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

Wigmore Mondays: Trio Wanderer & Christophe Gaugué play Fauré & Haydn

Trio Wanderer (above – Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian (violin), Raphaël Pidoux (cello), Vincent Coq (piano); Christophe Gaugué (viola)

Haydn Piano Trio in A flat major HXV:14 (1790) (1:47-20:05)
Fauré Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor Op.45 (1886) (23:34-54:44)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 11 June 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

The piano trio is a common means of expression in chamber music, but in the last few years its live profile has taken a hit, with the retirement of the legendary Beaux Arts and Florestan Trios.

Having achieved 25 years together as an ensemble, Trio Wanderer have a very important role to play in keeping this music visible (and audible!) to concertgoers, and at the Wigmore Hall they demonstrated why they are such a highly regarded act.

It is gratifying to note their most recent recording goes back to Haydn, and a choice selection of his Piano Trios. The composer – acknowledged godfather of the symphony and the string quartet – played a similarly important role in raising the profile of the Piano Trio. Initially his works viewed the violin and cello as accompanying forces rather than dominant melodic instruments, but by the end of his forty or so works in the genre he was showing signs of bucking that trend.

The Piano Trio in A flat major is numbered relatively early in the catalogue and dates from the composer’s second visit to London, where the pianist in its 1792 premiere was the fledgling composer Johann Nepomiuk Hummel. It is a highly appealing work, and here enjoyed a performance of sunny disposition from Trio Wanderer.

They were however alive to some of the work’s unexpected diversions, noting the surprise of the two-bar silence in the first movement (from 1:47 on the broadcast), and the uncertainty of its central section as the main theme underwent some quirky development.

The slow movement (9:40) took the form of an aria, with a sweet tone from violinist Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, and this led straight to an exuberant finale (14:44), with nimble passage work and cross rhythms from pianist Vincent Coq. This was one of Haydn’s forays into a ‘rare’ key – A flat major being difficult for strings to play in – but the Wanderer made it a highly enjoyable one.

The Fauré Piano Quartet no.2 in G minor was a tour de force. This is a wonderful piece, bursting with energy and passion but also taking time in its slower movements for deep, romantic thought. The stormy outer movements were contrasted by a slow movement that here vividly recalled the sleepy church bells of the village of Cadirac, on which Fauré’s writing is based.

The surging opening theme (from 23:34) set the tone, perfectly phrased, with the balance – often tricky to weight with such an active piano part – ideally set. Christophe Gaugué’s viola delivered a beautiful second theme (24:27), while the ensemble in unison found a rare moment of tenderness in this movement for the third (26:21). When the main tune returned (29:36) there was even more intent and power behind it, brilliantly conveyed.

The scherzo (33:50) was dazzling, Vincent Coq somehow phrasing a really tricky theme to perfection, with precise rhythmic accompaniment from the three strings. The slow movement (37:34) undulated softly, bringing visions of hazy fields in hot weather, before the reverie was abruptly shattered by the finale (46:57), back into the passionate groove, delivered with impressive intent by the ensemble. Tempo choices were assertive – just the right side of aggressive – and the final sweep towards the finish carried all before it!

Further listening

You can hear recordings of these works made by the Trio Wanderer for Harmonia Mundi. The Haydn has only just been released as part of a double album of some of the composer’s finest Piano Trios; the Fauré is recorded with Antoine Tamestit and dates from 2010.

Fauré has more wonderful chamber music up his sleeve, and if you enjoyed this performance of the Piano Quartet no.2 then the Piano Quintet no.1 is highly recommended as a next step:

City AM: Music While You Work

If you live in London, hopefully you have picked up a copy of City AM this morning. If you have, and read the Office Politics section, you’ll have seen my piece about the benefits of listening to classical music while you work.

I really wanted to share those with you here, so please find below links to a playlist on Spotify that will hopefully float your boat!

If you want some specific advice on music to listen to, or want to share an opinion, please get in touch! Send me an e-mail or get in touch over Twitter

Wigmore Mondays: Leon McCawley plays Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven & Hans Gál

Leon McCawley (piano, above – photo credit Clive Barta)

Haydn Piano Sonata in C minor, HXVI:20 (1771) (1:41 on the broadcast link – 18:08)

Hans Gál Three Preludes, Op 65 (1944) (19:34 – 28:12)

Chopin 2 Nocturnes, Op 37 (1838-9) (29:32-42:07)

Beethoven 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 (1806) (44:07 – 53:49)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 5 March 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

Leon McCawley is an enterprising pianist who looks to play both the familiar and the unfamiliar, as his intriguing discography for the Somm and Avie labels shows. This concert, carefully planned, distilled this approach into an engrossing hour’s music of darkness and light.

The darkness was present in the works of the program inhabiting minor keys, especially those by Haydn, the first by Chopin, and the towering Variations of Beethoven.

Haydn first (from 1:41 on the broadcast) – one of his many Sonatas for piano that helped revolutionise the instrument’s reach and capacity. This particular example had a first movement (from 1:41, marked Moderato) that was surprisingly reserved and doleful for its composer, as though he had something on his mind.

McCawley moved into an equally serious Andante con moto (from 8:53), but as this settled a more lyrical approach took hold, rather like an aria. Brightening as the movement progressed, its elegance was countered by the finale (marked Allegro, from 13:46), which was detached in its delivery from McCawley, becoming more worked up as the themes were developed before a darker end at 18:08.

The Hans Gál pieces were undoubtedly the curiosity of the program. Gál’s renaissance of recent years has unearthed some very interesting music. A Jewish composer, he had to flee the Nazi regiment in the 1930s for the UK. Tragedy took hold there also, in the form of his elder sister and one of his sons taking their own lives, before the family were able to settle more in Edinburgh, where he worked for Donald Tovey at the university.

Due to the prominence of tonal writing in his music, and the unfashionable stance of this approach at the time, his music was more or less forgotten – until recently, where the conductor Kenneth Woods has revived the four symphonies, Matthew Sharp the music for cello and McCawley the piano music.

This was essentially a taster of freeform pieces, the Three Preludes beginning with something of a whirlwind at 19:34. They descended into a mid-range cluster of notes before the busy-ness returned. The second prelude (22:13) had more private thoughts, and was more romantic, while the third (26:10) was playful and elusive.

McCawley then moved on to thoughtful Chopin, the first of the 2 Nocturnes Op.37 (29:32) darkly shaded and very sombre. It was a nice touch moving from G minor to G major (36:30) for a more carefree, triple time piece, subtly charming.

These served as the ideal lead-up to some tempestuous Beethoven. When the composer is operating in the key of C minor you can usually expect fireworks – the Symphony no.5, the Pathétique piano sonata and the Piano Concerto no.3 are just three examples of the brimstone we hear in this key. The 32 Variations (from 44:07) are close in date to the Fifth, and have similar qualities – though here Beethoven takes a small chord progression cell and works his magic with it.

From the start McCawley powered through some impressive pianistic feats, using a really strong sense of phrasing to give the music space when needed. From 47:01 the music effectively moved into a slow ‘movement’ in C major, but it soon returned with extra vigour to the home key.

This was a brilliant performance, capped by an inspired encore of the same composer’s Bagatelle in C major Op.33/2 (54:47) – McCawley careful to choose an appropriate key. This was enjoyably mischievous, Beethoven playing around with both pianist and listener.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below – which includes McCawley’s own recordings of the Haydn and Gál:

McCawley is the only pianist to date who has recorded the complete piano works of Hans Gál, and the album is also on Spotify: