Online Concert: Tine Thing Helseth & Kathryn Stott @ Wigmore Hall

Tine Thing Helseth (trumpet), Kathryn Stott (piano)

Nordheim Den første sommerfugl (1982)
Martinů Sonatina for trumpet and piano (1956)
Shostakovich 4 Romances on Poems by Alexander Pushkin Op. 46 (1936-7)
Piazzolla Café 1930 from Histoire du Tango (1986)
Grieg 6 Songs Op. 48 (1884-8)
Gershwin Prelude No. 2 in C sharp minor (c1923-6); By Strauss (1936)
Weill Youkali (1934)
Kreisler Toy Soldiers March (1917)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 6 March 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

What a joy to see the partnership of trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth and pianist Kathryn Stott renewed at Wigmore Hall, united in an original program of trumpet originals and imaginative arrangements from vocal sources.

Dreamy lines from the piano introduced the concert’s first item, Arne Nordheim’s Den første sommerfugl (The First Butterfly), full of spring promise as the insect’s flight gracefully orbited the hall. Helseth’s trumpet line was a lyrical one, speaking faintly of folk song. From here the pair moved straight into the compact and winsome Sonatina for trumpet and piano, one of the Czech composer Martinů’s miniature gems. Written while experiencing homesickness in New York, the work began with a gruff introduction from the piano, its repeated note figurations taken up by the trumpet in fanfare-like salvos generating a good deal of energy. Gradually this subsided into more poignant thoughts, the composer revealing his softer centre, and by the bittersweet chorale with which the work ends the sense was that of a composer looking for his fortunes to change. Both performers caught that shift of focus.

Next up was an imaginative choice, an arrangement of Shostakovich’s Four Pushkin Songs. The vocal lines transfer to the trumpet with surprising accuracy, both artists playing in such a way that the original spirit of the songs was fully maintained. Regeneration, the first song, was thoughtfully done, held notes on the trumpet carrying above delicate figuration on the piano. Premonition was an easy amble in triple time, but the fourth song, Stanzas, held the cycle’s emotional centre. A substantial song, as long as the other three combined, it began with a stern introduction from Stott before a compelling dialogue unfolded.

Complementing this was a beautifully floated account of Piazzolla’s Café 1930, tastefully augmented by Stott’s rhythmic attention to detail. The melodies really sang from Helseth’s trumpet, any breathing challenges overcome with deceptive ease. As she said at the end, a bit of Piazzolla is never wrong!

Helseth’s announcements between the groups of pieces were nicely done, with an easy charm that also showed how much the two artists were enjoying themselves. This much was clear again in six songs by Grieg, grouped together as Op.48 but once again transcribing with relative ease for the trumpet. Gruss (Greeting) featured a lovely depiction of bells, an outdoor scene, while Lauf der Welt was a rustic march. Helseth’s characterisation of Die verschwiegene Nachtigall (The secretive nightingale) was nicely done. Zur Rosenzeit (Time of roses) presented bright colours, while the final Ein Traum (A dream) was especially full of feeling.

We moved to a stylish Gershwin duo, starting with an account of Prelude no.2 that was especially enjoyable when the main theme returned with the mute in the trumpet. By Strauss was also a highlight, enjoying the Viennese waltz send-up, while Weill’s Youkali was a soave tango. Finally Kreisler’s Toy Soldiers March was a perky account, led off by the piano with crisp fanfares. Topping a highly enjoyable concert was an encore of Piazzolla’s Libertango, led off with a swing by Stott and played with great panache by Helseth, including pitch slides to perfection.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

Online Concert: Vision String Quartet play Shostakovich & Mendelssohn @ Wigmore Hall

Vision String Quartet [(Florian Willeitner, Daniel Stoll (violins), Sander Stuart (viola), Leonard Disselhorst (cello)]

Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor Op. 110
Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A minor Op. 13

Wigmore Hall, Monday 27 February 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

Vision String Quartet are a dynamic young ensemble based in Berlin, who play with great freedom – foregoing printed music and playing standing up (save for the cello of course). Neither of these attributes are gimmicks, for they suit an ensemble who have a charismatic presence and gave two performances of substantial minor key string quartets with passion and attention to detail. The program presented an interesting juxtaposition, the pieces written in very different circumstances but using the string quartet medium to air very private thoughts.

The String Quartet no.8 is the most played in Shostakovich’s canon of 15 string quartets – and arguably receives a disproportionate coverage when compared to the other fine works in the cycle. Yet in a good performance it makes an extremely powerful connection with its audience, as they learn the circumstances in which the composer wrote it.

In 1960 Shostakovich was in fear of his life, and the Eighth Quartet was his unofficial epitaph. An autobiographical work, it contains quotes from some of his most successful and important earlier works, including the Piano Trio no.2, the First and Fifth Symphonies and the recently completed Cello Concerto no.1. It begins with a sombre Largo, which the ensemble played with great sincerity. It is sometimes argued that it takes a Russian quartet to fully understand these works, and certainly the Borodin String Quartet interpretations loom large over whoever dares to take them on, but this performance took the plunge with impressive surety.

Technically the quartet were superb, the lower parts of viola and cello driving the faster passages with obdurate figures. Meanwhile first violinist Florian Willeitner found a suitably plaintive tone over the held drone from the other three instruments when the music almost came to a standstill, a most moving part of the first movement. The torrid second movement gritted its teeth, while in the chilling fourth movement, the rat-a-tat motion (thought to depict gunfire or the Russian authorities knocking on the door) left a lasting impression. The Vision players were keen to emphasise the dissonances throughout, and this approach carried all the way through to the final resolution, which was all the more telling as a result.

After this performance Mendelssohn’s String Quartet no.2 in A minor was warm in comparison, yet this is not one of the composer’s sunniest works, written as it was in the grip of an unrequited love.

Affectionately played, the first movement caught the right tension between major and minor key, with an airy outlook from Willeitner’s first violin, but with the increasing incursion of the minor key something of a shadow fell over the music. The temperature warmed appreciably for the second movement, its figures delicately sung and balanced  with attractive countermelodies from around the quartet.

The third movement was a subtle charmer, its subject responding well to an unfussy presentation and subtle rubato, the Vision happy to manipulate the lilting dance rhythms rather tastefully. A skittish end cut to a vigorous, almost violent set of tremolos ushering in the presto finale, which fizzed with energy and enthusiastic interplay. The Vision Quartet secured a really nicely paced finish, winding down to a seraphic major key coda which was thoughtful and radiant.

As an encore the quartet delved into their new album Spectrum for Copenhagen, a collaborative work penned by the four instrumentalists themselves. A persuasive rhythm took shape over a cello ostinato figure, given out by the quartet with drive and passion. The piece had a rustic air which spoke of the outdoors, offering a promise of spring after two wintry works.

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here – and for more about the artists, visit the Vision String Quartet website

In concert – Eugene Tzikindelean, CBSO / Alpesh Chauhan: Brahms, Nielsen & Shostakovich

Brahms Tragic Overture Op. 81 (1880)
Nielsen Violin Concerto DF61 (1911)
Shostakovich Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.47 (1937)

Eugene Tzikindelean (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Alpesh Chauhan

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 7 December 2022 [2.15pm]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

A gratifyingly large house greeted this afternoon concert given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with its former assistant conductor Alpesh Chauhan, taking in works long established in the repertoire and a concerto which remains on or about its periphery.

Tackling Brahms’s Tragic Overture depends on whether one sees it as an overture pure if not so simple, or as a tone poem with its ‘programme’ subsumed into the music’s inner workings. Chauhan favoured a viable mid-way course, his steady if never flaccid approach keeping its sonata design firmly in view but with enough expressive license to bring out the pathos in its second main theme and, especially, that spellbinding transition to its reprise when a wistful vulnerability steals over the music as if denying the implacable fatalism otherwise dominant.

CBSO leader Eugene Tzikindelean then took the stage as soloist. A bold if unexpected choice for such an appearance, Nielsen’s Violin Concerto has never quite received its due outside of Denmark but that it makes a cogent impression was never in doubt in a reading as insightful as this. Its Praeludium keenly yet sensitively rendered, Tzikindelean despatched the ensuing Allegro with the right chivalrousness and suavity. A broken string in the development caused only minimal delay as he produced its replacement then restrung his instrument with alacrity.

Its self-sufficient halves make sustaining an overall trajectory the crucial factor in this piece and Tzikindelean succeeded admirably, drawing inward rapture from the second movement’s lengthy Poco adagio before steering a never too hasty course through its lightly ironic Rondo. Tzikindelean responded to the enthusiastic response with the opening ‘Country Musicians’ section from Enescu’s Impressions d’Enfance as a delectable encore: maybe we can expect that composer’s Caprice Roumain or Pascal Bentoiu’s Violin Concerto on a future occasion?

Throughout this performance, Chauhan proved steadfast and attentive in support, then came into his own after the interval with an impressive take on Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. If the earlier stages of the Moderato seemed a little reined-in, the development accumulated the requisite intensity on the way to a powerfully conceived reprise, then a coda of aching regret. Steadier and less capricious than usual, the ensuing Allegretto yielded a keen impetus and, in its trio, a deftly ‘knowing’ contribution from Tzikindelean having retaken the leader’s chair.

It was the Largo that proved the highlight of this performance. Chauhan sustained its heartfelt interplay of themes with unforced rightness, CBSO woodwind heard to advantage in its rapt central episode before a climax of wrenching eloquence that subsided into expectant stillness. Launched (almost) attacca, the final Allegro unfolded with due emphasis on its ‘non troppo’ marking; its calculated aggression pointedly undercut by musing circumspection, before the heady ascent towards an apotheosis which was more than usually defiant in its equivocation.

A performance that provided ample indication of Chauhan’s emergence as a conductor of the front rank. Hopefully he will be returning to the CBSO soon, the latter’s activities continuing with the customary Christmas and Viennese New Year concerts with which to see out 2022

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Alpesh Chauhan and Eugene Tzikindelean

Playlist – Natalia Gutman

Today marks the 80th birthday of the distinguished Russian cellist Natalia Gutman.

A pupil of Mstislav Rostropovich, Gutman has performed and recorded with legendary conductors Kirill Kondrashin, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Yuri Temirkanov among many others. Alfred Schnittke wrote a number of pieces for her, including his first Cello Concerto.

In the biography on her website, Elizabeth Wilson writes that ‘as an enthusiast of chamber music she formed an important musical relationship with the exceptional violinist Oleg Kagan, who became her husband. Together they formed a trio with Sviatoslav Richter, who also frequently acted as Natalia’s duo partner.

You can enjoy her artistry through the Spotify playlist below, including recordings of concertos by Shostakovich and that dedication from Schnittke:

BBC Proms #25 – Carolina Eyck, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds: Kalevi Aho Theremin Concerto, Saariaho & Shostakovich

Prom 25 – Carolina Eyck (theremin), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds

Aho Eight Seasons (Concerto for Theremin & Chamber Orchestra) (2011) (London premiere)
Saariaho Vista (2019) (Proms premiere)
Shostakovich Symphony no.15 in A major Op.141 (1971)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Thursday 4 August 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Photo (c) Chris Christodoulou

John Storgårds has given some memorable Proms with the BBC Philharmonic in the decade since he became this orchestra’s guest conductor, and tonight was no exception for featuring a theremin concerto by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. Its title Eight Seasons should be taken advisedly – the eight continuous sections encompassing a period from autumn to spring, as is reflected in the mostly restrained yet constantly changing textures which define a progression from the richness of Harvest to Midnight Sun with its serenity informed by new potential.

An instrument as fascinating to watch being played as it is to hear, the theremin has become the victim of its own ubiquity as an enhancer of atmosphere in film-scores and for musicians from Brian Wilson to Jonny Greenwood. Carolina Eyck was a dedicated exponent (evident in her encore-demonstration) – not least in the latter stages when her vocalise proved an enticing extension of her instrumental prowess, and the myriad timbral shifts more than compensated for the intermittent blandness of Aho’s acutely fastidious if not consistently involving music.

The layout of this piece (wind quintet and percussion alongside reduced strings) necessitated an early interval to prepare for those relatively lavish forces of Vista, Kaija Saariaho’s latest return to the orchestra and inspired by traversing the Californian coast from Los Angeles to San Diego. This is embodied over two cumulative movements – the expectancy of Horizons duly fulfilled with the mounting activity of Targets which itself subsides into an intensified recollection of the opening, now sounding as expansive as that ‘vista’ envisaged by the title.

Music so complex needs a sure hand to maintain its focus, the BBC Philharmonic responding with alacrity to Storgård’s attentive direction while he steered a convincing trajectory through what is likely Saariaho’s finest large-scale work for years – the intricacy and translucency of her writing having a panache which ensured this was manifestly a showpiece with substance. In particular, the sense of ideas being tentatively anticipated then vividly recalled added much to the evocative quality of music as formally substantial as it sounded expressively involving.

From recent Finnish orchestral works to Shostakovich’s last and most equivocal symphony is a fair step aesthetically, but Storgårds ensured the succession was a meaningful one. If it did not evince the ultimate in ominous irony, those laughs elicited from the opening movement’s stealthy activity and allusive inanity were for real – as, more regrettably, were those hesitant coughs denoting uneasy response to the slow movement’s emotional intensity as heightened by its sparseness of gesture, while not forgetting an eloquent response by cellist Peter Dixon.

Nor was the percussion found wanting in its almost concertante role, to the fore in a scherzo where the whimsical and sardonic found an unlikely accord. From its sombre initial gestures, Storgårds then had the measure of a finale whose central passacaglia built toward a powerful climax, and while tension dropped with the resumption of earlier ideas, the spectral transition into the coda was judiciously handled with the latter mesmeric in its deft profundity. Should the BBC Philharmonic need a new chief conductor, Storgårds might be worth approaching.

For more information, click on the names of composers Kalevi Aho and Kaija Saariaho – and for more on the artists, click on the names of Carolina Eyck, John Storgårds and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra