Wigmore Mondays: Lise de la Salle plays Bach, Liszt & Brahms

Lise de la Salle (piano) photo (c) Nicolas Brodard

J.S. Bach Italian Concerto in F major BWV 971 (1735)

Liszt Fantasie and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H S529 (1855)

Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24 (1861)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 9 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A nicely planned hour’s recital from Lise de la Salle, focussing on the collision between two different historical periods in music.

The so-called ‘Romantic’ composers rediscovered the music of Bach half way through the nineteenth century, and this led to a series of important performances and rearrangements of the composer’s music. Liszt paid his own characteristically larger than live homage in a fantasy based on the notes of the composer’s name (B-A-C-H translating in German as Bb – A – C – B natural, or H). Brahms, while not directly referencing Bach, built a hugely impressive seam of variations and a fugue on a theme from one of Handel’s Harpsichord Suites. Lise began her recital with Bach’s own act of homage, though this was a concerto for piano only written in the style of his Italian contemporaries.

Follow the music

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Bach Italian Concerto (12 minutes, beginning at 1:39 on the broadcast)

Listen out for the lively first movement, marked ‘Allegro’ (from 1:39), then an intensely lyrical slow movement marked ‘Andante’, written in the style of an aria (5:12). Then the last movement brings a lively conclusion to the piece, packed as it is with a stream of melodic content (10:56)

Liszt Fantasie and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H (13 minutes, from 14:45)

Liszt’s gestures are typically bold at the start, where the B-A-C-H theme is stated boldly – but then because of the chromatic nature of the theme the music becomes very mysterious around five minutes in (20:00 or so). Then, from 21:30, we get ‘high voltage’ Liszt in the form of some tempestuous piano writing, where de la Salle responds to the challenge very impressively. Then, from 25:09, we get a big piece of chorale (hymn like) writing, before the theme is stated again and a thoroughly convincing ending ensues.

Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24 (27 minutes, from 28:50)

In a prolific burst, Brahms wrote no fewer than 25 variations on Handel’s theme. The theme itself is played in the original form, and then the variations begin at 30:02. Brahms achieves a staggering variety of moods, speeds and phrases, moving away from Handel’s outline to explore new tonalities and rhythms. For a notable contrast listen out to the light footed, graceful Variation 3 (31:43) and the following Variation 4 (32:24), a strident march. On more than one occasion Brahms moves to the relatively downbeat minor key, dramatically so in Variation 13 (40:20) – which he follows with the capricious Variation 14 (41:54). The variations are noticeably more playful at this point in the work, but once again Brahms’ serious side exerts itself as we lead towards the fugue. This begins at 51:22, Brahms stating the melody and then bringing in each part with incredible precision, each strand fusing seamlessly.

Thoughts on the concert

This was a fascinating combination of pieces, played with technical brilliance by de la Salle – though her projection was at times on the loud side, meaning that the Bach especially felt as though it was played in capital letters – and the last movement felt rushed.

The Liszt was impressive and big boned, while the Brahms – though perhaps not getting the full contrast of moods – was beautifully and affectionately worked. The staccato eighth variation was especially impressive in its clarity, as was the quickfire fourteenth, though when the Fugue appeared it was initially difficult to grab the rhythm. That said, an impressive reading from a pianist growing in stature.

Further listening and reading

If you like the idea of Romantic composers taking their lead from the Baroque, then I think you’ll like this album from Murray Perahia. It brings together the ultimate Bach revival composer – Mendelssohn – with arrangements of Bach by Busoni.

You can catch up with Lise de la Salle at her website

Meanwhile her Liszt album from 2011 is available on Spotify below:

Wigmore Mondays – Clara Mouriz & Joseph Middleton: Songs of the Antique

Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Purcell/Britten Alleluia (pre-1702, realised by Britten 1960)

Alessandro Scarlatti Son tutta duolo (c1699)

Anchieta arr. Dorumsgaard Con amores, la mia madre (unknown)

Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets (1842-6)

Duparc La vie antérieure (1884)

Hahn Tyndaris (1900)

Ravel Kaddisch (1914)

Falla 7 Spanish Popular Songs (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 June, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert that confirmed the versatility of Clara Mouriz and Joseph Middleton. Their performance, titled ‘Songs of the Antique’, concentrated on songs whose music or text looks a long way to the past for inspiration.

The mezzo-soprano has a rich and powerful voice in the middle register especially, which came to the fore in passionate accounts of the Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets, but also in the solo writing of Ravel and the quasi-orchestral scope of Duparc.

First we went right back to the Eighteenth century for an Alleluia – a song originally attributed to Purcell but found to be by John Weldon. Britten, as part of his Purcell revival, provided a complementary piano part, one that shadows the spun out vocal. This vocal won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Mouriz mastered it brilliantly here (from 1:49 on the broadcast link provided).

The Scarlatti, an excerpt from the opera La donna ancora è fedele, made a nice contrast (3:52). Unlike his brother, who wrote copious amounts of keyboard music, Alessandro wrote many operas – and the excerpt here shows how fluid his vocal writing could be. Meanwhile the arrangement of Anchieta’s folksong, thought to be from the fifteenth century, had a primal quality in this interpretation – with elegantly shaped piano from Middleton (7:01).

The Liszt was a highpoint of the recital, not just for Mouriz’s fire and passion but for Middleton’s word painting with the piano part. Liszt was borderline-obsessed with the sonnets, complementing his two vocal settings of the trio with powerfully descriptive pieces for the piano. The vocal line is highly charged in all three songs, and strongly Italian in musical flavour as well as language. Sonetto 104, Pace non trovo (I find no peace) surged forward turbulently in the piano part, a restlessness matched by Mouriz’s outpouring (from 10:31).

The Sonetto 47, Benedetto sia ‘I giorno (Blessed be the day) was notable for ‘the sighs and tears, the longing’ found by Mouriz at 20:07, while the final Sonetto 123 I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I beheld on earth angelic grace) was beautifully sung (from 23:10), Mouriz mastering the wide ranges and dynamics Liszt asks for. Middleton’s decorative piano part was brilliantly done too.

After this we had the relatively rare chance to appreciate the songwriting guile of Henri Duparc, a French composer whose life was tragically cut short due to neurasthenia. He left just thirteen published songs, of which La vie antérieure is an expansive example. It began optimistically (30:13) but turned rather sour towards the end, this performance carefully paced and given impressive detail by Middleton.

Hahn’s Tyndaris offered more optimism after the Duparc (from 34:35) while Ravel’s Kaddisch, from his Deux melodies hebraïques, had a powerful declamation that Mouriz used to take over the hall (36:15).

Finally the Spanish mezzo-soprano was completely on home turf for Falla’s brilliantly written songs, a whole wealth of different characters and emotions coming out in this performance (from 42:22).

We had the famous Seguidilla murciana (43:00) where ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’, the mournful Asturiana (45:10), a brisk Jota (47:58), a soft Nana (Lullaby) (51:03), a brighter Cancion (52:48) with darker lining and finally the dramatic Polo (53:42), where the piano’s repeated notes appear to describe the stabbing pain in the singer’s heart.

As a richly deserved encore the pair gave a soulful performance of a Spanish funeral song, Let my soul mourn (57:08).

Further listening

The works in today’s concert are on Spotify and can be heard below:

As a contrast, why not try an album of orchestral music by the Spanish composer Turina, featuring at its centre the collection of Poema en forma de canciones:

Meanwhile, you can watch Clara and guitarist Sean Shibe perform Asturiana, from the Falla songs, below:

Raluca Stirbat plays Enescu at the Romanian Cultural Institute

raluca-stirbat

Raluca Stirbat (piano), above

Romanian Cultural Institute, London; Thursday 3rd November, 2016

Enescu Prélude et Scherzo (1896)

Franck Prélude, Chorale et Fugue, Op. 21 (1884)

Liszt Mephisto Waltz No. 1, S514 (1862)

Enescu Piano Sonata in D, Op. 24 No. 3 (1935)

The Enescu Concerts Season at Romanian Cultural Institute continued tonight with a recital by Raluca Stirbat, the Vienna-based pianist whose advocacy of Enescu – his residencies as well as his music – has long been central to her activities.

Enescu’s music, what she termed the ‘frames’ of his piano output, book-ended this programme – opening with the Prélude et Scherzo which is the composer’s first piano work of real consequence. A little too rhetorical and rhythmically stolid as the Prelude may be, the Scherzo’s vivid alternating between devil-may-care impetus and (in its trio) elegant repose recalls the eponymous work with which the teenage Brahms announced himself some 45 years earlier. Good, also, that these pieces were heard together, as the resulting expressive duality was to inform Enescu’s thinking thereafter.

Franck had passed on by the time Enescu arrived at the Paris Conservatoire, yet his approach to harmony and texture undoubtedly left its imprint – not least the Prélude, Chorale et Fugue with which the mature composer returned to the solo medium after several decades. Keeping its discursive manner in check, Stirbat duly pursued a secure course through the Prelude and maintained a keen textural clarity in the Chorale, before the Fugue wended its eventful course to a culmination where cyclical ingenuity and emotional fervour were bound together as one.

If Liszt is a less discernible influence on Enescu, the sheer virtuosity and lack of inhibition in much of his piano music is an audible touchstone; not least as deployed in the First Mephisto Waltz. Stirbat despatched the opening pages of this ‘dance in the village inn’ with requisite abandon, and if the central section slightly hung fire, this is arguably as much Liszt’s fault in overly delaying the transformed return of that earlier music; the latter being projected here as characterfully as were the teasing insouciance then the surging irony of its heady conclusion.

The main programme (played without pause and from memory) ended with the Piano Sonata in D which was to have formed the final part of Enescu’s Op.24 sequence had he completed its central portion. Despite advocacy from such as Dinu Lipatti and John Ogdon, the present work enjoys only infrequent revival – doubtless owing to its technical difficulty but also its singularity as music that opens ostensibly in the world of the late Baroque only to close with that of a renewed Classicism.

Stirbat had the measure of the initial Vivace’s rhythmic agility, then brought understated eloquence to the central Andante with its improvisatory variants on a motive of blithe self-effacement, before the final Allegro evinced purposeful onward drive toward an apotheosis which superimposes all the salient themes in a truly joyful outpouring.

A demanding recital, then, which Stirbat rendered with unflagging commitment and resolve. She returned for two encores: first the Baccanale from the Third Piano Suite by Constantin Silvestri, given with due physicality, and the Bourrée from Enescu’s Second Piano Suite – which, as was pointed out, is linked to the finale of the Third Sonata thematically as well as in terms of key. It made for an exhilarating conclusion to an impressive recital that reaffirmed Raluca Stirbat’s authority in the piano music of her native country’s pre-eminent composer.

Richard Whitehouse

The next event in the Enescu Concert Season is a recital by soprano Valentina Naforniţă on Friday 2nd December. More information at the Romanian Cultural Institute website

Wigmore Mondays – Nicholas Angelich plays Chopin & Liszt

nicholas-angelich

Nicholas Angelich

Chopin 2 Nocturnes, Op.55 (1842-4) (12 minutes)

Chopin 3 Mazurkas, Op.59 (1845)

Liszt Piano Sonata (1854)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 9 November

Arcana’s commentary

A very satisfying blend of poetic 19th century piano music from Nicholas Angelich. By beginning with a well-chosen selection of Chopin he set the scene perfectly for the drama that is Liszt’s Piano Sonata, one of the great works for the instrument and a real test of any pianist’s clout.

First, though, the Chopin – and two contrasting works that bear the title Nocturne. This was a form of music that was more or less invented by the composer John Field and taken up by Chopin, who found it an expressive means with a relatively free form. The first of the two (from 1:46 on the broadcast) was distracted in mood and more than a little downcast. Thoughtfully played, it gradually became more animated before calm was restored with the theme at 5:58. The second nocturne (7:43) had a more open sound, with an almost constant ripple of watery accompaniment.

Angelich’s performances of the Mazurkas showed just how different Chopin’s interpretation of this dance could be.

The last of the three (22:10) was the most dramatic, shifting tellingly from major to minor key at 23:08, and ending there from 25:31.

You could say that Liszt’s Piano Sonata is a one-act play in four scenes – or you could equally say that it is a four-act play. Such is its formal design that both approaches work across the course of half an hour, and it really is one of those pieces the listener can be totally absorbed in.

For that you need the right performance of course, and this one from Nicholas Angelich fitted the bill in every way. The drama should begin even before the first soft, low notes are sounded, and here the period of silence beforehand built the anticipation nicely.

Then once we were under way at 27:30 Angelich set out the musical arguments, allowing the first movement to build its tension through to the start of the faster music at 28:20. After this the music really got going, though it was around the 36:27 where the tempo was really flying, leading up to a grand statement of the slow theme from Angelich at 38:05, a great demonstration of both power and grace at the piano.

This performance really came into its own in the slow movement however (from 41:00), setting a restful and uncommonly sublime mood, until a warning at 48:05 where the music from the start revealed itself again. Other points of note to look out for in the recording are at 48:43 where the fugue begins.

Angelich made a real and clear sense of this tricky passage, beginning with the theme and continuing at 48:55 with the ‘answer’ – as fugues are wont to do. Then the pyrotechnics ensued, a showy movement but one that Angelich kept under control, especially at 52:13 and a triumphant return of the big, slow theme. The coda, from 57:38, was exquisitely paced, and the end, when it came, was soft and petered out to the silence with which the Sonata began.

A performance as impressive for its quiet moments as its loud ones – and a Liszt sonata packed full of incident, drama and romance the whole way through.

Further listening

Angelich has very helpfully recorded something of a ‘concept’ album that begins with the Liszt Sonata. This work was dedicated to Schumann, so we also get that composer’s set of eight fantasy pieces Kreisleriana, one of his very best piano works. Completing the album are two Etudes by Chopin, the subject of Schumann’s dedication.

by Ben Hogwood

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra play Sibelius, Liszt and the Saint-Saëns ‘Organ’ Symphony

oberon-orchestraOberon Symphony Orchestra and Samuel Draper

Richard Whitehouse on the Oberon Symphony Orchestra‘s latest concert of Sibelius, Liszt and Saint-Saëns, given at their home of St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London on Saturday 17 September

Sibelius The Swan of Tuonela Op.22/2 (1895)

Liszt Les préludes (1854)

Sibelius Valse triste Op.44/1 (1903)

Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78, ‘Organ’ (1886)

Andrew Furniss (organ), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper

Tonight’s concert (the fourteenth) from the Oberon Symphony had a strong element of Liszt running through it – not least a welcome revival of the symphonic poem Les préludes which, while its historical importance is undeniable, retains only a marginal place in the repertoire.

Although it started out as the autonomous overture to settings of Joseph Autran’s Les quatre éléments (the connection with Alphonse de Lamartine’s Nouvelles méditations poétiques was made later and its reasoning remains unclear), Les préludes is essentially an abstract reflection on the passage of life from aspiration to fulfilment, and Samuel Draper rightly emphasized the cyclical evolution of its themes as these outline a viable sonata design whose introduction and coda confirm the emotional distance travelled. The secondary themes are among Liszt’s most appealing and were eloquently rendered; if the stormy central development seemed inhibited, a convincing momentum was maintained from the ethereal interlude through the reprise then on to an apotheosis whose grandeur was shorn of bombast or unnecessary grandiloquence.

These latter qualities, wholly extraneous to Liszt’s thinking, had by the mid-twentieth century reduced this piece to little more than caricature: harmlessly in the case of its soundtrack to the adventure series Flash Gordon, but offensively so when the final bars were used to announce Nazi bombing successes during the Blitz. In stressing purely musical virtues, a performance such as this can only abet the work’s and the composer’s cause; hopefully Draper will have an opportunity to include another of Liszt’ s symphonic poems in these concerts before long.

When Saint-Saëns (retrospectively) dedicated his Third Symphony to the memory of Liszt, the latter’s reputation was still intact – not least in terms of its cyclical form, making this work the harbinger of an intrinsically French take on the genre that prospered over the next century.

Draper assuredly had the measure of this stealthy evolution across two parts. After a plaintive introduction, the Allegro took time to intensify towards the climactic reprise of its first theme, but the transition to the Adagio had the right expectancy and the latter movement was almost ideal in blending seraphic poise with a lucidly unfolding variation. Andrew Furniss ensured that the organ timbre was fully integrated into that of the orchestra – the Oberon being heard at its best in a scintillating account of the scherzo; after which, the finale was taken firmly in hand so that its big tune (did those smiles among the audience betray knowledge of its use as the 1977 hit ‘If I Had Words’?) emerged unhackneyed, while the fugal and pastoral episodes were drawn into a tight-knit and cumulative progression towards the resplendent peroration.

Prefacing each of these pieces in either half was music by Sibelius. For all its popularity, The Swan of Tuonela is among its composer’s most introspective statements. Draper brought out a sustained anguish in the strings, ideally complemented by plangent cor anglais playing from Bruno Bower. If the fraught climax of Valse triste was a little diffuse, the elegiac opening and close were tellingly rendered – underlining why this miniature rapidly became a worldwide success, and thus making the composer’s signing away of its copyright the more regrettable.

The next concert by the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with a selection of Mozart’s arias and Mahler’s Fourth Symphony (soprano Anousheh Bromfield) is on Saturday 21st January 2017

Watch the previous concert from the Oberon Symphony Orchestra, with Cosima Yu as soloist in Copland‘s Clarinet Concerto:

Further information can be found at the orchestra’s website