Wigmore Mondays – Van Kuijk Quartet: Schubert & Ravel

van-kuijk-quartetVan Kuijk Quartet [Nicolas Van Kuijk, Sylvain Favre-Bulle (violins), Emmanuel François (viola), François Robin (cello)]

Schubert String Quartet in E flat major D87 (1813)

Ravel String Quartet in F major (1902-3)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

There are a great many young string quartets on the concert circuit, but from this evidence the Van Kuijk Quartet, winners of the 2015 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition, are among the finest.

Formed in Paris, the quartet are members of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Scheme, which gives them a regular platform at some of the UK’s finest venues. For their Wigmore Hall lunchtime debut they brought Schubert and Ravel to life with playing of enthusiasm, wit and panache.

Starting with early Schubert was a good move. Even by his sixteenth birthday the composer had racked up nine string quartets, and for his tenth he drew heavily on the ability to write charming and humourous music.

The Van Kuijk Quartet brought into that fully, enjoying the abundance of good tunes from the outset (1:54 on the broadcast link) while also relishing the bursts of energy and snappy rhythms felt in the second movement scherzo (12:50). This they countered with a darker, contrasting theme. The Adagio (15:11) was affectionately played, while the finale, marked Allegro (from 21:45) threw back the curtains and drew parallels with the energy of Beethoven’s early string quartets, written twelve years before.

Ravel’s single published String Quartet has claims to be the most popular of all in the form. Even though it is heard a lot, the Van Kuijk Quartet gave it fresh impetus here, setting the springlike mood with the opening phrase (from 32:22). The second theme was not so successful, for despite the beauty of the tune itself from violin and viola the cello was very low in the mix. The second movement sprang forward though (41:49), with its distinctive, vigorous pizzicato (plucking).

By contrast the slow movement was a dreamy lullaby (49:03), especially enjoyable for the muted viola tone played so beautifully by Emmanuel François. And so to the finale (58:42), misunderstood by its dedicatee Fauré but full of energy here, each syncopation and complexity of harmony revealed by a quartet playing in complete unity.

To complete an excellent concert the Van Kuijk Quartet gave an arrangement of Les Chemins de l’amour, a song by Poulenc, as their encore.

Further listening

The Van Kuijk Quartet have recently released an album of Mozart String Quartets, which can be heard on Spotify and previewed on YouTube below:

For more Ravel, this superb album from Chantal Juillet, Truls Mørk and Pascal Rogé includes pieces for violin and piano alongside the vibrant Sonata for Violin and Cello:

Live: Jörg Widmann & Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

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Jörg Widmann (clarinet, above – photo by Marco Borggreve) & Mitsuko Uchida (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Thursday 9th February, 2017

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 (1894)

Berg 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5 (1913)

Widmann Fantasie for solo clarinet (1993)

Schubert Impromptu in C minor D899/1 (1827)

Widmann Sonatina facile (2016, UK première)

Schumann 3 Fantasiestücke Op.73 (1849)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The sound made by the clarinet is surely one of the most beautiful in classical music.

Yet, as Jörg Widmann reminded a packed Wigmore Hall when playing his Fantasie for solo clarinet, the instrument’s qualities extend far and wide. Widmann explored multiphonics – playing more than one note at once – and also used the clarinet to evoke a lilting Alpine dance, some outrageous Gershwin-style slides and baleful, shy asides as though he was the only performer in the room.

Widmann has been chosen as the Wigmore Hall’s Composer in Residence for 2017-18. It is a chance to appreciate his versatility, for clarinet pieces are one side of a substantial catalogue. He has written for solo piano, but although Mitsuko Uchida’s UK premiere performance of the Sonata facile was superbly characterised, it was not as successful musically. Widmann takes Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K545, as a starting point, but he effectively screws up the pages of the work, distorting and fragmenting so that they did not quite add up to a meaningful whole.

mitsuko-uchida-240815Far more purposeful was Uchida’s performance of Schubert’s first published Impromptu, where we explored the composer’s very heart through an interpretation that had the hall on the edge of their seats. The repetitive march theme was darkly coloured, but the transition from minor key to major brought brilliant shafts of light under Uchida’s quick fingers.

When the two musicians played together the results were electric. In spite of a mobile phone that rang for more than a minute, and a hearing aid that shrilled in close proximity to the pitch of Widmann’s clarinet, their Brahms was beautifully poised. The Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 is a late, nocturnal treasure, its tension giving way to an autumnal glow in exchanges between the instruments that behave as though they are old friends. This performance caught that intimacy, especially in the slow movement, and enjoyed the dance of the finale with a spring in its step.

Schumann’s 3 Fantasiestücke faired similarly, closing the program wreathed in smiles, despite the occasional furrowed brow in the first piece. Here the interaction was again on the most intimate of scales, Widmann’s control exquisite in the slower music and matched by Uchida’s voicing of the individual parts.

Even better was the duo’s performance of Berg’s 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, a relatively early publication from 1913 that explores the outer limits of tonality. The mysterious second piece had an extraordinary inner tension, fully released in a flurry of notes, while the last piece, also slow, hung on the air for an age.

Widmann’s control here was almost superhuman, and although he admitted to being out of breath after the Schumann, he and Uchida gave a substantial encore by the 14-year old Mendelssohn. The graceful second movement from his Clarinet Sonata sounded like the work of a much older man, and was lovingly played.

Gould Piano Trio play Schubert at the Wigmore Hall

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Gould Piano Trio [l-r Lucy Gould (violin), Benjamin Frith (piano), Alice Neary (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, Tuesday 31st January, 2017

Schubert Notturno in E flat, D897 (c1826); Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat, D899 (c1826-7); Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat, D929 (1827)

schubert

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

That the Gould Piano Trio shared its 25th anniversary with Schubert’s 220th birthday made it all but inevitable that these musicians marked the event with a recital of his music. The exact order of the piano trios may be debatable, but what is never in doubt is their stature on a level with those other chamber works – the final String Quartet and the String Quintet – as among the crowning achievements of the composer’s last years. Equally evident were those subtle but pronounced contrasts in form and expression between works written just months apart.

If the B flat Trio is indeed the earlier of the two, this is reflected in its looking back – albeit obliquely – to the more relaxed manner of Schubert’s music up to 1820. Not that there is any lack of gravitas in this music – witness the stealthy momentum accrued in the initial Allegro’s eventful development, impressively maintained here; in contrast to those tenser emotions of the E Flat Trio’s Allegro with its more angular themes and combative development, whose intensifying reprise then agitated coda might have been realized here with greater impetus.

Arguably the highlights in both these performances were the Andante slow movements. In that of the B flat, the Gould searched out the music’s bittersweet eloquence (here, surely, the way in which this work’s ostensible backward glances should be understood) as also its more tensile evolution. While the ensemble never lost focus during the slow movement of the E flat Trio, where an unassuming Swedish song is transformed over the course of one of Schubert’s journeys into uncertainty, there could have been a more graphic sense of the ominous towards its outcome.

It is in the two scherzos where Schubert’s antecedents are most evident. The Classical poise and lucidity in that of the B flat Trio is audibly that of Mozart, overtly so in that of its suave trio, though in this instance the Gould was more successful in its teasing out the equivocal asides of the E flat Trio’s third movement – its ‘scherzando’ marking, with all the edginess that implies, yielding a Beethovenian intent that was amply brought out here. In such music, moreover, is Schubert heard at his most provocative and hence at his most contemporary.

The brace of finales brought these contrasted pieces, and their (for the most part) contrasted interpretations, to their head. The outwardly clear-cut rondo of the B flat Trio unfolded with its deft eliding into unexpected keys drawn into a powerful sense of resolve. If ensemble here was notably more secure than in the finale of the E flat Trio, rendering what is formally the most intricate and expressively the most inclusive among all these movements would be a tall order for any group, and there was little doubting the Gould’s insight over its diverse course.

Including the teenage composer’s Sonatensatz as an encore would likely have been gratuitous in context, though it made sense to open the evening with the Notturno written alongside the two mature trios and was most likely a rejected slow movement for the B flat. With its soulful melodic content and energetic central section, it could be a forerunner of the slow movement for the String Quintet – a reminder that nothing went to waste during Schubert’s feverish final months, with that striving quality once again to the fore in what was another fine performance.

For more information on the Gould Piano Trio visit their website

Vanessa Wagner – Expanding the piano

vanessa-wagner

We’ve already spoken to Murcof about his collaboration with pianist Vanessa Wagner – and now it’s time for her side of the story. She describes how she found classical music and how her meeting with Murcof opened up all sorts of electronic possibilities. Here they are on their work together:

Vanessa, can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

My parents were not listening to a lot of classical music. They were rather into jazz and the French chanson. Then one day, the piano of my great-grandmother came home, and I started to play. My childhood idol was a wonderful Romanian pianist named Clara Haskil, far away from the glamour girls are usually dreaming of! She is still an artist that I love.

Who are the composers you have grown to particularly admire?

I grew up with the music of Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Rachmaninov, Brahms and Janáček, who are still my favourites, Schubert especially. His melancholy, and the time stretched in his music touches me enormously. Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are pieces that never leave me.

What was it that appealed to you about working with Murcof?

I was the one to initiate this encounter. I have listened to his music for a long time. I met him at the workshop of the Infiné label, and we made an improvised test. Then I had the chance to have a residency in a room of the Arsenal of Metz. They gave me carte blanche to develop new projects, I invited Murcof to play with me, and Statea was born.

How did you make sure you got a good balance between the piano and the electronics?

I always asked Murcof to pay attention to the acoustic piano sound. The piano is the starting point of this project, and it was important that the electronic effects do not swallow its sound even if it is sometimes distorted. Similarly, it also seemed very important to stay true to the scores of composers that I interpret. That’s why the album is called Statea, which means balance in ancient Italian.

Had you listened to much electronic music prior to working with him?

I have listened to electronic music for 20 years. At that time, in my classical circles, it was frowned upon. I had never heard of the big techno anthems, and I went right back to ambient/IDM artists – the likes of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Model 500, Maurizio, UR etc.

Do you think there are other albums or pieces of music that bring classical and electronic together well?

Max Richter´s Four Seasons of Vivaldi works pretty well. Brian Eno also has a beautiful piece called Fullness of Wind, taking its lead from Pachelbel.

Do you think classical and electronic music have a lot more in common than one would expect?

I think meetings of the two styles are quite possible, if one avoids falling into the mainstream that we call crossover classical. The approach focuses on the sound result. We must respect the original script. Adding a beat onto a piece of Mozart or Beethoven cannot be a creative artistic process in itself.

Moreover, music known as ‘contemporary classical’ and art music has a lot in common with experimental electronic. Bridges are possible and desirable between these universes.

Has working with electronic music helped your appreciation of classical?

This does not specifically help me in my classical interpretation. What I greatly appreciate is to exercise out of my classical world, to transform the sound of my instrument, and to experience concerts differently, giving a new fresh perspective to my daily occupation of being a pianist.

For me, it is an interior window that opened itself, and I strongly hope that this is new cornerstone in the musical world which will contribute to the opening of minds and ears!

If you could recommend one piece of classical music to Arcana readers that you’ve been listening to recently, what would it be and why?

I would recommend listening to the Goldberg Variations of Bach (Glenn Gould, for example), the Death and the Maiden String Quartet by Schubert, or Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, especially the second movement Silentium.

Statea, by Murcof and Vanessa Wagner, is out now on Infiné. The pair will appear at the Barbican on Monday 31 October as part of a bill including pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. Tickets can be purchased from the Barbican website. Vanessa will also be giving her thoughts on classical music to Arcana shortly!

Wigmore Mondays – Vilde Frang & Aleksandar Madžar play Bartók and Schubert

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Vilde Frang (left, violin), Aleksandar Madžar (right, piano)

Bartók Violin Sonata no.1 (1921) (33 minutes)

Schubert Fantasy in C major D934 (1827) (21 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 16 November

Arcana’s commentary

It is easy to see why Vilde Frang is held in such high regard. This contrasting program of Bartók and Schubert showed a steely side to her playing in the former, but also a purity of tone that could be easily appreciated throughout.

These qualities served her well in a powerful rendition of Bartók’s massive Violin Sonata no.1, but she could not have made this impact without Aleksandar Madžar’s superb piano playing, notable for its clarity and rhythmic precision.

Bartók and rhythm are inseparable, and the hold that folk music has on his compositions was all too clear in the syncopations and cross rhythms that Frang and Madžar exploited here. The angular tunes of the first movement (first heard at 2:07) had an assertive mood, brilliantly played.

Richard Bratby’s excellent program note reminded us how modern the music must have sounded in 1922, when Bartók himself played piano with violinist Jelly d’Aranyi, who became an important creative muse. Frang and Madžar powered through the first movement, making light of its technical difficulties, but in the second movement time stood still. Frang’s sweet but thoughtful tune, initially heard alone (from 14:26), was complemented by a solemn and mysterious chorale from Madžar (16:00), the two forces gradually aligning but still lost in a distant world.

The finale arrived with a flourish (25:15), both performers tackling it with some relish and achieving a remarkable unity of ensemble at the end (from 32:30), finishing with a terrifically spicy, bluesy chord.

Schubert’s Fantasy in C major can seem like a long piece in the wrong hands, but here it came alive. Completed in the last year of his life, it is conceived in a single span of four distinct sections, and is a very original piece of writing. Balance between the violin and piano is key, and this was spot on for the moving opening statement, where Madžar had a lot of work to do but was always responsive to Frang’s soft intonation (from 37:09)

A bracing Allegretto section (from 40:23) led to the centrepiece, a Theme & Variations (45:44) The origin of the theme, a Schubert song, was abundantly clear in this lyrical performance, while there was some sparkling playing from Madžar as the variations took hold (try 48:57) This flair and musicality continued to the return of the soft first movement theme, now shaping up in the finale (52:36), an emotional reunion in these hands before a convincing finish (from 57:40).

This was a superb concert, affirming Vilde Frang as one of the best violinists of her generation on the concert circuit, but also illustrating just what a fine pianist Aleksandar Madžar is too. Hear this if you can!

Further listening

You can hear more of Vilde Frang in an early album recorded for Warner Classics with Michail Lifits. Here she brings a sunny tone to violin sonatas by Grieg (no.1) and Richard Strauss, full of youthful exuberance, while there is more Bartók in the form of his Sonata for solo violin, a tour de force:

by Ben Hogwood