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

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Stuart Fitzsimon on Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Emily Howard

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
fitzThis is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Stuart Fitzsimon (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 53.

Alexey Stadler (cello), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra / Vasily Petrenko

Emily Howard Torus (2016, world premiere); Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1 (1959); Rachmaninov Symphony no.3 (1935-38)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Fitz, what was your musical upbringing?

It wasn’t particularly musical – music was never forced upon me – but I played the guitar as a school kid, and I did Grades 1 and 2 with classical guitar. I was in numerous choirs – the school choir, a chamber choir, the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy Choir. I performed on Radio 4, and on tours in Switzerland and Italy. From a classical perspective I never played on a classical instrument. My brother played saxophone and keyboard, but I wouldn’t consider any of these to be orchestral instruments.

There were records in the house – more tapes than records – and I remember on holiday taking my mum and dad’s Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats tape to France on holiday and playing it on loop. I remember their Beatles records, but I was never encouraged musically really – it just all happened!

I went to University. I originally wanted to be a policeman, but they wouldn’t offer me criminology as I didn’t have a law degree – they offered me part criminology, part sociology. I enjoyed the sociology far more, decided I didn’t want to be a policeman any more. So I did a degree, which didn’t have anything to do with what I wanted to do in my career or life!

So I started going to gigs, and meeting people who were into similar music as me – dirty London Indie of the time! I started managing bands, putting on bands, and realised then that I wanted to work in the music industry. I knew lots of people in bands and ended up going to a lot of those gigs for free, and thought why don’t I start putting on some bands? So that’s how my Flook night started that I did in London.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Three acts I love are The Libertines, The Cribs and the Super Furry Animals.

The Super Furries are a band I fell in love with, having missed their first two albums. I got bored of the guitar because I couldn’t be bothered to practice around 14 or 15, and I stopped listening to pop music…but then I got into it again and went through the mandatory Oasis and Blur thing at the time in the mid-1990s. Then I started looking at the lesser bands I didn’t pick up at the time and Super Furries were one of them.

I remember listening to the Guerrilla album in the garden of my mate’s house, and it was the weirdest album I’d been introduced to by friends. Up until then it was dad rock, man rock, and then suddenly you’ve got this band writing stuff like intros before track 1 on the CD player! Playing a CD and immediately rewinding it to minus two minutes or whatever, like a secret hidden track, is pretty bizarre!

The rest of the album contains songs about chewing gum and mocking the concept of having a mobile phone. This was before they became ubiquitous! Super Furries saw all that kind of stuff coming, and knew how it was going to change people’s lives. It was a bizarre album for the instruments they used, the sound they made – the first weird band I got into!

I went to university and discovered a whole load of music I didn’t know about, the widest range of music from meeting different people. After that you settle into what you know and love and social groups that come off the back of that. After university I started gigging more and going on internet forums – before Facebook, MySpace – Face Party and Friendster were the networks of the time!

When I wasn’t doing data entry I was wasting time on internet forums, and the one I was on most was The Libertines.org. I met a hell of a lot of people through that – some of my very best friends today! It was a new thing in 2003-4, knowing people from log-in names and stuff. I remember when I first went to meet them in Camden and I told my mum, I think she was concerned I was going to get stabbed that night – what if they’re murderers?!

They didn’t kill me though, and the people I met from that social circle are very dear to me these days too. It all stems from the fact it was the Libertines board. My job is probably a result of people I met on that board, and knowing I wanted to get a job in music. I didn’t talk about the music to be fair! They were the band for a year-18 months who had their moment where they burned very brightly, and they pissed it all up the wall. They’re not the same band they were then, but I still love them for what they were.

The Cribs were one of the bands who got tagged on to what was known as the ‘Nigel’ scene, bands like Selfish C**t, The Unstrung, Special Needs. Some of the bands made the best out of being in that category, and The Cribs somehow got associated with it despite having nothing to do with London! They played a lot in Lodnon, stayed and crashed down here a lot, and I ended up going to a lot of their gigs.

They’re definitely my favourite live band, probably recorded band too, and I was fortunate to go in the studio when they recorded their second album, hearing Hey Scenesters! for the first time and recording with Edwyn Collins, an absolute legend. I was fortunate to record with them (on the song Martell) – they’re lovely blokes and a brilliant band. They’ve done very well to hold on to what they had in their early 20s.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I don’t really have any, although I was in choirs – I sang famous pieces like Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Messiah and Zadok the Priest. On the basis they are classical pieces it’s probably through those, singing them in concerts. In terms of going to watch music I can’t think of many situations other than the 6Music Prom with Laura Marling in 2013. I saw Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall but would say that was an opera rather than classical.

How would you rate your first Proms experience?

It was very interesting. I’d never considered going to a classical concert and standing up, like you do in the arena, ‘in the pit’. That was quite surreal, with people standing, sitting, lying down – all in their own world. It was a different type of person at the sides, a bit older, wiser, maybe richer. I really enjoyed it, I wasn’t expecting to stand but it was unexpected and enjoyable!

I’ve always thought of the Proms as a classical music event but as I was listening to the first piece I didn’t think it sounded classical! I would say it was more orchestral than anything else. The orchestra pinned it all together. The first piece she was talking about science and mathematics had influenced her, and it didn’t sound classical in the same way that the Shostakovich did, the more sorrowful, mournful Russian piece. The symphony screamed ‘classical’ at me though!

What might you improve about the experience?

It had the formula you spoke about before the concert, where you might get a piece you didn’t know to start with, and then the cellist – who was exceptional! – and then the symphony, the larger piece with all the instruments. I think that approach works well. If you started with the symphony people would probably leave when they’ve heard the bit they know, so I understand why it works that way.

I don’t know if I would necessarily change anything but I might do something more aligned to my personal tastes – musicians I love, a piece I have an affinity with – thinking about films I love with classical or orchestral music in. There are definitely things I would want to do but I don’t think I would change the theme of tonight’s event, I enjoyed it. The symphony was what I would expect from a night out at the Proms – quiet and then loud – but I loved it.

Would you go again?

Yeah, definitely. It’s not something I’ve ever gone and bought tickets for but I didn’t know you could do the standing option, and I’d do that again. You didn’t tell me what this night was about and I didn’t research it, but I was pleasantly surprised. If I was looking through a Proms calendar there is no reason why I would have chosen tonight, but it was probably a perfect example about what they are about. I would definitely go again, and probably go to a random Proms event – it would be as rewarding as someone you know. So after that I would wholeheartedly recommend going to watch the Proms!

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Shostakovich, Copland & Prokofiev

oberon-draperOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of 20th century music from the superpowers, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 11 June

Shostakovich Festive Overture (1954)

Copland Clarinet Concerto (1948)

Prokofiev Symphony no.7 (1952)

Cosima Yu (clarinet), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

This evening’s concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra comprised three pieces which complemented each other ideally, especially when their immediacy and accessibility as music tends to offset their frequent technical difficulties – albeit for musicians rather than listeners.

Not least Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, written in three days to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, whose tunefulness does not make for ease of ensemble; not that this was an issue when the players were as alert rhythmically in the first theme as surely as they conveyed the suavity of its successor, and the grandeur of its framing fanfares emerging without undue heaviness. That Shostakovich struggled to refocus his music in the post-Stalin era hardly lessens the appeal of this piece when so capably rendered.

The sharp stylistic contrasts in Copland’s output may have been determined more by aesthetic than political considerations, yet here again those pieces written for a wider audience are by no means straightforward to perform. One might have expected a testing solo part in the Clarinet Concerto composed for Benny Goodman, but the high and exposed writing in the first movement hardly makes life easy, and it was a credit to the Oberon musicians that they met the challenge while capturing the Mahlerian plangency of this music. The second movement, with its continual syncopation and recourse to jazz idioms, presents difficulties that were less fully surmounted; which in no way deterred Cosima Yu – her elegant phrasing and rhythmic verve much in evidence through to that final and decidedly Gershwinesque upward glissando.

While it has never been neglected, Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony is still too often interpreted at face value. A letter to the ailing composer from Shostakovich soon after the premiere betrays a recognition of deeper and more ambivalent emotion behind the outward naivety (something the latter clearly had in mind when writing his final symphony two decades on), and it was this ambivalence that Samuel Draper brought out most convincingly – not least in an initial Moderato of a formal simplicity concealed by the harmonic subtlety with which Prokofiev navigates its searching and often uneasy course. This was no less true of the ensuing Moderato, a waltz-sequence of ingratiating melodies undercut by a rhythmic assertiveness made manifest during a coda whose forced jollity came ominously to the fore.

The highlight was the Andante – easy to glide over when its themes are so simply and unobtrusively drawn, but here given with  a plaintiveness and regret as disarming as is the piquancy of its scoring (not least the melting harp passage toward its close). While the final Allegro was less convincing, this further instance of ‘easy’ expression allied to its fair share of technical difficulties is far from plain-sailing, and if ensemble was not always precise in the cavorting main sections (or the admittedly uninspiring central episode), the return of the first movement’s ‘big tune’ was finely judged and the coda suffused with acute poignancy.

Draper rightly opted for the quiet ending that Prokofiev had initially intended: no matter if   its final pizzicato was not together – the music’s essential fatalism could hardly be ignored.

The next Oberon concert takes place on 17th September 2015, where the orchestra will play the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ symphony and Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes. Here they are in the Tchaikovsky’s Fifth:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website