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.

Wigmore Mondays: Elias + Navarra = Mendelssohn Octet

Elias String Quartet (above – Sara Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violins), Robin Ireland (viola), Marie Bitlloch (cello)); Navarra String Quartet (below – Magnus Johnston, Marije Johnston (violins), Rebecca Jones (viola), Brian O’Kane (cello)

Beamish String Quartet no.3, ‘Reed Stanzas’ (2011) (5:25-20:49) (Elias Quartet only)
Mendelssohn Octet in E flat major Op.20 (1825) (27:02-58:58)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 25 June 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

You would do well to find a really quiet spot before listening to this concert. That is because Sally Beamish’s String Quartet no.3, written for a first performance at the BBC Proms in 2011, begins with a distant offstage violin solo.

In her work Beamish is tapping heavily into the folksongs of the Hebrides, and the Elias Quartet second violinist Donald Grant, well versed in that literature, is an ideal player to begin the work (from 5:25), with all the inflections the style of writing brings. As the ensemble join nearly two minutes later Beamish’s harmonic workings become clearer, but the distinctive folk melody continues to pull the ear.

A set of ‘stanzas’ provide development and variations on the theme, with the one from 8:15 changing the mood considerably from wide open to closed in. From 11:25 violin and cello join in a duet, before the music breaks into a quicker and much more assertive section. Then after some pretty frenetic dialogue, the mood cuts once again towards that of the opening, moving back towards the original folk melody, which subsides to silence once again.

The performance here was an intense one, its colours and harmonies showing a clear debt to Britten, whose quartets Beamish was listening to at the time. Yet there is no fully blown pastiche here, with a distinctive style of quartet writing that stays very open and direct in its communication. It was great to see Sally Beamish in the audience.

The Elias Quartet were then doubled in number by the Navarra Quartet to play one of Mendelssohn’s many early chamber music masterpieces. The Octet is a real one-off, mastering a form few composers since have managed to achieve. It is all the more remarkable when you consider Mendelssohn completed the work at the age of just 16!

The piece begins with typically youthful Mendelssohn qualities of enthusiasm and vigour, but with a melody that immediately sticks in the head (from 27:02-41:02). The second theme (29:07) is a nice complement, serene and thoughtful. What really stands out is the fullness of texture when compared to the string quartet before, Mendelssohn beefing up the sound with the two cellos and violas at the lower end in particular. Yet he thinks nothing of changing the mood quite considerably in the course of the first movement, with a sudden vulnerability introduced around 35:50 that checks the positive thoughts around it – until a rush back to the original theme.

The second movement (from 41:30-48:18)) is a slow Andante, and it exploits the uncertainty briefly aired in the first with a darker outlook but also a romantic sense of longing. It too thinks nothing of moving to a faster section, quite a fraught exchange of ideas.

The third movement scherzo (48:39) is the most celebrated of the four movements, containing strong pointers towards Mendelssohn’s Shakespearian music, and especially the Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This one too is fleet of foot, with silvery shadows darting around the texture all the way through to the end at 53:03. At this point we surged into the finale, a thrilling dialogue between the four different sections of instruments (two lots of violins, violas and cellos) before a sweep to the finish at 58:58.

This was an excellent, joyous performance from the two ensembles, even if just occasionally it had too firm a foot on the accelerator pedal, with some of the tuning in the first movement going slightly awry as the ensembles pushed further forwards.

Further listening

There are no recordings currently available of Reed Stanzas, though a natural progression for further listening is a disc containing Beamish’s first two string quartets:

If the Mendelssohn appeals, this version from the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble combines the Octet with a much later work, the wonderful and underrated String Quintet no.2:

For more early Mendelssohn, you simply have to try the amazing Piano Quartets, written when the composer was just 14, and showing an uncommon mastery of writing dramatic music for the piano:

Wigmore Mondays: Fatma Said sings Schumann, Mendelssohn, Poulenc & Sherif Mohie El Din with James Vaughan

Fatma Said (soprano, above), James Vaughan (piano, below)

Schumann 6 Gesänge Op. 89 (1850); Singet nicht in Trauertönen Op.98a/7, Liebeslied Op.51/5 (both 1849), Requiem Op.90/7 (1850)
Mendelssohn Die Liebende schreibt Op.86/3 (1831), Ach, um deine feuchten Schwinge (Suleika) Op.34/4 (1837), Hexenlied Op.8/8 (1827)
Poulenc Les chemins de l’amour, from Léocadia (1940), 2 poèmes de Louis Aragon (1943)
Sherif Mohie El Din Three Poems by Amal Donqul (1989)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

As a demonstration of artistry, this was quite some Wigmore Hall debut for soprano Fatma Said, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. The Egyptian singer used four languages in the course of an hour, and showed an aptitude for contrasting musical styles in a cleverly constructed programme.

It was good to hear less familiar Schumann songs as a starting group (from 1:32 on the broadcast) The set of six, published as Op.89, were written in the composer’s second ‘year of song’, the productive 1850. They set words by Wilfriend von der Nenn (a pseudonym for Wilhelm Schöpf), and show off an economy and intensity of word setting, with none lasting more than two minutes.

Said caught the agitation running through Es stürmet am Abendhimmel (There are storms in the evening sky) (1:32), set up by a wonderfully turbulent introduction from the excellent James Vaughan. A flowing Heimliches Verschwinden (Stealthy departure) (3:07) led to the yearning harmonies of Herbstlied (Autumn song) (5:12), then the softer hearted Abschied vom Walde (Farewell to the forest) (7:38). Both performers threw wide the curtains for a bracing Ins Freie (Out in the open) (9:45), before Röselein, Röselein! (Rose, little rose) (11:54) began with a striking solo, setting its dreamy mood.

A group of three more Schumann songs followed, the bright and carefree Singet nicht in Trauertönen (Do not sing in mournful tones) (15:20) leading to Liebeslied (Love Song), where there was a nice rapport from both performers in the song’s ebb and flow (17:38). Requiem (19:46) had a restrained and respectful air.

Mendelssohn’s songs are less-often heard, but carry melodic invention along with often incredibly challenging piano parts! A thoughtful Die Liebende schreibt (The beloved writes) (24:55) and the more urgent Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen (Ah, West Wind, how I envy you) (27:51) were nicely done, but the Hexenlied (Witches’ song) (30:34) was something else, the high notes nailed impressively by Said while Vaughan handled the flurry of notes with apparent ease.

The pair then turned to Poulenc, whose songs are the jewel in the crown of his musical output. We heard three brief but meaningful numbers, Les chemins de l’amour (The paths of love) (34:44) caught the efforts to stay cheerful despite the approach of World War II in 1940, while C (38:51) dealt with the immediate and horrific aftermath. Fêtes galantes (41:40) was a bit too breathless, but maybe that was the point as it raised a laugh!

Said then turned to ‘home away from home’, introducing three songs by Egyptian composer Sherif Mohie El Din, a welcome move that introduced a new sound world to the Wigmore Hall as well as showing the soprano’s clear passion for music and words of her first language.

The musical depiction of The Rain (from 44:22) was vivid and featured well-placed silences, the piano part enhancing the effect of raindrops. Could the river flow forever (46:50) had darker shading, while the final Against whom?  (49:57) was a tortuous and anguished study of feelings felt during surgery.

The performers generously gave us two encores – a further Egyptian song, Daughter of the Sultan by Gamal Abdel-Rahim (54:41) and then, after the radio went off air, Old Sir Faulk by Sir William Walton, with accompanying gestures from the soprano.

This emphasised how at home she is on the stage, and capped an extremely impressive and enjoyable recital, where a blend of musicianship and communication of the messages behind the text was always the primary goal. Both performers succeeded comfortably.

Further listening

You can listen to recorded versions of the repertoire in this concert on this Spotify playlist, apart from the Sherif Mohie Eldin songs which are not on the streaming service:

Meanwhile here is a link to the Sherif Mohie Eldin official YouTube page, including the three poems performed in the concert:

Alina Ibragimova & Il Pomo d’Oro – Michael Haydn & Mendelssohn at the Wigmore Hall

Alina Ibragimova (violin, above), Il Pomo d’Oro (below) / Frederico Guglielmo

Michael Haydn Violin Concerto in G major (c1757-64)
Mendelssohn String Symphony no.10 in B minor (1823)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D minor (1822)

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 7 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A relatively rare Tuesday lunchtime treat from the Wigmore Hall took the form of an hour of music from the late classical period from Il Pomo d’Oro, their concertmaster Federico Guglielmo and violinist Alina Ibragimova.

It would have been all too easy for them to program Mendelssohn’s much-loved Violin Concerto in E minor as the main work, but Ibragimova has a special affinity with a much earlier work in the same form. The Violin Concerto in D minor, accompanied by a smaller force of string orchestra, was written when the composer was just 13, and is a spiky, energetic piece channeling the spirit of C.P.E. Bach’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ period from the 1770s.

In this performance the notes fairly leapt from the page, with quick tempo choices demanding and receiving dextrous fingerwork from all the string players. Il Pomo d’Oro were an equal match for Ibragimova’s pyrotechnics, which were delivered with deceptive calm but communicated the passionate music within the fast movements. A sanguine slow movement offered sunnier, breezier climes before the energetic finale took a catchy tune and spun it so that Mendelssohn’s melodic invention stayed rooted in the mind long after the concert.

Providing a rather lovely contrast was the Violin Concerto in G major from Michael Haydn, Franz Joseph’s older brother. Often the poor musical relation of the family, he nonetheless wrote some fine works himself, particularly in the choral field, with memory recalling a fine Requiem performed relatively recently by the King’s Consort at the BBC Proms.

This performance at the Wigmore Hall was notable for its lively interplay and distinctive melodies, and the interactions between violinist and orchestra showed their mutual enjoyment of Haydn’s music, especially in the jaunty finale. Here Ibragimova took the lead, as she did in the aria-like slow movement, where the violin sang more graciously, ideal in the hall’s acoustic.

Between the two concertos we heard the String Symphony no.10 in B minor, another remarkable example of Mendelssohn’s promise as a teenager. This one was written a year after the Violin Concerto, and quite how a teenager could achieve such an assured standard with such substantial melodies remains a mystery! The language again is direct, as are all the minor key works from this period. Il Pomo d’Oro played with poise and guile, paying sensitive attention to their melodic phrasing through selective vibrato, led by Guglielmo. It helped define their colourful sound, a complete rebuff to those who might suggest ‘period instrument’ ensembles are lacking in subtlety and variation. Here we had those qualities in abundance, the best possible advocates for Mendelssohn’s well-spent youth!

Unfortunately this concert is not available online, but you can listen to clips of Alina Ibragimova’s recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concertos at the Hyperion website. Meanwhile a Spotify playlist including the works from this concert can be enjoyed below:

Live: Jörg Widmann & Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

jorg_widmann_clarinet_040_c_marco_borggreve_crop

Jörg Widmann (clarinet, above – photo by Marco Borggreve) & Mitsuko Uchida (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Thursday 9th February, 2017

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 (1894)

Berg 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5 (1913)

Widmann Fantasie for solo clarinet (1993)

Schubert Impromptu in C minor D899/1 (1827)

Widmann Sonatina facile (2016, UK première)

Schumann 3 Fantasiestücke Op.73 (1849)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The sound made by the clarinet is surely one of the most beautiful in classical music.

Yet, as Jörg Widmann reminded a packed Wigmore Hall when playing his Fantasie for solo clarinet, the instrument’s qualities extend far and wide. Widmann explored multiphonics – playing more than one note at once – and also used the clarinet to evoke a lilting Alpine dance, some outrageous Gershwin-style slides and baleful, shy asides as though he was the only performer in the room.

Widmann has been chosen as the Wigmore Hall’s Composer in Residence for 2017-18. It is a chance to appreciate his versatility, for clarinet pieces are one side of a substantial catalogue. He has written for solo piano, but although Mitsuko Uchida’s UK premiere performance of the Sonata facile was superbly characterised, it was not as successful musically. Widmann takes Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K545, as a starting point, but he effectively screws up the pages of the work, distorting and fragmenting so that they did not quite add up to a meaningful whole.

mitsuko-uchida-240815Far more purposeful was Uchida’s performance of Schubert’s first published Impromptu, where we explored the composer’s very heart through an interpretation that had the hall on the edge of their seats. The repetitive march theme was darkly coloured, but the transition from minor key to major brought brilliant shafts of light under Uchida’s quick fingers.

When the two musicians played together the results were electric. In spite of a mobile phone that rang for more than a minute, and a hearing aid that shrilled in close proximity to the pitch of Widmann’s clarinet, their Brahms was beautifully poised. The Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 is a late, nocturnal treasure, its tension giving way to an autumnal glow in exchanges between the instruments that behave as though they are old friends. This performance caught that intimacy, especially in the slow movement, and enjoyed the dance of the finale with a spring in its step.

Schumann’s 3 Fantasiestücke faired similarly, closing the program wreathed in smiles, despite the occasional furrowed brow in the first piece. Here the interaction was again on the most intimate of scales, Widmann’s control exquisite in the slower music and matched by Uchida’s voicing of the individual parts.

Even better was the duo’s performance of Berg’s 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, a relatively early publication from 1913 that explores the outer limits of tonality. The mysterious second piece had an extraordinary inner tension, fully released in a flurry of notes, while the last piece, also slow, hung on the air for an age.

Widmann’s control here was almost superhuman, and although he admitted to being out of breath after the Schumann, he and Uchida gave a substantial encore by the 14-year old Mendelssohn. The graceful second movement from his Clarinet Sonata sounded like the work of a much older man, and was lovingly played.