one further listen.

It should be pointed out the performance standard seems to be incredibly high, despite what Currie was saying about the difficulty!

Second hearing


Where can I hear more?

A good next port of call is BBC Radio 3 program CD Review, who explore recordings of Gruber’s music here – which gives you the ideal opportunity to hear snapshots of his music along with the thoughts of others.

Proms Interview: Colin Currie – Into the open

colin-currieColin Currie. Photo: Marco Borggreve

It is not an exaggeration to say that Colin Currie is one of the most exciting classical musicians at work today. The percussionist has been instrumental in securing a number of vital commissions from leading composers – Steve Reich, Elliott Carter and Rautavaara among them. Now he returns to HK Gruber for a second percussion concerto, into the open…, which he will give at Prom 5 with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and John Storgårds.

The piece is dedicated to the memory of David Drew, who in 1976 was appointed director of publications at the leading music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. In a chat with Arcana Colin took us through the piece itself, the instruments he uses and how Gruber’s music responds to bereavement.

Do you remember your first encounter with the Proms?

Yes – I think I played before I attended! It was in 1993, with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland. I was playing timpani, and we played Holst’s The Planets, and a new violin concerto by Thomas Wilson. It was a typical Proms programme.

What was your first Prom as a soloist?

I gave the premiere of Ruby by Joe Duddell in 2003. By then I had attended many Proms as a student. I would stay down in London over the summer and Prom ‘binge’, and from around 1995 I went to dozens of Proms, usually as a Prommer. I think it’s the best way to experience the festival, and the best way for me is to stand towards the back of the arena. The gallery also gives a really nice perspective.

It is amazing to play in the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, it is a huge hall and a wonderful audience. There were people packed around the orchestra in this concert, and it was wonderful.

You’ve worked with HK Gruber for nearly 15 years now. How do you think his music has changed and / or developed in that time?

He is always going through different stages of density in his music. At certain points his writing has become incredibly dense, and at other times he has the confidence to let things thin out, to use his charm and charisma. His qualities become transparent that way. He is developing often in a most challenging way, always looking for new angles and takes. His is an extremely creative and inquisitive mind, and he does things with a childlike wonder. An interesting comparison to showcase is the first percussion concerto, Rough Music, but I think this one is a better one. Rough Music is a wonderful piece, but this shows how things have moved on. It is more challenging for the soloist and for the orchestra, and it is highly intensified, more extreme, more daring and audacious!

The impression HK Gruber gives is that he has a keen sense of humour.

He does have a wicked sense of humour, that’s all true, but he is also extremely serious about his music, and it is done with lightness and enjoyment. It’s all about music and high art, nothing else matters, and he is incredibly passionate about it. If you don’t want to listen it is beyond him, and that’s why music is so strong for him.

You must have built up quite a set of memories of collaborations with composers.

Definitely. These composers I have got to know and I treasure those experiences, they are fascinating to me. I have come to relate strongly to their endeavours and the challenges they face. They are extremely strong characters, and not always easy, but it is an amazing sweep of personalities that I have been lucky enough to work with. I try to be a facilitator, and I will put them way ahead of anything that might be bugging me. I will put their music over and above their egos, and I try to put mine last!

into the open… is scored for a variety of percussion instruments. Can I get you to explain these ones?

Cencerros: “they are tuned cow bells”

Plate bells (or bell plates) “They sound like large church bells. There are three of them in this piece, and they are deep and resonant. None of the instruments are especially unusual, but the combinations Gruber uses are unusual. The plate bells are used with the marimba, gongs and temple blocks. It is a monstrous percussive machine! There are also six timpani with tom toms, snare and bongos – a grand total of 22 drums!”

Cajón (pronounced ca-hon) – “A box you sit on and play with your hands. It is used in Latin music.”

African balafon – “essentially a xylophone”

Did you know David Drew at all?

I did meet him briefly, but only meeting him once I was completely inspired by him. He was eccentric, and without being disrespectful it is fair to say he was crazy about music. I met him not long before he died, when I gave a concert in 2009. It was a concerto by Kurt Schwertsik, a Boosey & Hawkes composer, who is Austrian and a good friend of Gruber. Drew signed them in the 1980s I believe, and he was so passionate, jumping up and down like a child as he was energised by Mozart, Stravinsky and Schwertsik. I’ll be doing my best to do him proud in the performance.

(click here to watch an introduction to Schwertsik’s Marimba Concerto from the Scottish Ensemble

How does into the open… remember David Drew?

The piece itself is about thwarted feelings of desperation and loss. It confronts bereavement in an angry and passionate way. It is a violent piece, and an unhappy one too – but it is also extremely lyrical and tender. The person, the subject, is clearly missed – but it is not easy to put into words.

You have worked with John Storgårds on new percussion works previously. Do you find him particularly understanding to your requirements?

He is the best! He has a wonderful way of working with soloists, and he has been a vast presence in maintaining concerto-level performances. Nothing is ever too complicated, and nothing gets between him and the music. He always get the simplest approach, and gives us soloists confidence while also keeping us calm. He and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra are fantastic, I could not be happier with them.

What are your plans for the rest of the year?

I am going to Vienna, which is a big deal as I am playing at Wien Modern, a festival I have revered from afar. I am playing the Gruber with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and it will be wonderful as it is my debut there.

I have some concerts further away but I am giving the premiere of a Percussion Concerto by Andrew Norman called Switch next season. That will be with the Utah Symphony Orchestra, they are celebrating their 75th anniversary in Cadogan Hall.

Are you continuing to work with Steve Reich?

Absolutely, the group is very busy touring away. Next season we will play the Music for 18 Musicians at the Royal Festival Hall, and will play the Quartet that he wrote for us. We are also very busy with upcoming projects and playing in Japan, and all around music. There is a great spirit for collective music, we have a lot of fun playing it. The Southbank performance will be part of my role as Artist in Association there, and after the Metal Wood Skin festival we have some wonderful plans in the pipeline!

Colin Currie performs into the open… with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds at the BBC Proms on Monday 20 July, in a concert that includes Haydn’s Symphony no.85 and Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

You can get more information about his disc of Gruber’s first Percussion concerto, Rough Music, by clicking here.

Finally an obituary and appreciation of David Drew from the composer Alexander Goehr can be read on the Guardian website