Wigmore Mondays – Louis Schwizgebel, Benjamin Beilman & Narek Hakhnazaryan: Shostakovich & Mendelssohn

Louis Schwizgebel (piano, above), Benjamin Beilman (violin), Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello, both below)

Shostakovich Piano Trio no.1 Op.8 (1923) (from 2:14 on the broadcast link below)
Rachmaninov arr. Gayane Hakhnazaryan Vocalise Op.34/14 (1915)
Mendelssohn Piano Trio no.1 in D minor Op.49 (1839)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 1 April 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

A piano trio of exciting soloists gave this memorable concert at the Wigmore Hall as part of BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert series.

Pianist Louis Schwizgebel, violinist Benjamin Beilman and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan are all making a name for themselves on their own terms, but by uniting for chamber music performances illustrate the very first principles of why this music was written.

Before their stylish performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no.1, we heard them in early Shostakovich – his first of two works in the popular form. The Piano Trio no.1 is not a typical work in the context of the composer’s full output, however – but it does show a prodigiously talented 17-year old student making formal innovations and writing heartfelt music, in this case pointing towards the work’s dedicatee, Tatyana Glivenko.

Shostakovich’s teacher Maximilian Steinberg perceived his increased ‘enthusiasm for the grotesque’, documented in Anthony Burton’s excellent notes for this concert, but looking back in the context of the composer’s full output this fascinating work revealed more of a debt to Russian romanticism than could initially be expected.

Beilman and Hakhnazaryan picked up this connection in their ardent melodies, while the steely piano of Schwizgebel gave some clues as to the source of Steinberg’s displeasure. Here though they put the seal on an outstanding account of music full of energy but with its excesses curbed through Shostakovich’s compact design. A captivating performance which is well worth experiencing from 2:14 on the broadcast link.

The inclusion of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise (from 17:50) made good sense in the context of the Shostatkovich. Made by Gayane Hakhnazaryan, mother of Narek, this arrangement illustrated the versatility of Rachmaninov’s original, more familiar to us in orchestral guise or for solo instrument with piano. Violin and cello dovetailed beautifully here, the trio managing the balance with an appropriate blend of nostalgia and poise.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no.1 is perfectly suited to a recital such as this, a piece with virtuoso demands that would appeal to the soloists but also a work whose close integration brings a special intimacy to its more reflective moments. This was a terrific performance, the darker colours of the first movement established immediately in Hakhnazaryan’s heartfelt cello subject (27:02). A doleful second movement Song without words was lighter but also touching (37:04), before the twinkling right hand figures of Louis Schwizgebel led a sparkling account of the Scherzo (44:20).

The finale fused all these qualities, starting in relative seriousness and darkness (48:04) but finding bright light as the music transferred subtly but gloriously to the major key (55:16).

As an encore the Scherzo twinkled again, completing a concert notable for its fresh, enthusiastic and virtuosic qualities. Catch it if you can!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard in the best available recordings on Spotify here:

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics II: Brahms, Mendelssohn & Schumann

Nash Ensemble: Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), Lawrence Power, Timothy Ridout (violas), Adrian Brendel (cello), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford, Marie Lloyd (clarinets), Ursula Leveaux (bassoon), Richard Watkins (horn) / Martyn Brabbins (conductor, Brahms Serenade)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2018 7.30pm

Schumann Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (1853)
Brahms String Quintet no.2 in G major Op.111 (1890)
Mendelssohn Song Without Words in D major Op.109 (1845)
Brahms, reconstructed Alan Boustead Serenade no.1 in D major Op.11 (1857/58)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The second of the day’s concerts in the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall presented some of the finest 19th century chamber music to come from the country, picking up where the earlier concert of music by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn left off.

We began with late Robert Schumann, his Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (Fairy Tales), written for the appealing combination of clarinet, viola and piano that Mozart had pioneered in his own Kegelstatt trio of 1786. Schumann’s approach was formally less rigid, preferring to give his trio a quartet of character pieces, unlabelled in meaning but clear in tempo. Richard Hosford, Lawrence Power and Ian Brown were the perfect foil for these pieces, where the second especially stood out for its questioning harmony. The first and third pieces were songlike and romantic, while the fourth felt like one of Schumann’s celebrations of life itself. It is difficult to imagine a better performance than this one, the beauty of tone from clarinet and viola in particular a joy.

BrahmsString Quintet no.2, his last of seven chamber works for strings, is if anything even more positive and life affirming. While writing the piece in 1890 Brahms thought it would be his last work altogether, before going on to enjoy an unexpected Indian summer thanks to the inspiration of clarinettist Richard Mühlfield. The opening bars of the quintet are some of the very best in chamber music, and the tricky theme here was tackled heroically by cellist Adrian Brendel, the melody rising through the heady accompaniment of the others. The second theme of this movement was beautifully and soulfully rendered, setting the tone in the process for the second movement, an Adagio of heartfelt and profound utterance. The third movement, a silvery Intermezzo, was light on its feet while the finale recaptured the positive spirits of the first movement and pressed forward with impressive urgency. The Nash played brilliantly, communicating Brahms’ congested textures with apparent ease and enjoying the exchanges of ideas right to the end.

The second half of the concert, given to a packed Wigmore Hall, began with one of Mendelssohn’s most enjoyable trifles. His last work for cello and piano, the Song Without Words has at its heart a wonderful tune, which Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown clearly enjoyed. Brendel’s tone and forcefulness in the contrasting middle section were ideal.

This made an ideal prelude for early Brahms, the Serenade no.1. This wonderfully positive piece is usually heard in orchestral form, but here we heard Alan Boustead’s recreation of the original instrumentation of the piece, for nine solo instruments. With the combination of flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, we were taken into the sound world of Beethoven’s Septet, written for a similar combination. Musically we were not far off either, and Martyn Brabbins joined the Nash Ensemble to conduct a highly spirited performance. Richard Watkins’ horn was the star of the show, projecting Brahms’s outdoorsy tunes with rustic charm, but in reality all nine players were superb, enjoying the relative lightness of texture and abundance of melody. The slow movement was placed second – not third, as the program said it would be – but this was an effective placement with some gorgeous textures. While this music was more thoughtful the Minuets and Scherzo returned us to the open air, while the Finale positively threw open the shutters for another winsome horn tune. This was Brahms at his most carefree, and Brabbins ensured the Nash Ensemble were too.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall visit their website

Further listening

The below Spotify playlist compiles the music used in both of the evening’s German Romantics series from the Nash Ensemble, using their recordings where possible:

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics I: Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn

Nash Ensemble: Stephanie Gonley (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), Ian Brown (piano)

Clara Schumann 3 Romances for violin and piano Op.22 (1853)
Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes for cello and piano Op.17 (1829)
Fanny Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor Op.11 (1847)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2019 (5.30pm)

Review by Ben Hogwood

As part of the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics season at the Wigmore Hall, it was gratifying indeed to find a concert paying tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as composers in their own right rather than simply inspiration for their more frequently performed husbands.

Clara was the muse for Robert Schumann, and even after his death sacrificed her own career as a composer to ensure his music was best heard. Here we heard her last published work, the 3 Romances of 1853, written when Robert was still alive. Using a method of presentation her husband often employed in chamber music, she wrote these three attractive pieces for great violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom Clara gave the first performance in Germany. Stephanie Gonley and Ian Brown gave a thoughtful and rather beautiful account here, Gonley’s tone and phrasing ideally suited to the longer romantic melodies. The first piece was tender and expressive, the second thoughtful but with glimpses of sunshine, and the third a flowing account with an attractive, long-phrased melody.

There followed the Variations concertantes Op.19, the first of several works by Felix Mendelssohn for cello and piano. Written for his younger brother Paul, they are a virtuoso collection of far reaching interpretations of a theme, and were brilliantly played here by Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown, whose eager dialogue caught the energetic approach of the early Mendelssohn. The music moved from affirmative major key to tempestuous minor, but its return was a beautifully realised shift in mood.

We then heard Fanny Mendelssohn’s final published work, a Piano Trio to place alongside – if not even slightly ahead of – the two great works in the form by her brother. With the unison opening from violin and cello, presented above flowing piano figurations, she immediately ensures the audience are held in the drama of a piece that picks you up from the outset and doesn’t let you go.

Gonley, Brendel and Brown were ideal vehicles to present the piece, revelling in the exchanges of the first movement and the warmly romantic themes when the music became more affirmative. The middle two movements, effectively Songs Without Words in the Mendelssohn tradition, were beautifully presented with lyricism and charm, the third becoming distinctly chilly towards its close, leading to a cadenza from Brown to resume the drama in the final movement. The considerable struggles here were played out with thrilling virtuosity, distilling even the most complicated counterpoint before a glorious closing section that swept all before it.

It is to be hoped Clara Schumann’s 200th anniversary year – together with festival’s such as Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place – will raise the profile of women composers, which it has to be said could hardly have been lower in previous years. Concerts such as this help immensely, bringing forward the quality evident from both Clara and Fanny, with the pertinent reminder that neither Schumann nor Mendelssohn – nor indeed Brahms – could have achieved their musical goals without these creative forces.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble and their German Romantics series, visit their website

Further listening

You can listen to the music from both concerts of the latest German Romantics evening on the Spotify playlist below:

Live review – Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Laurence Equilbey: Tales of Mendelssohn I

Rowan Pierce (soprano), Jessica Gillingwater (mezzo-soprano), Hilary Summers (contralto), Martin Mitterutzner (tenor), Huw Montague Rendall (baritone), SCO Chorus, Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Laurence Equilbey (above, photo credit Julien Benhamou

City Halls, London
Friday 30 November 2018

Mendelssohn
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture Op.21 (1826) and Incidental Music Op.61 (1842)
Die erste Walpurgisnacht (1844)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Four seasons in one day. That phrase could apply not just to the Glasgow weather on the last day in November, but also to this enticing pair of stage works beginning the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Tales of Mendelssohn series at City Halls. One, the composer’s music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is well known and loved, but the other, a setting of Goethe’s text for Die erste Walpurgisnacht, is barely heard – and made a strong dramatic impact here.

It was the well-known first, with Laurence Equilbey leading a winsome account of some wonderful incidental music. The Overture skimmed and shimmered into the half light, pressing forward with captivating energy – as did the following Scherzo. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra may have been missing a few of their principal players and regulars but that did not dampen their enthusiasm or ensemble, the music given a zestful quality under the encouragement of the stylish conducting of Equilbey.

The bright voices of the ladies of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Chorus helped, too – and Ye spotted snakes received a charming account, especially with the clarity and control of soloists Rowan Pierce (above) and Jessica Gillingwater, both of whom sang beautifully. The Nocturne and Wedding March were charming too, the latter briskly dispatched, but if anything the lesser known Dance of Clowns and choral finale Through this house made an even stronger impression.

What a contrast between this music and that which began Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night). From the outset this was music of sturm und drang, of fire and brimstone, the composer seemingly relishing the opportunity to set Goethe’s text in a fiery context, interpreted as a barely concealed riposte to anti-Semitism.

The lean strings were quite a shock, as were the striking sonorities with the composer imaginatively doubling horn and bassoon. The tension went up a notch when the chorus joined, singing with real vehemence in the Chorus of the Druid Guards and Heathen People. The three soloists were excellent, too – the probing tone of tenor Martin Mitterutzner complemented by the fuller sound of Huw Montague Rendell (above), whose baritone carried effortlessly to the corners of the hall, and the rounded, velvety quality of Hilary Summers’ contralto.

This was a bracing and at times alarming account, exploring Mendelssohn’s choral writing with no stone unturned, passionately overseen by Equilbey, who clearly loves the piece. So much so that we had an encore of the Chorus of the Druid Guards and heathen People, the chorus deserving of their starring role again. There are two more installments to come in the Tales of Mendelssohn series this month – and if you have the chance they are warmly recommended, revealing contrasting aspects of this fascinating composer and the development of his style.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

Prom 8 – BBC NoW & Thomas Søndergård: The Music of Lili Boulanger & Morfydd Owen

Prom 8: Bertrand Chamayou  (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård

Lili Boulanger D’un matin de printemps; D’un soir triste (1917-8)

Mendelssohn Piano Concerto no.1 in G minor Op.25 (1831)

Morfydd Owen Nocturne (1913)

Schumann Symphony no.4 in D minor Op.120 (original 1841 version)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 20 July 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can watch this Prom on BBC4 on Sunday 22 July here

Debussy and Bernstein may be the blockbuster anniversary composers this Proms year, but there are several composers whose cause is arguably more important. We heard two of them in this intriguing Prom from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their outgoing chief conductor, Thomas Søndergård.

Lili Boulanger and Morfydd Owen died far too early, in their twenties, but both left works telling of an original style that should have been heard far more often than they have – which sadly is the case for all female composers. Happily the BBC has made a commitment to start putting that right, and this Prom went back to the second decade of the 20th century with two short pieces from Boulanger (below).

D’un matin de printemps (Of A Spring Morning) caught the ear immediately. Completed in 1918, it was slightly furtive at times, as though describing flowers shyly poking their heads into the fresh morning air. The transparent orchestration drew parallels with Debussy, and the colourful textures and positive harmonies made for an ideal, descriptive curtain raiser.

By contrast D’un soir triste (Of A Sad Evening) wore a troubled frown. Here the music was more ominous but also more exotic, its use of modal melodies extending its reach towards the East. Again Boulanger’s orchestration was exquisite, with a lovely rasp to the bass clarinet in the texture, and some powerfully wrought climaxes strengthened the intensity of feeling but failed to shake off the preoccupied state of mind. Both pieces made a lasting impact.

Morfydd Owen’s Nocturne began the second half. Written just before the First World War, this was an intriguing piece that was livelier than you might expect from a piece bearing that name. Initially the shady textures found the orchestra depicting the half light of the evening, but as well as atmospheric pictures there were attractive dance episodes, Owen breaking towards lighter music with a twinkle in her eye. She returned to this music on several occasions, each time casting the tune in a slightly different setting, before the piece finished with a silvery harp, sweeping us away into the night.

Complementing the anniversary composers was music from Mendelssohn and Schumann. The former’s Piano Concerto no.1 in G minor was brilliantly dispatched by Bertrand Chamayou, whose stylish playing emphasised Mendelssohn’s precocious writing for the instrument at the age of 22. Initially the speed of the music was a bit too fast, and the Royal Albert Hall acoustic didn’t help here, but soon pianist and orchestra were aligned in a performance light on its feet and, in the Andante slow movement, tender at its heart. As a well chosen encore Chamayou, popular with the Prommers, gave Liszt’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s On Wings of Song.

Finally Schumann, and the original 1841 version of his Symphony no.4. Søndergård connected the four movements into a satisfying whole, bursting with melody, but here again made sure the slow movement had plenty of air. There can be a foreboding atmosphere to this symphony, mindful of the mental struggles that dogged the composer throughout his life, but here the BBC NoW, energetically led by Lesley Hatfield, found the positive mood running through its core. The most dramatic music of the night came in the transition between the obdurate scherzo and the triumphant finale, Sondergard stripping back the textures to a cold, hollow sound before surging forward to the rousing finish.