Wigmore Mondays – Belcea Quartet: Recollections of Hans Keller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (cello)] Photo (c) Marco Borggreve

Haydn String Quartet in D minor Op.76/2 ‘Fifths’ (1797) (4:27 – 25:22 on the broadcast link)
Britten String Quartet no.3 Op.94 (1975) (28:18 – 56:35)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 March 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Hans Keller was one of the great musicologists and musical writers of the 20th century, and this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall marked the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday.

Despite his obvious talents as a writer and analyst Keller was a divisive figure, his forthright views often creating controversy, but the notes for the program accompanying this concert reflected a deeply passionate listener who simply loved the music of Haydn and Britten.

For Keller, Haydn was ‘musical history’s greatest thematic economist’ – a point borne out by the String Quartet in D minor Op.76/2. The nicknames applied to some of Haydn’s best-loved works are evocative, even if they do relegate some more deserving works to the sidelines. The ‘Fifths’ for this quartet refer not just to the melodic intervals in the first theme of the first movement (from 4:27 on the broadcast), where Corina Belcea’s first violin took an authoritative lead in this performance, but to the second theme too.

The discourse of the first movement was extremely satisfying in this performance, the Belcea Quartet lingering on one particularly spicy chord () while providing energy and passion. The second movement Andante (11:45), more a graceful minuet than a slow movement, had some lovely moments of radiance from all four players, with a lightness of touch carrying the whole way through.

In complete contrast the Menuetto itself (17:42) wore a stern expression, dramatically poised as its canon played out between upper and lower parts. It did relent a little however for its trio section (18:58), Haydn slipping into the major key for a rustic dance. Here the Belcea Quartet judged the speeds just right, leaning on the down beat perfectly, before the gruff Minuetto theme returned (20:16).

The finale, marked Vivace assai (21:11), began with a hushed urgency, the main theme a little flighty in Corina Belcea’s hands, but by the time Haydn transported the music into the major key the quartet had an assertive grip on the performance.

Hans Keller, as captured by his wife, the artist Milein Cosman

Benjamin Britten loved the music of Haydn, declaring ‘If I feel down when I go to bed, I take a Haydn quartet with me. It’s all in there.’ His own contributions to the string quartet have proved to be long lasting, but the third – dedicated to Hans Keller who had been persisting that Britten write it – is an extraordinary piece.

Britten conceived it in five movements which might look unconventional on paper, but which translate to an extremely clever interpretation of the traditional sonata form, impressing his friend Keller greatly. However the technical achievements are not at the expense of emotion, as the Belcea Quartet showed here. The first movement, Duets (28:18) pairs second violin with viola – Axel Schacher and Krzysztof Chorzelski beginning authoritatively – before first violin and cello add their thoughts (Belcea and Antoine Lederlin in similar unity of voice).

A scabrous Ostinato movement follows (34:24), the quartet stretched to their limits by Britten’s ‘multiple stopping’ (several notes played at once on each instrument) and on the edge emotionally, but brilliantly played here.

It felt like time ceased to exist for the Solo movement (38:04), Belcea finding a radiant calm in a hall so silent that even a passing tube train could be heard underneath. This was a deeply felt but incredibly free account from the violinist, its central section like a swift on the wing with no restrictions of movement or direction until pure stillness from 42:31.

Following this the forthright Burlesque (43:38), with its elements of Shostakovich, came as something of a shock – but led inevitably into the final Recitative and Passacaglia, subtitled La Serenissima (46:23). The shafts of bright light at the opening are unmistakeably linked to Aldeburgh, and here the quartet found yet another higher plain, Britten’s last substantial work playing out his last days but taking his leave in music of great restraint and beauty.

The reassuring rising motif of the Passacaglia (from 49:22) sets a firm base, from which Britten spins a number of variations. It ends openly (56:08), on a remarkable chord – as Keller says ‘a non-end’, Britten effectively declaring ‘I’m not dead yet’. It is a calling card for his music, restraint packed with hidden emotion – and the Belcea Quartet found its heart unerringly.

Further reading and listening

For more on Britten’s String Quartet no.3, you can visit this entry on the Good Morning Britten blog – an anniversary tribute to the composer from 2013 from yours truly.

Meanwhile the music played in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below, including the Belcea Quartet’s own recording of the Britten:

The six works making up Haydn’s Op.76 represent the pinnacle of his writing for string quartet, and can be heard below in one of several fine available versions, this one from the Hungarian Takács String Quartet:

Britten’s contribution to the string quartet repertoire is hardly negligible itself, mind, and Keller was in great awe of the String Quartet no.2 in particular. Here is a link to the Belcea Quartet’s recordings of that, the extrovert D major String Quartet no.1 and the youthful but assured 3 Divertimenti:

Wigmore Mondays – Mariam Batsashvili plays Bach, Haydn & Liszt

Mariam Batsashvili (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903 (c1720) (1:45 – 13:19 on the broadcast link below)

Haydn Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (1780) (13:59-24:20)

Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C sharp minor S244/12 (25:39-35:15)

Liszt, edited Busoni & Leslie Howard: Fantasy on themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni S697 (1842) (36:40-55:20)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 February 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Mariam Batsashvili has made a name for herself as a specialist in the music of one of the most masculine of piano composers. Franz Liszt is regarded very much as a showman, his music often thought to be for virtuosos only who will play it with as much blood and thunder.

However as the Georgian pianist Batsashvili showed here that does not always have to be the case. Her Liszt has its fair share of drama and power, for sure – no let-up there – but hers is a very musical approach, getting beneath the surface to show Liszt’s other compositional talents.

Before Liszt, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue from J.S. Bach – one of his pieces that does if anything look forward towards the free form Liszt and his contemporaries would use. Played on a piano it has a strong, instinctive flow – something Batsashvili gets into immediately as the Fantasy plays. With ideal use of the sustain pedal and enough sense of freedom, she delivers an un-showy but very strong musical performance, with a fugue notable for its clarity and expression from 8:14, gathering intensity as it progresses.

Having reached the sunny key of D major by the end of the Bach, Batsashvili stayed out on stage and in the same key while changing composer. Joseph Haydn wrote a large number of piano sonatas, the early examples of which were for friends. This good natured Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (from 13:59) was for the sisters Franziska and Maria Katherina von Auenbrugger, who judging by this were positive souls with a sense of humour and strong technique.

Haydn’s own wit is there in the main theme from the start, and the busy figuration suggests the sisters had pretty nimble fingers too. The slow movement (marked Largo, from 18:22) takes a pensive turn in the minor key, with spicy harmonies suggesting some discomfort. That is removed by the finale (marked Presto ma non troppo, from 21:15), which takes us near to the spirited mood of the first movement if not fully shaking off the doubts recently aired.

Liszt wrote a total of 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, celebrating his home country in music of great passion and virtuosity, and often incorporating folk tunes into the mix. The Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C#minor S244/12 (25:39) starts with suitable drama and contrasts jagged left hand playing with more delicate tunes in the treble, particularly the twinkling, skipping dance at 31:14 when the harmonies turn from minor key to major. Batsashvili finds an exquisite delicacy in this music, sweet but not overly bearing and beautifully played.

Liszt also wrote a number of some incredible fantasies based on existing opera themes. The tour de force heard here, which he premiered in Berlin in 1843, takes themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni as the starting point, working them into a big-boned piece. This was reworked by Busoni, but left incomplete. Leslie Howard, who has recorded the entire piano works of Liszt for Hyperion, added the missing pieces to the jigsaw using the thematic material Liszt was dealing with, and staying true to his spirit and style.

Coincidentally or not, all the themes are from arias dealing with the ‘dangers of philandering’, as Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch puts it – suggesting there is far more to Liszt’s arrangements than might initially meet the eye.

Batsashvali skips through the opening breezily, but the warning notes in the left hand are there to check progress – before we move into a delightfully played slower selection. Her pacing of the drama feels just right, especially the lead-up to 49:16 and another new theme. The principal material for the piece comes from Cherubino’s aria Voi che sapete and Figaro’s Non più andrai (both from Le nozze di Figaro) and the minuet scene from Don Giovanni. These themes are interwoven and developed to make a substantial whole, with the real big guns coming out for the coda, which Batsashvili plays with considerable panache up to 55:20.

As an encore she gave us two more Liszt arrangements on a much smaller scale. These were two of Chopin’s Polish SongsThe Ring and Bacchanal – and are included below.

Further Listening

Mariam Batsashvili has recorded Liszt’s operatic fantasy, but not the other works in this program – so the playlist below comprises recommended versions of the Bach, Haydn and Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody:

Liszt made a number of transcriptions of the music of Bach – and in particular his Preludes and Fugues. Artur Pizarro collected a good deal of these together for an album for Collins Classics:

Haydn’s piano sonatas do not always get the credit they deserve – so to hear more, listen to this wonderful collection from Alfred Brendel:

Talking Heads: Ian Page

Arcana has an audience with Ian Page, conductor and artistic director of Classical Opera and The Mozartists. We are talking about Mozart’s stay in London, which the group have put under the microscope with a handsome release on Signum Classics last year. It is all part of Page’s ambitious Mozart 250 enterprise, an imaginative project bringing Mozart’s career to life not just through his own music but through that of his contemporaries.

Page recalls how the latest CD project began. “We had some of the programs from the actual concerts to work with, which was four and half concerts’ worth. There is so much stuff that he did when he was here that was very surprising, that we won’t have heard, but there were things that they did that ended up in the music library in Salzburg. It was such a wide range of music.”

Mozart lived in London for just over a year, from 23 April 1764 until 24 July 1765 – and was only eight when moving to the capital. Despite that, there is a surprising amount of music from his pen – and from his contemporaries. “I didn’t realise there was so much in London!” admits Page. “Loads of those were composers I had never heard of, and I’m supposed to be a specialist! There was one composer we didn’t feature, who was in the programmes but didn’t end up on the CD – an Italian guy called Mateo Ventor, who wrote an opera called La della fonte which Mozart would definitely have heard. We decided in the end that two CDs’ worth was right, and because they were all live concerts there was one CDs’ worth that you couldn’t discern if it was studio or not. For the second CD there were some minor blemishes. I thought it best to get over myself and get the repertoire out there, because there is so much worth hearing! It’s funny coming to it after doing the operas in studio recordings, where you have a choice of versions.”

Even now it is difficult to reconcile how Mozart was so young when he wrote what he did. Page has a theory. “I think it’s a testament also to the quality of stuff that was going on. He was such a magpie. You know the Abel Symphony that people thought was by Mozart? It’s an understandable mistake to make, because it’s genuinely a really top quality piece.”

It seems London will be the start of a Europe-wide venture. “I’m hoping to do a similar one for Mozart in Italy,” he explains, “because a lot of stuff survived that we know he heard when he was in Italy, and some degree of a score survived – complete operas this time. I haven’t had a chance yet to work out if they are any good or not, because it does rather rely on that, and not releasing things for the sake of it.”

I try to cast Ian’s mind back to the research he did before deciding to embark on Mozart 250, assuming it must have been an astonishing amount. “I genuinely can’t remember when I first had the idea”, he recalls, “but it was the sort of stuff we were doing with Classical Opera, so it made sense to package it. Part of it was a reaction against lazy programming, and having an anniversary for the sake of it. I remember when the 2006 anniversary happened, and I felt that nobody would want to hear Mozart in 2007 because of the exhaustive nature of the programming. It is a similar story with the Beethoven one coming up in 2020. It seems to me that the whole reason to celebrate something is to make it more part of our lives in the long term. The Mozart 250 came well after that, but I suddenly thought it would be a great way to mark it, and the temerity of it made me giggle because I’m not generally someone who plans things out. To be able to say we’re doing Idomeneo in 2031 is just something that makes me laugh!”

It has distinct advantages too. “It means every season you don’t start off with a blank canvas. Recently we did Haydn’s Applausus, and if we didn’t do it this year we would have missed the boat! I do find I have this growing sort of paranoia that I’m going to come across this neglected masterpiece that was written 251 years ago! It’s been a lot more research since having the idea. Even something like Applausus, where I knew about it and was interested in doing it, as soon as there was a rationale for doing it, it makes those choices. Similarly in 2016 we did the opera Apollo et Hyacinthus, it was because Mozart didn’t write much in that year. It worried me that it wasn’t going to be a great year, but all it means is that you dig a little bit deeper. I think 1769 is the other ‘weak’ year where there is very little Mozart and Haydn, one Gluck – and again it just means you look sideways a bit more.”

The reputations of Mozart’s fellow composers have been boosted. “I’ve been surprised by how much that contemporary stuff has taken off more at the moment than Mozart’s writing in a way. In January we did a retrospective at the Wigmore Hall of 1768 in general, and I’m still toying at late notice with a potential window in November where we might put in the whole of the Hasse opera we did an aria from, because it was done so well. It is a balancing act between long term planning and when you do find something that really merits unearthing.”

Our discussion shifts to the dangers of lazy programming – specifically how poor Haydn is often shunted to the start of a concert, rather than being made the main feature a lot of his work deserves. Page agrees. “Yes, and it’s always one of the symphonies with a nickname. There is so much else. For Applausus he wrote a wonderful letter with instructions on what he wanted them to do. He said if you tell me the date of the performance, I’ll try and dash off an overture for you, but if not all you need is an Allegro and Andante from a Symphony in C major, because the first movement grows out of it. So we did the first movement of the Symphony no.38, and the players and the audience just loved it! He just didn’t write bad music, it’s extraordinary. Most composers did, but what struck me with Applausus was the consistency of the writing.”

Is Mozart a little more variable? “Slightly,” he agrees. “We’ll definitely do all the operas, and all the concert arias, and I think the symphonies we will do most of. They were so much more flexible in those days, you could easily turn an opera overture into a symphony. There is a danger of getting a bit completist and worthy with the project, but there is also a lot of interesting stuff. What really plays into our hands I think is that because we have chosen to specialise so closely on a particular era, you feel how the players would have felt at the time. Of course our players branch out into all sorts of other repertoire, like Handel and Schubert, but for Mozart In London, we had a week of rehearsals and half way through we suddenly found that we were in the idiom. The stuff we did in days four and five we picked up immediately, because we were so immersed. That was really interesting to get a feel for what the players felt, because they had not had to jump from France or Italy, they were doing music from their own city where composers came, where there was no outside influence.”

What was the reason the Mozart family came over? “I think the Mozart family does get a bit of bad press here, but it is also swings and roundabouts, and I think Leopold (Mozart’s father) did cash in on it a bit. I do think when they left Salzburg it was not necessarily part of the plan. He knew they were going to go to Paris, but what they found was that everybody on the road said to them that they must go to London. They tagged it on, and then stayed for 15 months. The argument is that it wasn’t so much a musical education as a general one, a fermenting pot. Mozart’s dad brought a hi-tech microscope when he was in London, and brought it back to Salzburg. There was lots going on – the letters Leopold wrote talk about a Westminster pavement, and streetlights that stayed on all night, so he says this is the city that never sleeps – because they were not used to not having blackouts at night! Things like that are so interesting, and I love those sideways bits. Blackfriars Bridge was under construction, for instance. The letters are so colourful. His dad drank English beer, and complained about it, and then had to pay more money to buy Italian wine instead!”

“The other thing that is a ridiculously tiny detail was reading about the people that were around. Two things happened, one was that all the choral works tended to have all the same singers in them, so after work no.10 the same 20 singers would know all the stuff. Thomas Arne and John Beard, who were running the scene at the time, were known as Tommy and Johnny, which transforms them – Tommy Arne sounds like a wide boy! It gives the period so much more colour. Mozart’s dad wrote all these letters and kept a travel diary, so they went to the Tower of London, and visited the menagerie and the zoo, where Mozart was terrified of the lions. He couldn’t stand the noise! His sister writes of seeing these striped donkeys she’d never seen before! It was a really lovely time reading those. I started this word document with all the pieces we know were performed, at Covent Garden, Drury Lane and Haymarket, were listed. There were notes on the orchestration but for the English repertoire we had to orchestrate some from short score, pocket size. I probably rejected around 80% of the options!”

As you will have gathered, Page is a great storyteller, and agrees that the double album they have completed is as much a portrait of London as it is Mozart. “Yes, and it’s funny how these things dawn on you later. The Applausus that we did, about two months ago I thought I hadn’t come across a single piece of reference to its performance in the UK. I got in touch with the Handel and Haydn Society and they didn’t think it had been done either! There are often reasons but even then the contemplation of why some pieces survive – Bolero and Karelia Suite, where the composers wonder why are they listening to that, it’s not what I wanted to be remembered for! When we were doing the Mozart in London a couple of months after we did a concert of the full J.C.Bach opera Adriano in Siria, and that was fantastic music, really strong and beautifully crafted, like beautiful furniture, the work of a craftsman.”

Was it easy to get interest from record companies around the Mozart 250 project? “With Signum the initial agreement was to do a complete Mozart cycle which we had started two years previously with Linn. Signum were one of not many labels who would let us bring in our own team. If I said I wanted to work with Andrew Mellor they were fine, whereas most would have their own team. There is a freedom about it, and they loved the idea of Mozart 250, and loved the idea of planning to record one opera per year for the next 20 years, of which we are now seven in. That’s a strong background, and then the idea and hope is we will be able to do one other disc per year, so we’ve done discs with Sophie Bevan and Allan Clayton, which is a disc slightly linked to this with some John Beard stuff.”

Page remembers the audience reaction to the first Mozart 250 concerts. “It was very niche, our first time at Milton Court. The audiences were very small, and I know of only a few dozen who treated it as a whole weekend, where most chose the concerts they wanted to come to. There was an amazing sense among the people who were there, a wonderful feeling that they were grateful we were doing this repertoire. A couple of players have said to me in the last six months that the Mozart In London series was their favourite project, because of the immersion. I think it’s growing.”

“The ability to listen to everything in context is what it’s all about. I’ve just been conducting Beethoven’s Choral Symphony for our twentieth anniversary, and it has really whetted my appetite. I feel that with the Beethoven anniversary brewing, it doesn’t need wall to wall Beethoven, it needs something else and more context.”
Thinking ahead, he says, “It will be interesting to see if we’re having a similar conversation in five years’ time, because for Beethoven my brain is probably where it was for Mozart 250 two years before that. In my head my challenge is to come up with an acceptable program for each symphony, and sometimes it might be as simple as devising the program that was done when it was premiered. I would shy away from doing the famous example with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and the Fourth Piano Concerto, but maybe do the one with the Fourth Symphony and the Violin Concerto which is interesting. As you say looking sideways is interesting. Another thing I am interested in is Beethoven playing the viola in Bonn for a number of years, and I think there is research going on to see what the repertoire was. They did operas there as well, and that would make a fascinating weekend of concerts I think, to explore what he was playing.”

“In the first half of the Beethoven 9 concert we did an aria with chorus from the Cantata for Leopold II, which is an amazing piece. There is a very good recording by the Corydon Singers and Orchestra with Matthew Best on Hyperion, and tracks four and five – a soprano aria leading to a chorus – just make sure you’re listening in a darkened room and turn those two tracks up. They will blow you away!”

Creative juices flowing, he thinks further ahead. “For the Pastoral Symphony, I’m thinking it would be great to explore the possibility of doing a first half of nature arias for the creation and seasons, or some of the other program symphonies that were being written at the time. It needs something else to package them together – rather than doing something like the last three Mozart symphonies together in a single concert. You know that it’s not what the composer had in mind.”

There are further clues from Beethoven on how the order of performance has changed over the centuries. “There is a Beethoven letter about which way round to do the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and he says that when you’ve got the real meat of the program you should do it in the first half when the audience is fresh, rather than in the second. That’s so interesting I think. The other thing they did a lot of I think is mixing genres, to have a solo piece and a symphonic piece together is quite refreshing.”

There is a hint of frustration in his voice, despite the accompanying smile. “Everything else we know about the composers shows them to be extraordinarily inventive minds, so why would we not be led by their best views to present a concert? It’s funny, the sliding scales we have – nobody would dream of playing the wrong note on purpose, but we’re quite cavalier about dynamics or scoring or seating.”

Back to the Mozart 250 project – and an important element of it being the commitment to young artists, keeping them part of the framework in which Page presents the music. “It is important, yes,” he agrees, “and imperceptibly, in recent years, we have started to say that we’re now quite often working with designated young artist’s projects. The Haydn that we performed, we had worked with some of the artists for three years, and some were making their first appearance with the company. Jacques Imbrailo is a singer we have worked with a lot over the years, and in fact he is on the most recent recording that we released in the Autumn, with a really intriguing Mozart piece called Grabmusik:

He wrote it just when he came back to Salzburg after his grand tour. The story behind it is that the Archbishop of Salzburg locked him in solitary confinement, because he thought this portfolio of compositions could not have been written without help from his dad, so he said, “You’re not to see anyone, and here’s a text – you set it – as a text!” We think this was the result, a cantata for bass and soprano. Jacques recorded that with us, and in my mind that, along with the first symphony, is what you want to wow someone with when you think of what Mozart did as a kid.”

Page is rightly proud of the young artists initiative, heartily endorsed as it is. “Jacques wrote a lovely testimonial for us recently, and he said about the first time he appeared with us, which was a Wigmore Hall concert, where he was sharing the stage with Philip Langridge, a hero of his. He said that nobody else was doing that where you can appear on level pegging with someone like that. And of course the Mozart is young music, it’s healthy in the same way that Handel is – the singers the composers were writing for had a life expectancy that was so much shorter. There are some staggering things, like the original Barbarina who as 12. Hamina was 17. What I find now we’ve been going long enough to reap the benefits of it. When we do have people like Allan Clayton or Jacques, it’s like an old friendship, and it might have been a couple of years but within five minutes there’s a shared language. It’s that much quicker to get to the nub of what we’re doing. If anything now we’re becoming more international and working with up and coming European talent.”

How does he discover the up and coming artists? “Sometimes I do hit a brick wall, especially if an opera is almost all cast, so it can be that the last role takes ages to fill up. When we did Figaro years ago we hadn’t cast the Figaro 6 months before, and I’d heard up to 20 people – and it was not until I flew to Sweden that we were able to fill it. To be fair now that we have a reputation a lot of the agents will come to us and suggest things. When we started out I went to every college opera but now I don’t have so much time. It’s quite lucky in a way not being Arts Council-funded, as we don’t have as much of an obligation. I’ll be quite selective about who I audition but when they do I will give them a good 45 minutes, and it’s not just about how they sing it’s about how intelligent they are, how they respond to direction. Ideally by the time we start rehearsals they are already those characters and that is usually a barometer.”

Their experiences are intriguing. “Sometimes it is a case of people having a sequence of bad experiences, not being treated very well! A good example is a tour we had to Italy around ten, twenty years back, where the bus didn’t turn up to take us to the venue. Instead of arriving there at 1 o’clock for lunch and a 2:30 rehearsal we arrived at 2:20. The orchestra went into this dark cloud, and nobody said anything! They had assumed they were not going to have any lunch that day because of the delay. It was such an eye opener that their assumption was that. Sometimes it is a bit of a battle to begin with because people are used to fighting their corner rather than collaborating. I do think the world is changing now though, with all the stuff coming out about bullying – it’s well overdue I think.”

Mozart is often highlighted as the most difficult composer to perform. Is that a statement to which Page would hold true? “Well Glyndebourne are doing this ‘Glyndebourne Cup’, every other year, and this time around they focussed on Mozart. They made a film called something like ‘Why Mozart is so difficult’ and I think that is immediately a disastrous starting point, you have to make it something positive to get away from the fear. I do love that Schnabel quote about Mozart about how it’s too easy for children and too difficult for adults. There is something not elusive but it’s a lifetime’s work. Every time I come back to the du Ponte operas there is always the feeling of how I did that last time, and was I really that stupid?!”

Is that the sign of a great work? “Yes, I think so”, he nods. “I remember when I first started out and for 18 months by chance I alternated for six months between Mozart and Britten operas. It was the most perfect complement, and with Verdi – it’s obviously great – but it’s so melody-led. With Mozart and Britten it is the synergy between text and emotion in the music which I love. There is something endlessly challenging about the Mozart operas but you need to think beyond them as difficult. The challenge is to be so immersed that you don’t realise how things are going. Bernstein talked about the act of performing as being the same as composing, and I think that is always the goal. We recorded Bastienne and I had already dismissed it, but when we recorded the dialogues we did something that made us laugh, and we thought we have to capture that on CD, or we lose the spirit of it! I haven’t had the first edit back yet but I’m hoping that comes across, the genuine feeling of people being happy and having fun. We’ve steered clear of the Mozart piano concertos so far, although we did well with Kristian Bezuidenhout last summer. I’ve got such a Perahia-like vision in my head so it is difficult to shift from that, but when you listen to Denis Mathews and Solomon it’s magical. It is not always a case of the more we evolve the closer we get to perfection!”

Wigmore Mondays – Juilliard Quartet play Lembit Beecher & Dvořák ‘American’ string quartets

Juilliard String Quartet: Areta Zhulla, Ronald Copes (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Astrid Schween (cello) (photo: Claudia Papapietro)

Lembit Beecher One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time (2018) (2:25-23:52 on the link to BBC Sounds below)
Dvořák String Quartet in F major Op.96 ‘American’ (1893) (26:42-54:11)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 14 January 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The Juilliard String Quartet are a very different proposition now to when they were formed in 1946. In the analogue recording years string quartets were almost wholly formed of white male players, and it has been very satisfying to see the trend broadening in the last couple of decades. The Juilliards themselves appear to have hit on a perfect blend of youth and experience, with first violinist Areta Zhulla joining their ranks for the 2018/19 season. On this evidence it has given them a real shot in the arm, helped by their willingness to bring with them a new work from Lembit Beecher. This gave their Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert a symmetrical feel, for Beecher’s new work for string quartet draws from Europe and more specifically Estonia – while Dvořák’s most celebrated ‘American’ String Quartet finds him writing in America but using a melodic style common to both the USA and the Czech Republic.

Beecher first, and the European premiere of One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time. The intriguing title takes as its lead an Estonian melody, a waltz written by Beecher’s grand uncle Ilmar Kiiss, now in his mid-90s. This meaningful piece of music puts its head above the parapet in the first two of the three movements making up the quartet, before fully revealing itself in the third. The movements themselves represent different generations and their telling of the same story, which becomes less detailed as one generation passes to the next. As a result the first contains more definitive incidents, the second is more shadowy and less focussed in detail but poignant in mood, and the third, while recalling the attractive waltz in charming detail, is slower in its movements.

In concert this is a very effective piece of music not just to listen to but to watch. The busy conversations of the first movement (2:25 on the broadcast link) feel as though Beecher had set words to music, removing them just before performance, and making the first violin the loudest voice. This reaches a natural apex through Zhulla’s faultless higher register playing (from 5:10), before subsiding in volume and intensity, to some unusually emotional figures around 7:15 that simply dies on the string.

The second movement (from 11:51) uses subtle but effective techniques such as harmonics to create the shadowy effects, while from 14:51 a sudden injection of pace and volume gets an excitable conversation going again. The tender waltz theme would seem to be from 16:58 on the viola, before the violin ascends to the heights.

The third movement (from 18:39) has mottled textures and a slight lethargy, as though the memories are more difficult to place. Again the violin’s voice is loudest, but the shady movements of the others and the closing tremolos (from around 22:25) give a fragile and autumnal air to proceedings. All these elements were superbly marshalled in performance by the Juilliard Quartet, and made you want to hear more of Beecher’s music.

The Juilliard’s performance of the Dvořák, meanwhile, was a joy. This much-played work – one of the most popular string quartets there is, together with the Debussy and the Ravel works – rediscovers its freshness here. This is thanks in part to Zhulla’s clear affection for the piece. After Roger Tapping’s viola gives a silvery exposition of the first tune, she leads with a beautiful tone once again (26:57), enjoying the outdoor nature of the pentatonic melodies – which, as Gerald Larner’s programme note helpfully point out, seem to be equal parts Bohemia and Iowa. (The pentatonic scale, as its name implies, is made up of just five notes – in this case F (the home key), G, A, C and D). Although Dvořák was on a lengthy vacation when he wrote the string quartet, and was doubtless influenced by the melodies he heard in America, there is never the feeling that his Czech heritage is far away. The sentimental second theme (28:21) bears this out.

Meanwhile Zhulla and cellist Astrid Schween capture the bittersweet main melody of the slow movement to perfection (37:18) and (38:03), the rocking motion of its accompaniment acting as a lullaby. The ensemble enjoys the scampering figures of the Scherzo (44:47) before a brief Trio section (46:58) brings forward what the composer believed to be the song of the scarlet tanager in the first violin. The Scherzo resumes shortly after at 47:44.

The finale (48:52) is bold and positive in this performance, the quartet enjoying the abundance of tunes available to them – most of them taking in the pentatonic scale once again, with a rustic, outdoor feel.

With the bonus of a Haydn encore in the same key and mood (the Minuet from his Op.77/2 quartet at 56:06), this was the ideal January concert, an inspiring and optimistic pairing of works that celebrate the diversity of culture but also look at the heritage of each and bring them together. A lesson for the future in this country, perhaps?

Further Listening

Lembit Beecher’s One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time is not currently available online; however you can listen below to his previous work for string quartet, Small Infinities:

The Juilliard String Quartet recorded Dvořák’s American string quartet all the way back in 1968 – yet that version does not appear to have yet reached Spotify. The below link is to a recent disc from the Škampa Quartet, coupling the quartet with the String Quintet in E flat major published immediately after. It is similarly free-spirited:

Further Reading

Lembit Beecher’s composer website contains detailed information on his output, with a healthy dose of videos and audio tracks. Meanwhile you can read more about the Juilliard String Quartet at their website. For a biography of Antonin Dvořák, this dedicated site to the composer is recommended.

Wigmore Mondays: Chiaroscuro Quartet play Haydn & Schubert

Chiaroscuro Quartet (Alina Ibragimova, Pablo Hernán Benedí (violins), Emilie Hörnlund (viola), Claire Thirion (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in E flat major Op.33/2 ‘Joke’ (1781) (1:43
Schubert String Quartet in A minor D804 ‘Rosamunde’ (1824) (21:32-54:10)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 1 October 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

This concert was due to be headed by clarinetist Annelien Van Hauwe, but sadly due to personal circumstances she was not able to join the Chiaruoscuro Quartet for Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Instead the quartet provided an autumnal work from their repertoire, Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor. This is known as the Rosamunde, for its slow movement contains a tune from the incidental music Schubert wrote to the play.

First, however, we had one of Haydn’s great early quartets. The composer already had two substantial sets of six quartets under his belt, published as Op.17 and Op.20 (the Sun quartets), and continued his expansion of the string quartet as the primary form of chamber music with six more, published as Op.33 in 1781. The second of these was subtitled The Joke, with a punchline making itself clear in the last movement.

Before that came an enjoyable first movement Allegro moderato (from 1:43 on the broadcast). This was a little bit sinewy in the sound initially, but it was played with a nice air and a hint of the humour that was to flourish later on. The perky second movement (7:02) found a slightly more detached approach from Ibragimova, but was given a sprightly step. By contrast the slow movement (10:21) felt very down at hand initially, with lean bow strokes from the players, with quite a savage intervention halfway through.

Perhaps this was to emphasise the humour of the skittish finale, beginning at 15:27. The tune is a fun one and was played as such, especially when the false endings began at 18:25 – after which point the audience enjoyed second guessing when the piece would actually finish. Haydn – even now – would have been smiling.

The Schubert (beginning at 21:32) enjoyed moments of great beauty in a performance stressing the softer nature of his quartet writing. With a very quiet start, the first movement developed into an engaging and often imposing argument as the main theme was modified and passed around – before returning, still in sombre mood, at 29:50.

The Rosamunde movement, starting at 34:01, was quite plaintive to start with but like the first movement grew in stature, its lyricism also more evident. The Scherzo was much darker, its shadowy outlines from 40:54 lightly sketched by the cello. The fragility of this music found shafts of light from its accompanying Trio section, with just a couple of squeaks in the upper register from the violin, before the scherzo material itself returned at 45:20.

The finale had a forthright, martial character (from 47:29) and found the firm resolution that the other movements had noticeably held back on – completing a thought provoking and carefully thought out performance from a very fine quartet.

Further listening

The music heard in this concert, including the Chiaroscuro’s recording of the Schubert, can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

The Chiaroscuro have recorded Haydn’s set of six quartets Op.20, which appear in the two album links below, showing off the early innovations made by the composer in the form. Entertaining, too!

For more information on the Chiaroscuro Quartet, head to their website