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

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

Wigmore Hall, Tuesday 31st January, 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.

Tasmin Little – in praise of Beethoven and Yehudi Menuhin

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Violinist Tasmin Little is a cherished English violinist, loved for her interpretations of the classics in the repertoire but also for her pioneering work in ensuring less heard British works for the instrument get their due. More recently she has championed the worth of classical music education, and ensuring classical music is promoted to those who do not often hear it.

Her strong relationship with Chandos Records has yielded a number of high quality recordings, among them a recent release of Beethoven’s complete sonatas for violin and piano with Martin Roscoe. She gave generously of her time in this recent interview, talking with characteristic enthusiasm about Beethoven, Yehudi Menuhin, the importance of musical education – and how to stop those aches and pains violinists so often get!

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

The answer is no…because it was probably while I was inside the womb! Neither of my parents is a classical musician, but they love classical music and my father was an actor who sang. There was always music in the house, and they had very broad taste, so I remember Blood, Sweat & Tears and The Beatles in particular. I grew up with the whole range, including the genre of musicals as I grew up. It was the same as talking, listening to music!

How did you develop a love of the violin?

As part of my parents’ record collection they had some violin concertos. I used to listen to them and as I got older, say five or six years old, I began to know what some of the instruments were. I loved the violin especially, and then the piano. My sister began to learn the violin, but it was a disaster and I thought it would be a disaster if I tried too! We begged her to give up, and as a result she is now a visual arts star!

When I was seven I fell ill with chicken pox and I hit on the idea of teaching myself the recorder while I was ill in bed. I did that, and loved it. So when I got better I had piano lessons – and then I thought I would learn the violin.

What experience of playing Beethoven did you have prior to recording the sonatas?

I’ve played Beethoven for years and year, as a student at the Yehudi Menuhin school, where I played it in string quartets and tackled some of the violin sonatas. They are difficult, so I didn’t play them until my early teens – probably the Spring Sonata first. The more complex works such as the C minor sonata I left until later, and then the big mountain, the Kreutzer Sonata, I tackled when I was 21.

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Tasmin with her accomplice in the Beethoven sonatas, pianist Martin Roscoe

“Of course when you play these works you need a really good pianist, and it wasn’t until we were at least in our teens that we could cover this music. I’ve been playing some of the sonatas for 30 years, others for 20-25 years, so I’ve known them for a long time. It is really important with works of this nature and complexity, and works that are well recorded to have mature thoughts on them.”

The Violin Concerto I have known since I was 21, and it has been in my repertoire for a long time. More recently I also learned the Triple Concerto, which I recorded with Howard Shelley and Tim Hugh, but it is the Violin Concerto that I completely adore. One of the earliest recordings I had was made by Zino Francescatti, that I have listened to and played into the ground.

Was it daunting recording the sonatas?

I always wanted to record this repertoire, as it is the big mountain of violin and piano repertoire. The violin sonatas by Mozart are a bit more juvenile, whereas with the Beethoven sonatas they are all of such quality you need comparable maturity and sophistication to play them. I took a deep breath before doing the sessions! We did the first five, working fast, in three days – and we felt we were on such a role, Martin and I. Then six months later we finished off the remaining five. It was good to do it like that, otherwise we would have suffered a hit in quality. There was a feeling of momentum.

To begin with in the sonatas they are spring-like, but then that all starts to change. The A minor work, Op.23, is quite a nervy piece but still can’t resist a few jokes. The C minor sonata, Op.30 no.2, is a steely work from start to finish, there is no let up in the drama or intensity. The Kreutzer Sonata is another dimension removed from that, it is an incredibly complex piece. He thinks of it as a concerto for both players, and that’s how it has to be represented. We each represent the orchestra if you like, there are times when he has the fire, and I am in battle against him and his orchestra.

With the ten works covering each period of Beethoven, do you feel like you’re really getting to know him as you progress through each work?

It’s actually misleading, because nine of the sonatas were written in a small space of time, within two years of each other. Then there is a long pause before the last work, Op.96. They are not so representative of the different periods in his output, and that’s why, unlike Mozart, you have this tremendous consistency, within that, he was such a master of so many different styles.

With the equal billing for piano and violin in the Beethoven sonatas, does it help that you have such a good understanding with Martin Roscoe?

Definitely. Beethoven actually puts the piano before the violin in his title pages, it says Sonata Für Pianoforte und Violine – so he considers them piano sonatas with the violin. Because of that I felt strongly that Martin should have lead billing on the cover for this release.

You have got to have someone who is capable of mastering the strength of these pieces, but also the subtlety of colours and the sophistication, mastering the great tunes. You need someone who knows how to play a great tune without being fussy. That’s one of the great strengths of Martin’s playing.

Do you think the sonata recordings are a nice balance to the English music that you’ve recorded?

Absolutely, it is very important to have a balance. I know I’m well known for promoting British music – and there is so much wonderful music that comparatively few people are promoting. I love the standard repertoire too though – Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky – and I enjoy playing them in concerts.

What is lovely about the relationship I have with Chandos is their support of those aspects of my recording, they don’t try to box me in. The recordings have been varied, with British repertoire but also with the works by Schubert, Richard Strauss and Respighi that I have recorded recently – that’s quite a range. It gives me a much more interesting balance.

You were taught by Yehudi Menuhin as part of your education. What would you say he left as a legacy for violinists?

I would say he left us so much. From a practical point of view he commissioned so many works, to think of just a few those by Bartók, Walton and Panufnik. He also was very much interested in bringing to people’s attention other composers such as Delius. He was very good at communicating, and he used his abilities to bring these to the public.

I also think he was one of the first genuine crossover artists, thinking of his work with Stéphane Grappelli, Ravi Shankar and world music. He made it acceptable to work in different genres, it was fine because he was doing it. He was a great teacher – he founded the school I went to – and he also used his position politically to bring people together. In addition to what he left as a violinist he was trying to use his position to unite conflict – and he did this in the House of Lords, through his work as a conservationist and humanitarian.

You’re also judging the Yehudi Menuhin competition. Given all that you’ve done for music education and youth, is it important for you to be putting something back into this level?

I was at a state primary school in the 1970s, and music had a high position in the curriculum. There was a full time violin teacher, and if there hadn’t have been I would not have started. Because there was, and because music was so high on the governmental agenda, all these things were possible.

That is why it is so important to keep lobbying to make sure that gifted people do not fall through the net. I have given two speeches to the House of Commons and the House of Lords about this, and have written letters about it to them as well.

On another tip entirely, do you suffer from aches and pains as a violinist?

The violin is such an unnatural playing position, horrendously so! You have the full weight on one shoulder, and because of that I do work hard keeping shipshape – I have massages and treatments. I have had a few problems so far but I think generally I have been lucky. You have to take care, as it’s a great physical input as well as emotional and intellectual.

Finally, what violin concertos would you suggest to someone who hasn’t heard any before?

There are two that spring to mind. The first is the Mendelssohn, which is a sparkly, light piece. The second is the Bruch Violin Concerto no.1, the one that I get asked to play the most. It is dark, mysterious and very romantic!

For those who have already heard a few violin concertos I would suggest the one by Glazunov, which I absolutely love!

Wigmore Mondays – Esther Yoo & Zhang Zuo play Mendelssohn & Sibelius

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Esther Yoo (violin), Zhang Zuo (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 21 March 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07457qx

Available until 20 April

What’s the music?

Bach – Chaconne from the Solo Violin Partita no.2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (c1720) (15 minutes)

Sibelius – Sonatina for violin and piano in E major, Op.80 (1915) (12 minutes)

Glazunov – Grand Adagio from Raymonda (Act 1) (1898) (4 minutes)

Mendelssohn – Violin Sonata in F major (1838) (21 minutes)

Spotify

In case you are not able to hear the radio broadcast, here is a link to a playlist of the music played. Esther Yoo has not recorded any of it in violin and piano form, so substitute versions have been used:

About the music

Sibelius wrote a great deal of music for the violin but other than the famous Violin Concerto, very little of it is heard regularly these days. It is therefore a refreshing change to see the E major Sonatina listed. A relatively short work, it helped Sibelius through a particularly testing time with his finances.

Mendelssohn has a number of parallels with Sibelius where the violin is concerned, writing a famous Violin Concerto that gets played at the expense of pretty much everything else. Once again in this case there are works for violin and piano, and the Violin Sonata chosen for this concert is the most substantial, completed in 1838. For some unexplained reason it was not published in Mendelssohn’s lifetime, and was resurrected by Yehudi Menuhin in the 1950s.

Esther Yoo begins the concert alone, with Bach’s famous Chaconne – taken from his Solo Violin Partita no.2. It is a landmark in solo instrument writing, a tour de force of 64 different versions of the same sequence of chords that Bach develops with ever greater virtuosity.

She complements the Sibelius, meanwhile, with a short piece – an excerpt of a love scene from Glazunov’s ballet Raymonda.

Performance verdict

A refreshing program from Esther Yoo, who has just recorded a very well-received disc of Sibelius and Glazunov with Vladimir Ashkenazy.

It was particularly good to report a rare outing for the Sibelius Sonatina, a piece with energy and fresh invention that definitely sweeps away the cobwebs! Yoo and her musical partner Zhang Zuo (known as ‘Zee-Zee’) gave a performance full of enthusiasm and energy, giving Sibelius’ melodies a real shot in the arm. Prior to this Yoo had greatly impressed with her account of the Bach Chaconne, a deliberately slow and careful start gathering in pace and intensity, taking the fearsome technical challenges in her stride.

Glazunov’s Grand Adagio made a fitting complement to the Sibelius, invested with suitable passion, but the real discovery was the Mendelssohn, a piece of great craftsmanship and, in the slow movement, a depth of feeling unusual even for him. The two performers had great chemistry here and clearly enjoyed their interactions through the faster music, taking time in the slow movement to let the hymn-like passage sing.

An excellent concert concluded with a Korean folksong arranged for violin and piano, played with delicacy and then great gusto!

What should I listen out for?

Bach

1:28 – the violin begins with a grand statement of a chord sequence which it then proceeds to spin out over 64 variations, reaching great intensity in the string crossing around 7:30. The variations are set mostly in the minor key but move to the major at 9:15. Bach gives an enormous variety of colour, speed, attack, repose and musicality, starting relatively slowly but moving to passages of increasing difficulty and intensity, notably the string-crossing passage mentioned above, but this is also one of his most profound pieces of music when interpreted well. The music turns back to the minor key with impressive dramatic effect.

Bach often asks for the violin to employ ‘multiple stopping’; that is, playing more than one note at a time – which means the music can sound as though it is in many parts, despite still being played on the one instrument.

Sibelius

18:49 – a bold start from Sibelius, with the colour from the piano recognisably his. The grand introduction cuts to a quicker theme at 19:30 which suggests the outdoors. The music trips along at quite a pace – as so often Sibelius suggesting quick movement in his music. It also ends with a typical lack of fuss.

22:25 – the thoughtful second movement starts to spread its wings with the emergence of a rather beautiful melody from the violin.

27:03 – a broad melody on the lower register of the violin restores a grand air to the piece, though soon the violin twists upwards. The music gets faster again, returning us to the spirit of the first movement, with energy and grace in equal measure. Up to the end it becomes increasingly breathless, Sibelius throwing in a surprisingly light finish.

Glazunov

31:05 – as you might expect from a declaration of love in a Russian ballet, this is deeply passionate music, with a melody tailor made for the violin. With long phrases and sweeping gestures the music swoons. The violin reaches for the heights around 34:35, before sinking gracefully into a soft coda.

Mendelssohn

36:47 – it is difficult to understand why Mendelssohn did not publish his Violin Sonata when it starts as brightly as it does in this performance. A distinctive theme leads to close interplay between violin and piano. This being Mendelssohn there is a typically busy piano part, but there is a particularly nice, spring-like passage around 40:00 where the music slows and the composer’s lyrical side comes out.

45:38 – the slow movement is an unexpected treat, one of Mendelssohn’s most searching emotionally. It begins with a solemn statement on the piano, joined by the violin in

52:40 – a typically brisk Mendelssohn finale, the violin scampering off with the piano in hot pursuit. Initially there is barely room for breath, right up until a contrasting slower section.

Further listening

Yoo’s new disc would seem the ideal place to go next, containing Glazunov’s Violin Concerto as well as the one by Sibelius. It has been very well received and can be heard here:

Meanwhile you can watch a preview of the disc here:

Wigmore Mondays – Escher Quartet play Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’

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Escher Quartet: Adam Barnett-Hart, Aaron Boyd (violins), Pierre Lapointe (viola), Brook Speltz (cello)

Photo by Sophie Zhai

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 8 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06zjbv2

Available until 10 March

What’s the music?

Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Andante and Scherzo for String Quartet, Op.81/1 & 2 (1847) (10 minutes)

Schubert (1797-1827): String Quartet in D minor D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1824) (40 minutes)

Spotify

The Escher Quartet have made recordings of the music of Mendelssohn, but these are not currently available on Spotify. Instead you can hear the music played by the quartet’s unofficial mentors, the Emerson String Quartet, on the playlist below – including the off-broadcast encore of Haydn:

About the music

Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet is arguably the most famous in the string quartet repertoire. It is certainly one of the composer’s finest works in the form, and brings with it a steely tone and darkness that had only really been heard before in the works of Beethoven.

The reason for its nickname lies in the second movement, a set of variations on a theme from a song of the same name written by Schubert in 1817. It is the emotional heart of the work, but there is plenty elsewhere that leaves a lasting and deeply felt impression. The way the quartet leaps out of the blocks at the start is striking, as is the quick chase of the last movement.

Schubert wrote the quartet in 1824, after a serious illness – and when he realised, at the age of 27, that he was not going to recover. It carries a lot of resentment and anger, but also a deeper resolve.

Mendelssohn also wrote his Andante and Scherzo in the final year of his life. They were the start of a projected seventh string quartet, but in the event were the only two movements written. Two earlier movements were added to make a set of four that were published as his Op.81, but the four pieces are rarely heard together.

Mendelssohn was suffering at the time of composition from a series of strokes, heavily aggravated by the death of his sister Fanny. He, like Schubert, died at such a young age – 38 – but you would never know from the size and maturity of his compositional output.

Performance verdict

The Escher Quartet gave a superb account of Death and the Maiden, achieving remarkable clarity and unity of ensemble in the striking unison moments, but also reaching great emotional depths in the Theme & Variations second movement. This was the heart of their performance, but technically their fast playing in the third movement Scherzo, with its driving syncopations, and the fourth movement, with its quick fire string writing, were hugely impressive.

Despite the prevailing darkness this was a performance that offered hope in the lighter moments that come along – the sunny disposition of the third movement Trio and the brief major key excursions of the finale being two examples. The end was utterly convincing.

The Mendelssohn made an ideal contrast, the lightness of the Andante enhanced by the velvety tone of Pierre Lapointe’s viola in the first variation on the theme. In the Scherzo the quartet’s unity was again in evidence, but so was the furtive nature of much of Mendelssohn’s arguments, fading to the end with unsettling speed.

As an encore – unfortunately not heard on the radio broadcast – we heard the slow movement from Haydn’s String Quartet in F minor Op.20/5. First violinist Adam Barnett-Hart dedicated this to Haydn himself, ‘the father of the string quartet’ – without whom the form would not even exist! It was an appropriate and affectionate finish to a very fine recital.

What should I listen out for?

Mendelssohn

1:30 – an airy Andante theme, light of touch. The variations on it begin at 2:18 where the viola takes the lead, after which there is a sweet violin solo. Despite the sunny air there is a note of nervousness too, realised at 4:39 when the music switches to the minor key. The theme returns at 6:03 – and all is now well as the music finishes quietly.

7:32 – the Scherzo is also light of touch, though much quicker – and here the nervousness is right to the fore. There are moments of subtle humour, and the music is in the form of a quick dance, but it is a shadowy outline too. There is a hint of a more fluid waltz at 10:55, but the music becomes detached again, petering out at the end.

Schubert

13:39 – the start of this quartet is one of the most instantly recognisable tunes in all string quartet writing, hurled out as a unison by all four instruments. The mood is immediately fraught, and Schubert makes frequent references to two themes – the one punched out at the beginning and a second, quicker one at 14:11. These compete for space throughout the first movement.

At 16:55 the music sweetens for the first time, but by 20:18 the main theme returns. The movement ends in brooding fashion.

25:58 – this is the centrepiece of the quartet, a movement of theme and variations. The theme, a solemn and very sad tune heard from the outset, seems almost inconsolable, but as Schubert begins to work his magic it becomes more flexible in musical content and mood. The violin is sweeter, while from 30:33 the cello takes over expressively. From 32:31 the quartet are united in driving forward. The music spends some time briefly in the sunny major key, but from 36:47 is ploughed back into a mood of sombre uncertainty, and the emotional climax of the movement from 37:30.

The final minutes are plaintive but ultimately positive, falling into silence at 39:44.

40:27 – the third movement is a Scherzo – and finds us resolutely back in the quartet’s ‘home’ key of D minor. The music drives forward with grim determination, but the clouds part at 42:05 for the ‘trio’ section, where the textures are lighter and the tune much sweeter. The respite is all too brief, though, and we head back to the scherzo music at 43:31.

44:35 – the last movement is a quick dash, the four instruments chasing as a pack with a distinctive tune that seems destined never to stop. Because this is a ‘rondo’ it is written in a certain form that means the main tune recurs several times, interspersed by a grand ‘B’ section (46:16) and a ‘C’ (47:02)

Encore (not heard on the broadcast)

The slow movement from Haydn‘s String Quartet in F minor Op.20/5 – one of the composer’s ‘Sun’ quartets.

Further listening

You can watch the Escher Quartet in the slightly earlier Quartet movement (Quartettsatz) by Schubert in the clip below:

There are some very fine late works from Mendelssohn to explore, darker though they have become because of the death of the composer’s sister. The F minor string quartet, published as Op.80, is especially good, as is the late String Quintet no.2 in B flat major, Op.87. Both can be found on the Spotify playlist below: