Wigmore Mondays – István Várdai & Sunwook Kim play Falla, Schubert & Kodály

István Várdai (cello, above) & Sunwook Kim (piano, below)

Falla Suite populaire espagnole (1914) (2:07 – 16:05 on the broadcast link below)
Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D821 (1824) (18:00 – 44:40)
Kodály Hungarian Rondo (1917) (46:46 – 56:28)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 July 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The cello has always been one of the instruments closest to a pure imitation of the voice. Its range and its ability to phrase are both qualities that make it ideal for arrangements of songs.

Spanish composer Manuel de Falla may have collected and published his Siete canciones populares españolas (Seven Spanish Folksongs) for voice and piano, but they were soon arranged for violin and piano, then for cello and piano by Maurice Maréchal. The instrumental arrangements removed the second song and changed the order to make an effective concert suite. In this slightly understated but effective beginning from cellist István Várdai and pianist Sunwook Kim the music is laid bare, just as Falla would no doubt have preferred.

The first song, El paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth) (2:07), is quite restless but nicely ornamented in this performance with a subtle swing to the rhythms. The second, Nana (4:43), is bittersweet, falling on the side of sorrow, while the rustic Cancíon (7:17) makes nice use of the cello’s glassy harmonics. Polo evokes a lovely, summery heat haze with its dreamy thrummed chords (8:48) topped by a really powerful melodic line from Várdai. The quieter, yearning thoughts of Asturiana (10:18) make a more subtle impression afterwards, before the lively and uplifting Jota (12:59) completes the set.

The arpeggione was an instrument from Schubert’s time that did not last for long. With six strings and frets like a guitar, it did not catch on as a repertoire instrument, and so the substantial Arpeggione Sonata Schubert wrote for the instrument was threatened with redundancy, before finally being published in 1867. The work transcribes ideally for the cello or viola with piano accompaniment, its melodies lying under the fingers with deceptive ease.

The first movement (from 18:00) is the largest of all, expanding to make the most of what seems like quite a plaintive initial idea (the first section repeated from 21:15). It is an elegant dialogue between cello and piano, where at times the two feel like dancers in and out of hold. Some more vigorous diversions aside, the music returns to the slightly downcast mood of the opening, pensive rather than outgoing. István Várdai really makes his cello sing in the higher register, while Sunwook Kim shows a delicate touch on the piano.

The slow movement (30:32) is short but meaningful, with a floated melody from the cello threatening to make it as substantial a length as the first movement, but then gliding effortlessly into the finale (35:04) Here Schubert’s dance writing reappears, enjoyably so in the more upbeat minor key diversion (36:37) but returning to the slightly troubled air we became aware of earlier, enjoying itself to an extent but never fully throwing off the melancholic shackles apparently dogging him from the rejection of his opera Alfonso und Estrella.

No such issues in the Kodály Hungarian Rondo, like the Falla celebrating its origins with feeling. This piece, written in 1917 not published until 1976, starts with what seems like an innocuous tune on the cello (46:46) but one that goes on to dominate, reappearing for both instruments and in various guises. Complementing it are a host of other folksy melodies, most with a distinctive Hungarian flavour in their rhythm or melodic profile. As the piece progresses so the energy levels rise, to an impressive set of flourishes near the end, played with great panache by the two soloists.

As a generous encore, cooling the temperature after the Kodály, we had Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words Op.107 – the only one he wrote directly for cello and piano (57:50). Várdai was playing a Stradivarius cello dating from 1673 that used to belong to none other than Jacqueline du Pré – and he brought out the instrument’s gorgeous tone, especially in the midrange, and abundantly in the Kodály. With Kim’s sensitive accompaniment, they made it an extremely enjoyable concert with which to close the Wigmore Hall’s 2018-19 lunchtime season. See you for more in September!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard below. István Várdai has recorded the arrangement of the Falla suite, but not the pieces by Schubert or Kodály. The Mendelssohn is played by Jacqueline du Pré – possibly on the cello heard in this very concert! – accompanied by her mother Iris.

Várdai has, however, completed a disc of works for cello by the Hungarian composer that include one of the cellist’s ultimate tests, the Sonata for Solo Cello:

You can watch a video of Várdai playing Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello with violinist Gilles Apap, at the HarrisonParrott website:

Kodály’s music is colourful and passionate, staying very close to the composer’s roots. This selection of orchestral works serves as the ideal introduction to his tuneful music, conducted by conductors and fellow countrymen Ádám and Iván Fischer:

Wigmore Mondays – Imogen Cooper plays Brahms & Liszt

Imogen Cooper (piano)

Brahms Intermezzi Op.117 nos.1 & 2 (1892) (1:23 – 11:13)
Liszt Gretchen (Second movement of A Faust Symphony) (1854, arranged 1874) (11:52 – 30:05)
Brahms 7 Fantasien Op.116 (1892) (31:31 – 53:24)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 8 July 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Brahms’ late piano music occupies a special place in 19th century repertoire. Rather like late Beethoven he makes use of the piano for some extremely confidential writing that starts to push at the boundaries of tonality and conventional rhythm. While Beethoven complemented his late piano works with a renewed inspiration for the string quartet, Brahms found the clarinet was his ideal ‘other’ vehicle in the early 1890s. Yet in the solo piano writing, here is a level of intimacy rarely found in the music of his time.

Imogen Cooper began her Wigmore Hall recital with two of the three late Brahms Intermezzi Op.117 – an example of where the composer would give a deliberately ambiguous title to a short piece, allowing himself the greatest possible freedom of form and expression. That said, the first – in E flat major – is simplicity itself, a much loved melody that Brahms used as consolation from the recent losses in his life. For this he drew inspiration from the Scottish ballad Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament, and the piece benefits from Imogen Cooper’s unhurried approach in this performance (from 1:23 on the broadcast). The second piece in B flat minor is more flowing but also more directly troubled as it progresses (from 6:37), finishing in the lower recesses of the piano.

Published adjacently to the Op.117 Intermezzi are seven piano pieces Brahms called Fantasies – separate entities that work best as an overall whole. There are three Capriccio pieces, placed 1, 3 and 7 in the group, complemented with 4 Intermezzi, Brahms again keeping ambiguous labels for artistic freedom. Immediately however there is more heart on sleeve here, the first Capriccio in D minor (31:31) full of power and passion. The second piece, an Intermezzo in A minor, turns inwards, lost in thought (33:54), though there are brief glimpses of light in the central section.

The third piece, a Capriccio in G minor (37:42), has grand designs but still glints with a metallic darkness, using a falling melody whose outline is common to a number of late Brahms piano works, falling in melodic intervals of a third. A solemn central section is more hopeful before this music returns at 40:03. The fourth piece (40:55) is the first of three centred on the pitch of E, which seem to exist between major and minor keys. It is quite ambiguous, with a questioning harmony and uncertain rhythm – but finds calmer acceptance in its brief central section.

The fifth piece – another Intermezzo, now in E minor (45:06) is more mysterious still, its rhythm elusive, as though Brahms is in a dream state. Moving to E major for the sixth piece (47:58) we return towards earth, though the composer – and performer – are still in deep thought. A sudden jolt arrives with the final piece, another Capriccio in D minor (50:59), Brahms suddenly alert and on the front foot, and ending unexpectedly – and exultantly – in the major key. It is an ending hard won, but also slightly false, as it proves difficult to erase the deeply profound thoughts from earlier pieces.

The Liszt piece is a long slow movement taken from the composer’s orchestral / choral epic, A Faust Symphony. This is a portrait of Gretchen that transcribes particularly well for piano, Liszt’s gifts adapting his music and that of others between forms at its very best here. This is after all a composer who thought nothing of transcribing all nine Beethoven symphonies for solo piano.

Gretchen is tender and romantic, unfolding from the very start in a loving and flowing manner as played here by Imogen Cooper. Gradually the music becomes deeply passionate, Liszt building towards a series of weighty climaxes – the first around 19:10 and then again at 23:45. It can be heard as almost one unbroken phrase, and Cooper keeps a very natural feel to her phrasing, until the main theme returns at 24:14, where there is a very natural return to the mood and tenderness of the opening – before more extended dialogue. The period from 27:45 represents the coda, where a settled mood takes hold.

Throughout this concert Imogen Cooper let the music do the talking, as she always has done – not playing to the audience but producing beautifully rendered and carefully thought performances, with very impressive technical command – especially in the big-boned Brahms pieces. Of equal importance was her use of ‘rubato’, which is essentially breathing naturally in a musical sense so the rhythms sound more like phrases of a spoken or sung sentence. Everything came together wonderfully here, as it did in an encore of more Brahms – a beautifully observed account of the Waltz in A flat major Op.39/15, not heard on the broadcast.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard below, in leading available versions. Imogen Cooper has yet to record late Brahms, so the playlist includes timeless versions of the pieces from Radu Lupu and Emil Gilels, along with Cooper’s recently recorded Liszt:

Cooper’s Liszt is part of an intriguing disc of piano music by Liszt and his contemporary and close relative Wagner, recorded for Chandos:

Another Imogen Cooper recommendation brings together piano music by Robert and Clara Schumann – a family affair with the former’s stormy Piano Sonata no.1 and Humoreske, nicely complemented with two of Clara’s Pièces caractéristiques:

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:

Wigmore Mondays – Sophie Pacini plays Chopin, Wagner & Schumann

Sophie Pacini (piano)

Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op.66 (c1834) (1:27-6:18 on the broadcast link below)
Wagner, transcribed Liszt Overture to Tännhauser S442 (arr.1848) (7:25-22:33)
Schumann Carnaval Op.9 (1834-5) 24:25-47:13

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 4 February 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Sophie Pacini’s Wigmore Hall recital began with a fast, flowing performance of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. As the name implies this is an extremely free piece but there is structure too, with two distinct themes. From 1:27 on the broadcast link above you can hear the main material, then at 2:31 a contrasting and relatively settled theme in the major key. A short development section brings us back to the main material at 4:33, and then Chopin spins a beautiful coda from the second theme at 5:35.

Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s overture to the opera Tannhäuser (from 7:25) is something of an Everest for pianists; one that Sophie Pacini appeared to have scaled with commendable ease. This was a towering performance but also one that allowed the detail of the parts to come through – only rarely did the tunes threaten to become subsumed by the massive textures, and that certainly wasn’t the fault of Pacini – just a case of Liszt trying to accommodate so much of the orchestra!

In the broadcast the overture builds steadily from soft but noble beginnings, reaching what sounds like a mighty peal of bells at 9:27. This majestic theme dominates the music, coming back at 18:42 with an extraordinary accompaniment of what sounds like circling birds in the right hand part, leading up to a massive statement towards the end.

Carnaval is a favourite among the Schumann piano output, a series of character pieces that present a masked ball. Schumann himself is there, together with wife Clara – and not only that, Schumann invents several characters to depict the very different strains of his personality. There is a grand total of 20 different sections making up this attractive and colourful suite of pieces, and they run as follows (with approximate descriptions):

The very lively Préambule (24:25) begins the piece, cutting to Pierrot (26:36), whose repeated three-note figure reminded me of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Arlequin (27:47) is a short, playful number, leading to a charming Valse noble (28:32), then Eusebius (29:39), one of the ‘selfies’ in Carnaval that depicts composer’s ‘calm, deliberate’ side. By contrast Florestan (31:26) depicts the composer’s fiery, impetuous nature, and Schumann quotes the main waltz theme from his earlier work Papillons, Op. 2.

The Coquette (32:15) follows, depicting a flirtatious girl, before Réplique (33:18) acts as a reply. There would then be a freely-written section called Sphinxes, which Sophie Pacini chooses not to perform here. Instead we move on to the quick fire Papillons (33:48, no connection to Op.2), then A.S.C.H. – S.C.H.A (34:31), another form of self portrait. Chiarina (35:09) is a depiction of the composer’s wife Clara, while the spacious arpeggios of Chopin (36:03) depict the composer.

Estrella (36:46) depicts Ernestine von Fricken, before Reconnaissance (37:23), a brilliant musical portrayal that is thought to depict Schumann and Ernestine recognizing each other at the ball. Pantalon et Colombine (38:54) are from the commedia dell’arte, then we hear the charming Valse allemande (39:38)

An extremely active Intermezzo: Paganini (40:14) leads into a reprise of the Valse allemande. Then Aveu (41:30) initally feels a bit bashful in its depiction of a confession of love. A Promenade (42:20) moves directly to a Pause (43:58), written out in musical form. After an almost identical reprise of a passage from the opening Préambule, we lead without a break into the final section, the Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins (The March of David Against the Philistines) (44:16) It is a rousing finish to a cycle full of character.

Sophie Pacini’s performance is a fast one – most versions clock in just under half an hour, whereas hers is under 23 minutes. This shows the quick tempo choices she makes, and the short pauses between musical numbers. On occasion the music feels a bit too hasty and some of the softer moments and dance scenes could do with a bit more space and charm, some time to breathe between the sections perhaps. That said, a very enjoyable performance of characterful music that ends triumphantly.

As a suitable footnote to the concert, Pacini returned to the key of C sharp minor for Saint-Saëns (48:26-53:33) and his Allegro appassionato.

Further listening

Sophie Pacini has recorded all of the repertoire given in her recital. Her encore piece, the Saint-Saëns Allegro Appassionato, is added in a new recording from Bertrand Chamayou:

Quite where Liszt found the time to transcribe loads of orchestral pieces for piano is a mystery, but he did – including all nine Beethoven symphonies! This collection from Glenn Gould includes the Fifth, as well as more Wagner:

Schumann’s character pieces for piano are greatly loved. Carnaval is one of the most popular, but there are plenty of others – and on this album from Wilhelm Kempff you can enjoy three collections – Kinderszenen (for children), the wonderful Kreisleriana and the Waldszenen (Forest Scenes):

Wigmore Mondays: Lara Melda – Ballades by Chopin & Liszt

Lara Melda (piano, above)

Chopin Ballades for piano: no.1 in G minor Op.23 (c1835) (2:11-12:09 on the broadcast link; no.2 in F major Op.38 (1839) (13:10-20:38)
Liszt Ballade no.2 in B minor S175 (1853) (22:30-39:40)
Chopin Ballades for piano: no.3 in A flat major Op.47 (1841) (41:28-49:15); no.4 in F minor Op.52 (1842-3) (50:38-1:02:39)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 3 December 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Emrah Bostan

A very well planned and presented hour of Ballades from Lara Melda, contrasting beautifully the approaches to the form by Chopin and Liszt.
Chopin’s Ballades are some of the finest works in all his output for solo piano, and contain numerous innovations in form, style and substance. The four works are very different in character, each telling a very different story – but a private one to the composer, too.

The Ballade no.1 in G minor Op.23 gives a stern call to arms at the start of proceedings (from 2:11 on the broadcast), Melda taking a long (and appropriate) pause before beginning, but starting very slowly too. Though arguably too slow, it is a dramatic interpretation, beautifully paced and technically very strong, remaining straight faced throughout but really working up a head of steam from 4:45 onwards. A slower section follows, nicely phrased, before a return to the stern outlines of the minor key, Melda’s octaves probing sharply (from 7:10). From 10:40 the music gathers itself for a powerful and deliberate (but again very effective) finish.

The Ballade no.2 in F major Op.38 (13:10) has an almost Christmassy feel to start with, the gentle theme making itself known in a rocking formation. This contrasts to a violent intervention (15:17) in a completely different mood and key, Melda keen to make a wide difference between the two approaches. Initially this is a flash in the pan, the soft theme returning at 16:18, but the brittle intervention has not gone away for long, and appears once more from 18:30. Here the pianist does not feel quite so controlled or disciplined – possibly intentionally. The quiet music does return again (20:09), crucially now in a minor key, to indicate force has not quite won the day.

Liszt’s approach to the Ballade, perhaps not surprisingly, is to make it an all-encompassing literary whole, telling the story of Gottfried Bürger’s Lenore in fifteen minutes of high drama. Beginning in the murky depths of the piano at 22:30, the more extensive Ballade no.2 in B minor S175 immediately makes an impact under Lara Melda’s direction, the probing lower range theme setting the scene. The next section, from 26:40, is jagged and unhinged, beginning Lenore’s ride on the horse with her dead lover. This macabre setting full of octaves in the piano’s right hand is brilliantly played, as is the softer, bell-like section that follows at 29:50. Then a tumultuous section shows off Melda’s ability for clarity at speed, a typical whirlwind of Liszt octaves reaching its climax at 32:10. From 34:09 a chorale-like theme begins to develop, reaching its apex at 36:57 and then subsiding to a quiet end.

Chopin’s Ballade no.3 in A flat major Op.47 (41:28) contrasts nicely with the bombast of the Liszt, its relatively reserved but lyrical opening theme one of the composer’s very best. A contrasting waltz section (43:38) is much more assertive, and finds Melda adding a nice lilt to the music. These two alternate as though in a quest for domination, and were beautifully played here. The only slight blot on the landscape was what appeared to be a memory blip from Melda on the last few chords, but she recovered to finish in the ‘home’ key.

Finally the Ballade no.4 in F minor Op.52 (50:38), arguably the most difficult of the four – and an extremely intense piece of music. Melda played it with the same assurance she gave the other three ballades, capturing the deep melancholy at the heart of its waltz-like theme. This was a very concentrated reading, leading inevitably to the quiet five chords (1:01:01) and the incredibly powerful coda that follows (1:01:38)

A fine concert, then, from a pianist with a keen sense of drama, a near-impeccable technique and a clear passion for this music.

Further listening

Lara Melda has plans to release an all-Chopin disc next year, which will be her first recording. The playlist below includes well-loved accounts of the Ballades from Vladimir Ashkenazy, while for completeness I also included the encore Melda played at the Wigmore Hall after Radio 3 had gone off the air:

Another Romantic composer to write Ballades for the piano was Brahms, whose early examples for the piano were published in 1854 as 4 Ballades Op.10. This legendary recording by the pianist Emil Gilels forms part of a disc of Brahms’ Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor, which has the same key and a similar mood to the first of Chopin’s Ballades: