Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble – Stravinsky, Ustvolskaya & Shostakovich

Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble: Elena Bashkirova (piano, above), Marina Prudenskaya (soprano), Pascal Moragués (clarinet), Sergej Krylov (violin), Alexander Knyazev (cello)

Stravinsky Suite from The Soldier’s Tale (for violin, clarinet and piano) (1918-19)
Ustvolskaya Piano Sonata no.5
Shostakovich Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127 (1967)
Ustvolskaya Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1849)
Shostakovich Piano Trio no.2 in E minor Op.67 (1944)

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 14 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

Pianist Elena Bashkirova founded the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival in 1998, and this celebration at the Wigmore Hall was part of a desire to continually expand the festival beyond Israel’s borders. Here we had a well-conceived program of Russian music, if a little unremitting in its darkly coloured focus.

It was especially gratifying to see the prominence given to Galina Ustvolskaya’s music. A pupil of Shostakovich, she has a small but potent legacy of works, which show a style already thinking well ahead of its time. In the first half of the concert we heard the Piano Sonata no.5, a remarkably concentrated piece of music lasting only half the 20 minutes it does on record. The suspicion was that Bashkirova did not follow some of the instructed repeats, or that her performance was simply much faster than those before it. Either way it left a powerful imprint, its refusal to budge from a central Db anchoring the music becoming a really strong musical device in spite of all the activity around it.

Arguably even more accomplished was the Trio for clarinet, violin and piano with which the concert’s second half began. This too left a lasting impression, thanks largely to the sensitivity with which Pascal Moragués and Sergej Krylov played the quiet music, and to the probing and penetrating tone of Bashkirova’s right hand. As Paul Griffiths’ booklet note pointed out, this music sounds more like late Shostakovich – but its composition date of 1949 shows just how originally Ustvolskaya was thinking.

From Shostakovich we heard two works, the late Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127, and the Piano Trio no.2 in E minor, Op.67. Both are hugely effective concert pieces, but it was the Blok poems that cut to the core at the end of the first half. Soprano Marina Prudenskaya, a late stand-in for Anna Samuil, got right to the heart of Blok’s verse, nowhere more so than in the savage destruction of Burya (The Storm). From this a wispy cello line emerged, Alexander Knyazev responding with a moving plaintive tone, after which the trio joined for the first time in accompanying Prudenskaya for the final song. It capped a tightly structured performance, the string players finding just the right tone if not always the exact intonation, while Bashkirova’s piano probed the lower reaches of the bass sound.

This was also the case in the Second Trio, which was occasionally a bit unkempt technically but which unerringly found the heart and focus of Shostakovich’s music. From the ghostly harmonics at the start, Krylov and Knyazev were clearly on the same emotional page, and with Bashkirova the three players achieved an impressive variety of volume and colour. Shostakovich’s powerplay scherzo and middle of the last movement were incredibly strong and lasting statements, but as ever with his music the greater meaning could be found in the moments of intimacy where the listener can hear a pin drop. The last movement thus became the focus of attention, music of sorrow, paranoia and anger – with just a little respite at the end.

The evening began with Stravinsky’s suite from A Soldier’s Tale, distilled into short movements for clarinet, violin and piano. Melodic and spiky, this performance was enjoyable and included just the right amount of humour, before taking a darker turn for the final Triumphal March of the Devil, where Krylov took over.

An excellent and thought provoking concert, particularly in the light of the various programmes marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution this year.

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

Wigmore Mondays: Andrei Ioniţă & Itamar Golan – Bach, Shostakovich & Bartók

Andrei Ioniţă (cello, above – picture Daniel Delang), Itamar Golan (piano, below)

J.S. Bach Cello Suite no.1 in G major BWV1006 (c1720)
Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40 (1934)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 27 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

There is a frustrating lack of information around J.S. Bach’s music for solo cello. Frustrating because the music itself is so good, a cornerstone of the instrument’s repertoire that satisfies experienced players and novices alike. In an interesting program note for this concert Richard Bratby outlined how Bach’s Six Suites for solo cello could indeed have a biblical theme running through them, a conviction that the cellist Steven Isserlis holds, though as he is the first to admit there is no hard and fast evidence for this.

The Suites are beautifully structured, with a Prelude giving way to five different dances – two relatively quick (in this case Allemande and Courante) – then one slow (always a Sarabande) and then two more quick (here two Bourrées) and always ending with a triple time Gigue.

The first cello suite has music you may recognise from Master and Commander among many other film and TV uses.

The Shostakovich is one of the most-played works for cello and piano from the 20th century, and it is easy to see why when you hear it – packed full of incident and tunes. It was written at the start of a new era for the composer, his wife having just moved out – and found him in a particularly rich vein of creativity, completing the half-hour work in just over a month in 1934. It was written for the cellist Viktor Kubatsky, who with the Stradivarius Quartet had taken part in the premiere of the composer’s 2 Pieces for String Octet in 1925. Shostakovich had yet to write any of his 15 string quartets, or his concerti for violin and cello, so this marks his first large scale writing for a stringed instrument. It received a mixed reception, some of its critics branding it too simplistic, but its lyricism and humour have given it a wide audience.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

J.S. Bach Cello Suite no.1 in G major BWV1006 (c1720) (1:47) (16 minutes)

The suite follows the outline described above, beginning with an expansive Prelude (1:47) that uses a series of arpeggios to plot its harmonic and melodic course. The dance movements begin with a fairly relaxed Allemande (4:02), where the steps are relatively slow, but steps up in pace with a Courante (7:52).

A slow and gorgeous Sarabande follows (10:20) where the cello uses a lot of ‘multiple stopping’ – playing more than one note with the bow simultaneously – before we move to a pair of Bourrées. The first one (13:14) is boisterous, the second (14:22) more withdrawn – but the first is repeated (15:32) to reclaim the upbeat mood. Then the distinctive triple time of the Gigue (16:09) closes out the suite.

Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40 (from 20:20) (28 minutes)

The Sonata begins in relatively genial mood, with a legato approach to the cello, as lyrical as anything Shostakovich has written. Soon, however, the clouds begin to form – though they are not visible anywhere when the cello gives out the second main theme of the first movement (22:35), a beautiful moment where it sounds suspended in mid-air. The movement ends deep in thought, but with a little frisson of worry around the edges.

That worry is emphatically thrown off in the bold as brass second movement (32:20) where both instruments go at it hammer and tongs. After that outburst we return to quiet and an introspective slow movement (from 35:45), where Shostakovich captures that exquisitely private intimacy only he can in a chamber setting.

When we emerge from deep thought the piano gives out a witty theme (44:06) to signal the start of the finale, where both players duck and dive through a set of highly enjoyable tunes and countermelodies. This is Shostakovich having fun – but even then there is a note of caution in the background.

Thoughts on the concert

Andrei Ioniţă gave a thoughtful performance of the Bach First Cello Suite, though could perhaps have shown us more of the sunnier side of the music, which can come through in the Courante, first Bourrée and Gigue especially. The Courante felt too fast – certainly something you’d have trouble dancing to! – though it did show off his quickfire technique, of which more later. The Sarabande could perhaps have been more outwardly expressive too, though the Gigue had a nice rustic feel.

The Shostakovich was a different story, Ioniţă and Itamar Golan straight to the heart of the work with an intimate yet wholly involving performance. The cellist’s tone was ideal, and so was the balance struck with the piano, who intervened in crushing style where necessary but drew back in the quieter moments. The bracing second movement was powerfully wrought, both players sparring with the gloves off, but the slow movement was especially affecting, helped by Ioniţă’s control of the high melodic line. The finale was brilliantly done, bringing just the right measure of humour and introspection to the performance.

With some time left Ioniţă and Golan gave a generous encore, an arrangement of Bartók’s Six Romanian Folk Dances for cello and piano (from 49:43 on the broadcast). This had all the flair and pizazz you would expect from a native Romanian, brilliantly played and with all the melodic inflections beautifully realised. The accuracy of the harmonics in the third dance (51:41) had to be seen to be believed!

All in all an excellent concert from a prodigious talent, who can only benefit from having someone as experienced as Golan – who has in his time accompanied Mischa Maisky and Maxim Vengerov – alongside him.

Further listening and reading

You can watch Ionita in the final of the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition below, where he plays more Shostakovich:

Meanwhile the pieces making up the concert are grouped in the following Spotify playlist

Wigmore Mondays: Gabriela Montero plays Schumann, Shostakovich and her own improvisations

Gabriela Montero (above, piano)

Schumann Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op.15 (1838)
Shostakovich Piano Sonata no.2 in B minor, Op.61 (1943)
Gabriela Montero Improvisations (2017)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 13 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Schumann’s piano pieces were written for his beloved Clara to play, in the early stages of their courtship – when he was far from flavour of the month in the Wieck household. They are reminiscences of childhood life and were not intended for children to play as such. Happily some of them are a bit easier, but they are viewed through adult frames.

Shostakovich, meanwhile, wrote his Piano Sonata no.2 in memory of his former Leonid Nikolayev, at a time of particular hardship with World War II at its height. The substantial work a much more mature piece than his First Sonata, set in one movement, and it sits between two massive symphonies in the Seventh (Leningrad) and Eighth. Perhaps because of the enormous dimensions of those pieces the Sonata is a thoughtful and almost fiercely intimate work that has the listener subconsciously leaning in to listen to the quieter moments.

Gabriela Montero is one of the few classical pianists to actively practise the art of improvisation in concert, and as she told the booklet writer Jessica Duchen she finds a ‘different state of consciousness…like an open vessel’.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Schumann Kinderszenen, Op.15 (from 1:52) (20 minutes)

Rather than describe each piece for you, I have elected simply to list the titles Schumann assigns the pieces and the time at which they appear in the broadcast. His writing is so descriptive it will conjure all sorts of pictures in the imagination! The movements are:

  1. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) (from 1:52)
  2. Kuriose Geschichte (A Curious Story) (3:49)
  3. Hasche-Mann (Blind Man’s Bluff) (4:56)
  4. Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child) (6:21)
  5. Glückes genug (Happy Enough)
  6. Wichtige Begebenheit (An Important Event) (7:32)
  7. Träumerei (Dreaming) (8:32)
  8. Am Kamin (At the Fireside) (11:30)
  9. Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the Hobbyhorse) (12:26)
  10. Fast zu Ernst (Almost Too Serious) (13:03)
  11. Fürchtenmachen (Frightening) (15:17)
  12. Kind im Einschlummern (Child Falling Asleep) (16:53)
  13. Der Dichter spricht (The Poet Speaks) (19:22)

Shostakovich Piano Sonata no.2 in B minor, Op.61 (1943)

The sonata starts like a cold wind blowing into the concert hall, with rapid figurations in the left hand, but soon develops into a driving march (around 24:00) with the right hand of the piano striking notes an octave apart. At 26:53 it comes back to an emphatic statement of the main tune, now lower in the left hand, before an introspective passage of thought and then an emphatic finish

The second movement, marked Largo (29:47) is one of Shostakovich’s characteristically intimate elegies, notable for its slow tempo and recurring pulse. The performer here is lulled into quiet thought.

In the third movement Shostakovich delivers one of those nagging themes in which he excels, given out by the right hand alone (from 36:27). Once heard it dominates proceedings, no matter what other music Shostakovich introduces – it all comes back to that theme, blurring the boundaries between minor and major keys and wavering uncertainly whenever it appears. The melodic material is made up of variants on that tune, the music becoming increasingly twisted and anguished before burning out, spending time in downcast thought and then recovering for a final, furtive statement of the theme.

Gabriela Montero Improvisations (from 50:34) (4 minutes)

In a spoken introduction, Venezuelan pianist Montero describes the improvisation offered here as a reaction to ‘my broken country’. It adopts the same tonality of the Shostakovich, B minor, and sets out its thoughts in a way that the Russian composer would surely recognise. The fluid and heartfelt musical progressions are all the more meaningful for being of the moment.

Thoughts on the concert

A recital of contrasts from Gabriela Montero. Schumann’s Kinderszenen provided the audience with a lot of fun through its wistful reminiscences, though at times Montero did stretch out the tempo rather, especially in the opening number. The characterisations were very enjoyable though, and Wichtige Begebenheit had a proud step, while Träumerei was appropriately dreamy. Montero also captured the melancholy that can come with rose-tinted recollections such as these, especially in Schumann, and the final Der Dichter spricht was ideally pitched.

Shostakovich’s Second Sonata crackled with atmosphere, and the presence of an unnamed menace that marks his most private works was here throughout. The bluster of the first movement was fooling nobody with its resolve, for the heart of Shostakovich’s music here lay in the bare outlines of the finale, where Montero excelled, and in the unexpected ghostly chord that arrives just before the end.

It was refreshing to hear an improvisation from Montero that seemed to take its lead from this work in professing its despair at the political and economical state of her home country, and this music was made all the more memorable by her relative restraint in its execution. More performers would do well to follow her lead.

Further listening and reading

You can read more about Gabriela Montero at her website, while the Spotify album below couples her interpretation of Rachmaninov‘s Piano Concerto no.2 with three of her Improvisations:

Montero has not recorded the Shostakovich sonata, but you can hear a new album from Peter Donohoe that brings both concertos and sonatas together in one collection:

BBC Proms 2017 – Alexander Melnikov and the Latvian Radio Choir perform Shostakovich at the Cadogan Hall

Alexander Melnikov (piano, above), Latvian Radio Choir /Sigvards Kļava

Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87 (1950-51): no.1 in C major; no.2 in A minor

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op.88 (1951): To the Executed, The 9th of January

24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: no.3 in G major; no.4 in E minor

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op.88 (1951): The last salvos have sounded; They’ve won…

24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87: no.7 in A major; no.8 in F sharp minor

Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets, Op.88 (1951): May Day Song

Cadogan Hall, Monday 14 August 2017

Listen to this concert on the BBC Radio Player

The Latvian Radio Choir‘s BBC Proms mini-tour has been marked by inventive programming, and this grouping of revolutionary texts, set to music by Shostakovich, was a mile away from the previous night’s chaste yet subtly uplifting All Night Vigil by Rachmaninov.

Here the choir settled in an ideal acoustic, Cadogan Hall, but with some unsettling songs. Shostakovich wrote the Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets in 1951, acutely aware of the need to please the powers that be but still writing from the heart in a style that builds on the big opera choruses of Musorgsky. The unaccompanied choir sang grisly tales of ‘two prematurely fallen fighters’ (To The Executed), then the people ‘riddled with bullets and lead’ (The 9th of January). Their delivery was sharp and incisive when required in the faster music, then cold and distinctly wintry in the composer’s slower thoughts, which were almost beyond solace.

It was down to Alexander Melnikov (above) to supply the effective contrast in excerpts from Shostakovich’s largest piano work, the 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op.87. A homage both to Bach and to his pianist friend Tatiana Nikolaeva, the cycle contains some of the composer’s most intimate and confidential thoughts. Running through each of the 24 major and minor keys, the work progresses as a ‘cycle of fifths’, with a Prelude and Fugue in each major key (for instance ‘C’) immediately followed by its relative minor key (in this case ‘A’).

Melnikov chose three ‘pairs’ – in C (with A minor), G (with E minor) and later on A (with F# minor). Each were closely linked to the choir’s texts, sentiments and tonality. The purity of C major was briefly cast under a shadow, the sunny Prelude countered by a thoughtful Fugue that emerged gradually into the attentive silence of Cadogan Hall. The rippling A minor Prelude flowed at great speed, as did the Fugue, but the G major prelude was solemn and magisterial, filling a much bigger space, a series of bright colours when compared to the downtrodden E minor Fugue.

As we moved from piano to choir the contrasts were striking, yet the emotions followed a clear path, so that when Melnikov returned he provided solace in A major. This cut to the sardonic humour of the F# minor Prelude, paired with a serene but baleful Fugue, a bridge to the empty triumph of the choir’s closing number, May Day Song.

This was a terrific concert, well planned and thought-provoking in its execution, especially given today’s political climate. Shostakovich was a composer under extreme duress at this time – but sadly that era of writing music is not so far removed as we think it might be.

Ben Hogwood

You can listen to Alexander Melnikov’s recording of the complete Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues on Spotify below:

BBC Proms 2016 – Shostakovich, Rachmaninov & Emily Howard from Alexey Stadler, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

proms-stadler

Alexey Stadler pictured during his performance of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 53; Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The BBC Proms should be commended for their commitment to new music, though this does come with a caveat, for it is not often that a commission for the Proms makes it to a second or third performance. Hopefully that fate will not befall Emily Howard’s Torus, a joint commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave it a thoroughly committed and virtuosic first performance under Vasily Petrenko.

Torus is based on a mathematical phenomenon, but to Howard’s credit she did not make this the domineering feature of the piece – if she did, like all good composers, it was part of the essential framework rather than explicitly signposted. Instead we were able to enjoy the colours of the large symphony orchestra, and especially the percussion, the three players using bows on their cymbals to make the textures glint towards the end.

Though subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, there was no display of gravity defying, musical athletics for the sake of it. Rather we enjoyed the orchestra as an instrument, the melodic content taking on a distinctive falling motif as though the music were heading for a trap door.

proms-petrenko

Shostakovich’s popular Cello Concerto no.1 followed, with a last minute substitute, Alexey Stadler, standing in for the unfortunately ill Truls Mørk. Any doubts about inferiority were immediately quelled, the young Russian cellist finding the soul of the music in a searching account of the slow movement and cadenza in particular. Petrenko and the RLPO, so attuned to this composer’s music in their award winning accounts of his symphonies for Naxos, were superb in support, especially horn player Timothy Jackson – but Stadler rightly stole the show, adjusting to the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall with commendable ease. His beautiful tone brought both pain and hope to the solo part in equal measure, and led to a gorgeous encore in the form of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite no.2.

Finally Petrenko led his orchestra in the music of another composer with whom they share great familiarity – Rachmaninov. There are several warhorses in his output that are arguably overplayed in concert, but the Symphony no.3 is not one of them – and how wonderful it was in this account, with soulful melodies, sleights of hand from Petrenko and sudden bursts of light from the orchestra.

The tricky syncopations of the finale were expertly handled, the orchestra delivering the suddenly loud snaps like the slamming of a door, a thrilling effect in the live arena. Yet they were also alive to the music’s lyrical and occasionally less certain undercurrents, where leader Thelma Handy was a superb soloist.

As an encore Petrenko brought out Shostakovich’s arrangement of YoumansTea For Two, and gave it a brilliant send-up, as though conducting the last night. It was a beautifully judged encore, and showed again just how much this orchestra and conductor enjoy working together – which is what it’s all about, surely!

Ben Hogwood