Playlist: Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at 50

by Ben Hogwood

Last week Arcana published an interview with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra violist Dov Scheindlin, in recognition of his time with the orchestra and their significant birthday. 50 years is a long time for a chamber orchestra, let alone a conductor-less one! Joining the celebrations, Deutsche Grammophon have released a 55-CD box set of all the orchestra’s recordings for the label.

Arcana have drawn on personal experience to select a playlist of recordings from the orchestra too, mostly from the DG archive. They range from a perky Haydn symphony to sparky Stravinsky pieces, from the wonderful open-air freshness of Grieg‘s Holberg Suite to the instinctive genius of Brad Mehldau‘s recently-released variations.

If I had to pick a favourite it would be a quite wonderful disc of Respighi orchestral works, crowned by an account of Trittico Botticelliano, a set of three orchestral responses to Botticelli pictures that is both colourful and intensely moving. Listen to the third picture, The Birth of Venus, and you will see what I mean:

Writer appreciation: Daniel Heartz

written by Ben Hogwood

This is the first in an occasional series of posts where I would like to draw attention to writers on music, classical or pop, whose work I love and respect.

Yesterday Arcana’s Listening to Beethoven series reached the Second Symphony – the last work discussed by Daniel Heartz in the third volume of an epic series looking at music of the 18th century.

I wanted to draw attention to Daniel’s writing because this series of books is quite simply invaluable. When I first considered purchasing it I baulked at the price per instalment (roughly £45, even at second hand) but I can honestly say it has provided me with incredible value for money.

Heartz’s strengths are many, but his ability to talk through technical aspects of music without losing the reader in jargon is unusually strong. However even that quality is second to his knack of placing the music in historical context, which he does so throughout the books. I warmed to this quality in the third volume (Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven 1781-1802) just as much in the second (Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School: 1740-1780). Going back further, the equally sizable volume of Music In European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-1780 ensures lesser-known and appreciated composers such as Boccherini, J.C. Bach and Stamitz get the detail and respect they fully deserve.

Heartz is great at telling a story, applying the same detailed and pictorial approach to each composer or historical figure, and at every turn it is clear that a remarkable depth of research has been applied to his work. There is very little speculation needed, but where it is made he is never fanciful or exaggerated.

Very sadly Professor Heartz died in 2019. I must admit, rather selfishly, that I was hoping his exploration of Beethoven would continue beyond the year 1802, but on learning the sad news I can only say I am very grateful to him for illuminating the classical period of music history with such high quality, informed writing. His books will give pleasure and more information, no doubt, for many years to come.

A tribute to Daniel can be found here on the University of California website. The three books referred to above are published by W.W. Norton.

BBC Proms at Cadogan Hall – Marmen Quartet play Haydn & Robert Simpson

Marmen-Quartet

Marmen Quartet [Johannes Marmén & Ricky Gore (violins), Bryony Gibson-Cornish (viola), Sinéad O’Halloran (cello)]

Haydn String Quartet in D major Op.64/5 ‘Lark’ (1790)
Simpson String Quartet no.1 (1951-2)

Cadogan Hall, London
Monday 16 August 2021 (1pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

In his centenary, it was timely to include music by Robert Simpson (who spent three eventful decades at the BBC) at the Proms, and while one might have hoped for one of his symphonies in the evening concerts, his First Quartet at a Cadogan Hall recital was hardly less welcome.

Finished when Simpson was in his early thirties and dedicated to Enescu (who read through and commended the score during his last visit to the UK), the First Quartet fairly typifies the composer’s music at this time in its stealthy take on progressive tonality and methodical yet never pre-ordained design. Thus, the opening Allegro evolves seamlessly from wistful then animated main ideas through an inwardly probing development to a trenchant reprise then a headlong coda; the ensuing Andante unfolding a series of variations on a ruminative theme – structured as a palindrome – that grows in intensity towards a fervent culmination before it touches on the work’s opening theme on route to a limpid final repose. Simpson was to use   a two-movement format on subsequent occasions, but never so elegantly or lucidly as here.

In his introductory remarks, Johannes Marmén stated that the Marmen Quartet had not been familiar with Simpson’s music until asked to learn the First Quartet for this recital. Evidently played-in beforehand, this afternoon’s performance was impressive in its formal command and audible feel for a distinctive idiom of far-reaching consequences. Hopefully this group will tackle further Simpson – the Second and Third Quartets, which explore the potential of their predecessor in what effectively becomes a ‘meta-quartet’, are a good place to continue.

A passing allusion to Haydn’s Lark Quartet at the start of the Simpson made the former a natural pairing, of which the Marmen made a virtue with its attentive and insightful account. After an animated reading of the initial Allegro (second half repeat included to make it weightier), the Adagio was notable for its eloquent ensemble and a tentative wit made manifest in the lively Menuetto. Sparkling yet never skittish, the final Vivace rounded off this performance in appealing fashion – leaving little doubt of the Marmen Quartet as an outfit with a future.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

Listening to Beethoven #61 – Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3


Landscape in the Riesengebirge by Caspar David Friedrich (1798)

Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3 for piano (1793-95, Beethoven aged 24)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Adagio
3 Scherzo: Allegro
4 Allegro assai

Dedication Franz Joseph Haydn
Duration 23′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.2 sonatas is also the most ambitious. Thinking far beyond the recital room, he wrote what is effectively a concerto for solo piano, a vehicle to show off his prowess not just as a conductor but as a performer.

The scale of the piece is impressive, with four big-boned movements that take small melodic cells and amplify them to far greater designs. In this respect he was following Haydn’s talent for expanding on small musical nuggets, while writing clearly for the instrument at hand, a bigger piano with greater volume and depth.

Jan Swafford, in the Virtuoso chapter of his superb biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, waxes lyrical on this sonata. ‘In this brilliant and thematically tight-knit piece’, he writes, ‘he alternates quiet, inward music with explosions of virtuosity, the whole seeming to be a two-handed version of a piano concerto, complete with cadenzas at the end of the first and last movements’.

András Schiff agrees. ‘I see it very much as a performance piece, aimed at an audience. You could call it a ‘sonata-concertante’. The E major slow movement is also very wide-ranging’. He goes on to note anticipations of Brahms in the finale, where he describes how ‘the figures in thirds…display a new and extremely difficult kind of keyboard technique’.

For Angela Hewitt, the sonata is an early peak in the cycle of 32. She clearly loves the last movement, which is ‘not for the faint-hearted or weak-fingered’. Beethoven’s ‘perfect combination of heart, mind and humour makes this sonata, in my opinion, one of his most fulfilling pieces to perform’.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s music is definitely getting louder! This piece is one for the extravert, for a pianist capable of playing a flashy solo part – but then it is also for the introvert, capable of realising the poetic writing in the timeless writing in the slow movement.

The first movement, as András Schiff suggests, has two voices – an ‘orchestra’ (the opening theme) and the piano soloist. Soon the roles intertwine, and the pianist has a technical challenge on their hands! Some of the chords used in this movement have an awesome power we have not yet witnessed in Beethoven, packed out with notes that require the use of all ten fingers.

The slow movement, marked Adagio, is a notably early example of Beethoven’s ability to make time stand still in his slow music. That happens most noticeably when the main theme comes back, just over halfway through the movement, in a series of slow chords. It is followed by a suddenly loud statement, jerking the listener back into a harsh reality, the sudden mood change creating a strong dramatic impact.

The third movement scherzo is more, while the finale is an extension of a scherzo with its trotting theme. Gradually the music becomes more technically demanding and congested, the performer having to show athleticism and guile in equal measure. Then just before the end Beethoven suddenly disappears into a far-removed key and the music opens out into a mysterious question. The answer is emphatic – it was a false move, Beethoven toying with the performer (and listener) before bringing them ‘home’.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)

Schiff is terrific here, enjoying the contrasts of Beethoven’s writing. Some of the big fortissimo chords have alarming power, played in a way of which the composer would surely have approved! Gilels goes for power, too, in a magisterial but slightly overpowering first movement. Angela Hewitt finds a lovely balance between bravado and delicacy, as does Igor Levit.

The playlist below accommodates all the versions described above except that by Angela Hewitt:

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1795 Haydn Piano Trio in E-flat minor Hob.XV:31 .

Next up Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3

Listening to Beethoven #60 – Piano Sonata no.2 in A major Op.2/2


The Summer by Caspar David Friedrich (1807)

Piano Sonata no.2 in A major Op.2/2 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication Franz Joseph Haydn
Duration 23′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote his second piano sonata in 1795, while he was studying counterpoint with Albrechtsberger, though like the other two pieces in the Op.2 set it is dedicated to another teacher, Haydn.

As with the three Op.1 piano trios, Beethoven’s three Op.2 piano sonatas inhabit very different personalities. The F minor piece described yesterday has plenty of brio, but this A major work is relatively light on its feet in comparison.

That does not make it insubstantial, however. Harry Halbreich, writing in his extensive booklet notes for Paul Badura-Skoda’s recording on Arcana, notes how Beethoven ‘seems to take possession of the piano, from which he draws entirely new contrasts of range, of dynamics and of rhythm.

Daniel Heartz writes of how the sonata ‘offers very different fare. It counters no.1’s somber mien with lighter textures overall and a sunnier disposition; it also makes more demands on the performer’. He enjoys the third movement scherzo, which ‘recaptures the bright, filigree character of the opening movement’, and the finale, an ‘easily flowing gavotte, with a captivating melody’.

Thoughts

The second instalment of Beethoven’s first group of piano sonatas is much less performed than the first. Angela Hewitt cites the quiet and gentle ending as one possible reason for this – but as she says, there is no reason to treat it as inferior to the first work in F minor.

If anything, the appeal of the second sonata is more immediate than the first. Beethoven’s mood is playful right from the start, with a glint in the eye as the clipped phrases of the first tune are announced. This is one of many instances where the silence around the tune is every bit as important as the notes themselves – and we are drawn into the charm and impish nature of the writing. Beethoven’s development of his ideas is bold, but the wit still shines through.

The second movement is a soft reverie, graceful and hymn like, but with a walking bass that could easily have come from a Haydn symphony, showing how Beethoven is now treating the piano like an orchestra. This lovely, calm water is interrupted briefly by a minor-key middle section, but becomes the prevailing mood by the end.

The third movement is classed as a Scherzo and exhibits the qualities you would expect with that label, returning to the playful mood of the first movement. For the trio section in the middle Beethoven moves from the key of A major to A minor and a more strident passage of music – but then switches on the charm again before the end.

As with Op.2/1 the last movement is substantial, bringing together the different moods of the previous three. It flows rather nicely, with a bright disposition but with the odd moment of shade. The calm finish is rather touching, as though Beethoven has said all he needs to say and is setting down his pen with a sigh of satisfaction.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)

There are some excellent recordings of this piece, which as Paul Badura-Skoda illustrates sounds really good on the fortepiano. Angela Hewitt is characteristically detailed, and almost a little shy in the first and third movements, which really suits Beethoven’s writing. András Schiff is very relaxed in his choice of tempi for the first and third movements especially, but justifies this with pure melodic phrasing.

Claudio Arrau gets the balance perfectly aligned. Emil Gilels spends almost as much time in the slow movement, where he gets lost (in a wholly good way) in the music until a stern middle section. Igor Levit, the most recently released version, throws off the third movement with some style, and signs off with a flowing finale.

The playlist below accommodates all the versions described above except that by Angela Hewitt:

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1795 Haydn Piano Trio in E-flat minor Hob.XV:31 .

Next up Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3