In concert – Martin Fröst & Roland Pöntinen at Wigmore Hall

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Roland Pöntinen (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 December 2019

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A concert that was relatively short on music but extremely high on musicianship and virtuosity. Martin Fröst is one of the finest clarinettists at work today, and fellow-Swede Roland Pöntinen, with whom he has enjoyed a musical partnership for 25 years, is an extremely highly respected pianist either in a solo capacity or here as a chamber music ally. Both delighted their young Wigmore Hall audience – yes, that can be a thing at this venue’s concerts! – who were on their feet at the end.

The two gave us ‘French Beauties and Swedish Beasts’, a concert based on their first disc for BIS made 25 years ago. The beauties were first, in the shape of Debussy and Poulenc. The former’s Première rapsodie was written as a competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire, and later orchestrated in a form revealing its stylistic parallels with the composer’s ballet Jeux. There was a balletic feel to this interpretation too, Fröst’s languorous tone complemented by the stop-start rhythms of Pöntinen’s piano part. Initially the music was happy to indulge in its warm, lush surroundings but gradually it grew more agitated until Fröst’s final, bluesy solo.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata, a late work, is dedicated to the composer Arthur Honegger and received its first performance in the hands of no less a duo than Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. It is difficult to imagine a better account than here, with Fröst’s tone in the quieter and reflective passages simply sublime, layered with emotion. This was complemented by a sparky finale, where the music flew out of the gate like a horse let into an open field. The performers finished each other’s musical sentences in a performance of wit, charm and sensitivity.

The first of the ‘Swedish Beasts’ followed, a piece from Anders Hillborg written for the partnership before his breakthrough work, the Clarinet Concerto which Fröst recorded some seven years later. This was a piece of two extremes, flitting between reflective slow phrases and sharp retorts where the clarinet used the outer limits of its register. It was effective and a concentrated piece showing off Fröst’s technical prowess.

The second Swedish Beast was much more benign, but Roland Pöntinen’s own Mercury Dream showed an affinity with the blues. Nocturnal New York seemed to be its focus, especially in the easily paced piano introduction and postlude, but when Fröst joined the music became more animated.

Prior to that the pianist (above) gave us two substantial chunks from Ravel’s Miroirs. His account of Une barque sur l’océan was highly pictorial, and his Alborada del gracioso had swagger, even if some of the initial phrases were clipped. Pöntinen has not yet recorded Ravel and it would be interesting to set alongside his many BIS recordings of earlier music.

The partnership finished with Chausson’s Andante and Allegro, a discovery from the composer’s Bayreuth period in his mid-twenties, before Wagner’s spell exerted itself on his music. This was an enjoyable piece, full of melodic grace in the flowing Andante before turning slightly darker for the passionate Allegro.

We had two superb encores from the duo, playing pieces Fröst has previously given with orchestra. BrahmsHungarian Dance no.1 in G minor surged forward passionately, while Göran Fröst, the clarinettist’s brother, contributed the hugely entertaining Klezmer Dance no.2, full of good tunes and musical banter between clarinet and piano. Given the technical expertise on show, the standing ovation that followed was inevitable.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music:

Debussy Première rapsodie (1909-10)
Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962)
Hillborg Tampere Raw (1991)
Ravel Miroirs: Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso (1904-5)
Pöntinen Mercury Dream (1994)
Chausson Andante and Allegro (1881)

Encores
Brahms Hungarian Dance no.1 in G minor ()
Göran Fröst Klezmer Dance no.2

Further listening

You can hear the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

You can hear the album French Beauties and Swedish Beasts in its entirety on Spotify below. Alongside the items from this concert it includes the rather wonderful Saint-Saëns Clarinet Sonata:

Meanwhile Anders Hillborg’s Clarinet Concerto Peacock Tales’ written for Fröst, can be heard in its premiere recording here:

Wigmore Mondays – Jean Guihen Queyras & Alexandre Tharaud play Debussy, Poulenc, Marais & Bach

Jean Guihen Queyras (cello, above), Alexandre Tharaud (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 28 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Marco Borggreve

Who could possibly be better suited for this concert among today’s musicians than cellist Jean Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud? The long-established pairing constructed a hugely enjoyable programme of dance-based music for the combination, from two composers who were still writing for the viola da gamba to two writing for the modern cello but harking back to that older era.

The viola da gamba was on its way out when J.S. Bach and Marin Marais wrote their respective pieces for it. They did not know at the time, but it was about to lose its popularity to the cello, which – with one less string and eventually a spike for the player to hold it in – gradually took over.

Bach’s sonata, for viola da gamba and harpsichord, is equally rewarding when played by cello and piano as here, with great sensitivity and a lyrical line to the melodies from Queyras. The first movement Adagio (1:43 on the broadcast link) was beautifully weighted, as was the quicker but equally graceful Allegro (3:18). Both players found the deeper emotion of the Andante (7:06), Bach moving into the key of B minor for some aria-like soul searching. The final movement Allegro (11:03) was a delight, the benefit of an established musical partnership clear to see and with nicely judged ornamentation from Tharaud.

Marais wrote extensively for the lower end of the stringed instrument family, and his Pieces de viole contain music that is as challenging for the players as it is rewarding for the audience. This three-movement suite, arranged for the modern cello by Christian Döbereiner, contained a slower Prélude (16:53) and Sarabande grave (25:33) that Queyras and Tharaud played eloquently, the cellist finding wonderful clarity in his higher range. These shorter movements framed the main act, several variations on the popular tune La Folia titled Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), which, while apparently played without repeats, is where we had the real fireworks. There was terrific playing from both and a heightened sense of drama ran throughout.

Poulenc originally wrote his Suite Française for orchestra in 1935 as part of a ballet score, but it proved equally effective in a piano arrangement made later that year. This version for cello and piano was made in 1953, for performance by the composer with French cellist Pierre Fournier. Based on the music of 16th century composer Claude Gervaise, it is a charming suite of seven dance movements looking back some four hundred years, merging the musical language of that time with Poulenc’s perky writing and crunchy harmonies. It was brilliantly realised here.

The seven dance pieces are as follows: a lively Bransle de Bourgogne (30:13), a consoling Pavane (31:40), then a cheeky Petite marche militaire (34:00). The suite continues with an eerie Complainte, the cello in its highest register (35:17), then a largely reflective Bransle de Champagne (36:26), graceful Sicilienne (38:10) and ceremonial Carillon (39:29)

Debussy’s Cello Sonata (43:07) is one of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire, a late masterpiece with clear instructions that the pianist should ‘not fight the cello, but accompany it’. At its centre is a remarkable, forward looking second movement with an improvisatory air and extended episodes for pizzicato (plucked) cello.

This was a terrific performance, Tharaud starting off with a forthright opening statement but responding with great care to the nuances of Queyras and his beautifully shaded tone. The pair caught Debussy’s moods – his bold statements but also the furtive corners of the piece, which sometimes feels like it is hiding in the undergrowth on a hot summer evening.

Both elements were clear in the first movement, and also in the second (47:15), a Sérénade where Debussy’s fragments were all joined together. Queyras had the perfect range of pizzicato colours, but also the clarity of tone right at the top of the register. Tharaud complemented him with the ideal lack of sustain on the stumbling piano figurations and the weight of his responses.

All the while this music was headed for the quickfire finale (50:33), which in its short bursts of melody had charm, worry and glorious colour in equal measure, never quite letting go completely until the final bars and Queyras’ authoritative statement.

As a generous encore the pair complemented the Debussy with Rodion Shchedrin’s entertaining In the style of Albéniz (55:28), not dissimilar to the second movement of the Sonata in its evocative tones but more outrageous in its melodies and harmonies. Queyras and Tharaud set it up brilliantly to cap a memorable recital.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

J.S. Bach Viola da gamba Sonata no.2 in D major BWV1028 (before 1741) (1:43)
Marais (1656-1728) Suite in D minor: Prelude (16:53), Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), Sarabande (25:33)
Poulenc Suite française (1935, arr. 1953) (30:13)
Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor (1915) (43:07)
Encore – Shchedrin In the style of Albéniz (1973)

Further listening

You can listen to the music heard in this concert on Spotify below, including Queyras and Tharaud in the works by Poulenc and Debussy:

Poulenc also wrote a Cello Sonata, which forms part of an album with works for cello and piano with works by Debussy, delivered by the Queyras and Tharaud pairing here:

As this concert illustrated, French composers were particularly skilled at taking inspiration from the Baroque and Classical periods of classical music (from c1650 to 1800). The playlist below enjoys some of the best examples, headed by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin but also including works by Fauré, Debussy and Poulenc:

Wigmore Mondays – Lawrence Power & Simon Crawford-Phillips: Le tombeau

Lawrence Power (viola, above), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 21 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Lawrence Power) Giorgia Bertazzi

BBC Radio 3’s curious title for this concert was Adventures with a viola, despite Lawrence Power spending the last third of the concert playing the violin. Such is his talent on both instruments that the switch appeared to be effortless, part of an adventurous programme exploring the idea of paying musical homage.

To that effect, the first three pieces in the concert were linked. François Couperin’s expansive Prélude from the Première Suite pour viole (from 3:09 on the broadcast) exploited the lovely tone Power could get from the lower reaches of his viola, which helped accentuate the composer’s chromatic writing. A joint arrangement with Simon Crawford-Phillips of Ravel’s Menuet from the wonderful Le tombeau de Couperin followed (6:40), a fitfully effective version that was perhaps too fast in its execution, rather glossing over the cold central passage and the charm of the Menuet theme itself. The lack of repeats in this gorgeous piece of music accentuated the pair’s quick approach, despite a clever pairing of themes towards the end.

Australian composer Arthur Benjamin is not at all well known in these parts, but has an important role in musical history as a tutor of some repute. His own music can be overlooked because of that, and on this evidence unreasonably so – for Le tombeau de Ravel (10:58) was a pretty adventurous collection of a prelude, six waltzes and a coda, extremely well performed by the duo here. Having originally written it for clarinet and piano, Benjamin followed Brahms’s example by producing a viola and piano version, the instruments having a very similar range. The gruff start leads way to contrasting dances of affection and a quickfire number (17:00) requiring (and receiving) great virtuosity and dexterity from Power. There is charm in this music, too, as the next pizzicato waltz indicates, with tumbling figures from Crawford-Phillips, before a ghostly waltz with harmonics at 20:17 offers a starker picture. This is contrasted by a rousing finish.

We then heard a striking version for viola and piano of Three Berceuses from Thomas Adès’ opera The Exterminating Angel. They are based on two of the duets from Beatriz and Eduardo, the opera’s doomed lovers, and an eerie cradle song. These brought a wide range of colour and virtuosity from Power, with Crawford-Phillips providing expertly judged punctuation. The first Berceuse movement (26:30) was down at heel, with wispy outlines from the viola, then the second (29:44) had more expansive phrases, ending with crushing left hand octaves from Crawford-Phillips. The ghostly ‘round’ of the third (34:04) had the most memorable melody, ending on a decidedly macabre note as a mother cradling a dead lamb rather than her son attempted to rock it to sleep. Power’s harmonics on the viola were cold indeed.

A second group of homages followed, Power switching to violin for the duration. It was piano alone for Stravinsky’s brief but poignant Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (39:56), setting the chorale theme from his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Crawford-Phillips managed the voicing of the parts beautifully. Tributes to Debussy followed from Erik Satie and the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, Power reading the poem Debussy before Crawford-Phillips played the Satie Élégie (41:59). We then moved to a much more substantial tribute to the Spanish poet in the form of Poulenc’s troubled Violin Sonata.

The work itself had a tricky germination, its composer rejecting a couple of versions while not settling for the completed work either, returning to it in 1949. It is a dramatic piece, paying homage to the poet Lorca in assertive music that spills over into aggression in the first movement (44:10). In the second, an Intermezzo (50:37), Power and Crawford-Phillips painted exquisite shades through the bittersweet musical language, while the finale (56:38) was powerfully wrought, even more so when apparently hitting a wall (59:58) and sinking into desolation. A commanding performance proved Power’s aptitude in switching between musical instruments.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

François Couperin Prélude from Première Suite pour viole (1728) (3:09)
Ravel, arr. Power & Crawford-Phillips Menuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) (6:40)
Benjamin Le tombeau de Ravel (1958) (10:58)
Adès Three Berceuses from The Exterminating Angel (2018) (UK premiere) (26:30)
Stravinsky Le tombeau de Claude Debussy (1920) (39:56)
Lorca Debussy (1921-24) & Satie Élégie from Quatre petits melodies (41:59)
Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3, rev. 1949) (44:10)

Further listening

You can listen to most of the music heard in this concert in the available versions on Spotify below, with the exception of the Adès, which has understandably not yet been recorded:

Meanwhile Lawrence Power and Simon Crawford-Phillips can be heard in Arthur Benjamin’s Le tombeau de Ravel as part of this collection on Hyperion, where Power once again switches instruments for the composer’s violin works.

Poulenc‘s instrumental sonatas represent some of his very finest work, and this collection from the London Conchord Ensemble brings them all together:

Wigmore Mondays – Jess Gillam & Zeynep Özsuca

Jess Gillam (soprano and alto saxophones, above), Zeynep Özsuca (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 7 October 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Saxophonist Jess Gillam is proving to be a breath of fresh air for BBC Radio 3 and for classical music in general. Her combination of passionate artistry, technical flair and down to earth presentation is ideal, and brought colour to a dull Monday in October. Her spoken introductions between the pieces in this concert had a nicely judged patter, showing someone at ease with an audience and enthusiastic about the music she plays. The refreshing lack of pretence fed into the inspiring performances too. Gillam was helped by a very well chosen programme of music showing off the versatility of her instrument, in doing so covering a rich variety from the last 300 years.

The Pequeña Czarda of Pedro Iturralde was an ebullient first piece and a sign of things to come, placing the first earworm as well as showing off Gillam’s technique and Zeynep Özsuca’s colourful accompaniment. It draws the odd parallel to Midnight In Moscow in its slow passages, and both performers caught the contrast between these and the helter-skelter faster music.

The Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor, transposed down a tone into C, illustrated how well works for oboe can transcribe for the saxophone, especially when played with as much control as there was from Gillam and Özusca here. The saxophone is a much louder instrument but Gillam really enjoyed the subtle colours available, and this worked especially well in the famous Adagio (11:08 on the broadcast link). In the outer movements Özusca found great clarity to bring the part writing to life.

Anna Clyne’s new piece Snake and Ladder introduced electronics to the equation, reminding us how the saxophone is one of the most versatile instruments between classical and rock music. Written for saxophone and distortion pedal, it was an effective and enjoyable piece, though sat at the back of the hall we had what sounded like wow and flutter from the breathing.

This led through a bit of a stylistic jolt to Poulenc’s Oboe Sonata, which appeared to be presented in original form without an arrangement – certainly none was credited. Gillam clearly loves this piece and played it beautifully, though the more plaintive oboe tone from which the third movement especially benefits was understandably more difficult to find (from 30:06). This movement, an elegy to Poulenc’s great friend Prokofiev, is effectively the last music he wrote and as such is very profound. Gillam did however do a brilliant job with the fast central movement (25:56 on the broadcast), with spiky counter thrust from Özsuca, while the first movement had established the mood.

We then heard from composer Rudy Wiedoeft, an American composer who raised the profile of the saxophone worldwide. His Valse Vanite, an original piece, drew on his love of transcribing other composers, and it was as though Chopin had taken a vacation in Harlem. Both musicians clearly have a lot of affection for this piece, and Gillam’s ornamentation was exquisitely done.

A reduced version for saxophone and piano of John Harle’s RANT! followed, this enjoyable and tuneful piece drawing on folk tunes from Gillam’s native Ullswater. That the composer, also Gillam’s teacher, was in the audience said much for the bond and mutual respect the two enjoy.

A soulful Pièce en forme de habanera followed, Ravel leading nicely into Gillam’s party piece. Milhaud‘s Scaramouche is the work she played in orchestral form at the Last Night of the BBC Proms in 2018, though it is arguably more effective in partnership with piano. Özsuca was a little far back in the mix to begin with but the fast movement was still hugely enjoyable, followed by a thoughtful slow movement and perky Brazileira (58:48), Gillam breaking into a grin once more as she played the catchy tune.

The audience would have been happy with this as the final earworm with which to leave, but a bonus was in store in the form of Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood (not on the broadcast), the encore showing off Gillam’s remarkable breath control in slower music.

This was a really enjoyable concert, and it was so refreshing to see another younger artist throwing off any shackles that classical music might present, and offering it out as music, pure and simple. Proof if it were ever needed that music should be there for everyone to enjoy!

Repertoire

Jess Gillam and Zeynep Özsuca played the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets)::

Iturralde Pequeña Czarda (2:03)
Marcello Oboe Concerto in D minor (7:34)
Clyne (Snake and Ladder) for saxophone and electronics (19:27)
Poulenc Sonata for oboe and piano (21:05)
Wiedoeft Valse Vanité (35:00)
Harle RANT! (40:27)
Ravel Pièce en forme de habanera (47:53)
Milhaud Scaramouche Op. 165b (51:13)

Further listening

Some of the music played in this concert can be heard on Gillam’s debut album Rise. This includes the orchestral version of John Harle’s RANT!, and the works by Iturralde, Marcello and Wiedoeft – and of course the finale of the Milhaud:

Gillam’s teacher John Harle has a very impressive recorded legacy, raising the profile of the classical saxophone in contemporary classical music. The Sax Drive album (one in a series of PR own goals when it comes to saxophone album titles!) is well worth exploring for the three concertos it holds from Stanley Myers, Richard Rodney Bennett (his Concerto for Stan Getz) and Michael Torke:

Meanwhile if you liked the music of Milhaud you will find this hugely attractive collection from EMI to be very much your thing:

François Le Roux & Olivier Godin – Henri Dutilleux birthday concert

François Le Roux (baritone, above), Olivier Godin (piano, below)

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
4 mélodies (Féerie au clair de lune, Pour une amie perdue, Chanson au bord de la mer, Fantasio)
Au gré des ondes: Prélude en berceuse
3 mélodies inédites (L’Ange pleurer, Vers de Ronsard, La Faute en est à toi)
Improvisation
Regards sur l’infini
Hommage à Bach
Chanson de la déportée
3 sonnets de Jean Cassou (Éloignez-vous (XVII) (Leave us), La geôle, Il n’y avait que des troncs déchirés
J’ai rêvé
Petit air à dormir debout
San Francisco Night

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 22 January 2019

Review by Ben Hogwood

This was a remarkable hour of music; the only regret being that not more people were present at the Wigmore Hall to see it. In a relatively rare Tuesday lunchtime concert at the venue, François Le Roux and Olivier Godin treated us to an hour-long celebration of the birthday of Henri Dutilleux, one of France’s finest 20th century composers – which is certainly saying something!

Dutilleux (below), who died as recently as 2013, left a small but perfectly formed musical canon, consisting mostly of works for the orchestra or the piano. His songs are little known and for good reason, as the composer himself did not think greatly of them, preferring to suppress their performance and recording. There are however enough to form more than an hour of music.

Only the baritone François Le Roux performs them regularly, and with pianist Olivier Godin he has recorded them all on a single disc. From that disc came much of the music performed here; songs written in the 1940s when the composer was establishing his mature voice.

Dutilleux was very hard on himself, it has to be said – and to explain why we had the peerless programme notes of Roger Nichols to guide us. They told us of Charles Panzera, a distinguished baritone who became the muse of the first eight songs in the recital, all written for performance on French radio.

The first of the 4 mélodies was Féerie au clair de lune (Moonlight of Fairies), which had bluesy undertones to its sparkling piano part, brilliantly played – and a vividly pictorial response to the words which Le Roux had no trouble in communicating. This was a feature of the recital, the baritone’s open performance style, extending through a simple but moving Pour une amie perdue (For a Lost Lady-Love), with its straightforward stepwise progressions, and then a slow, meandering Chanson au bord de la mer (Song by the Sea). The direct responses contained flashes of humour in the entertaining Fantasio, a setting of André Bellessort with the opening line (translated), ‘Death caught you costumed for the fancy ball’.

The concert was helpfully bookmarked with some of Dutilleux’s solo piano output, about which he was once again dismissive – but which once again far exceeded his evaluations in my opinion! The Prélude en berceuse was an attractive pairing with an easy charm and hints of Ravel. A later Improvisation enjoyed its freedom, while Hommage à Bach was clarity personified, an ideal bit of pastiche writing.

By then Le Roux had given us the Borsent setting L’Ange pleurer (The Weeping Angel), then a very cheeky Vers de Ronsard to make even the most liberally minded audience members blush a little! The same poet’s Le Faute en est à toi (Love, blame yourself) was perfectly clear but also given an extra sense of yearning by a slight husk to the singer’s voice.

1941 was a good year of songwriting for Dutilleux – we heard Chanson de le deportee (Song of the departed woman), a downhearted and rather powerful lament. Then we moved to four settings of Jean Cassou, the startling violence within Éloignez-vous (XVII) (Leave us) making a strong impact, together with a cold coda. After that, the descriptive powers at work in La geôle were equally startling, notably for the full range of the piano expertly used by Godin. Il n’y avait que des troncs déchirés (Only torn tree-trunks) was also remarkable, a wild-eyed and rather stark setting, before J’ai rêvé (I dreamed), which inevitably inhabited a much more languid world.

Dutilleux was never a composer for unnecessary or lengthy discourse – as the short piano piece Petit air à dormer debout proved. The final song, too, San Francisco Night – with words by Paul Gilson – took much longer for Le Roux to explain than it did to sing. His storytelling was rather wonderful though, as was the song – a beautifully judged and very poignant tribute to Francis Poulenc, and part of a collection commissioned by the American soprano Alice Esty. Dutilleux’s final song, it effectively marked the end of the French mélodie begun by Berlioz – but what a lovely, bittersweet way to finish.

Further listening

Unfortunately François Le Roux and Olivier Godin’s disc of Dutilleux’s songs is not available on any streaming services currently. However you can listen to a wonderful disc of Anne Queffélec playing the composer’s piano works on Spotify here: