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:

Wigmore Mondays: Javier Perianes plays Chopin, Debussy & Falla

Javier Perianes (piano, above)

Chopin Prelude in C Op.28/1 (1839) (1:44-2:25 on the broadcast link below)
Debussy Danseuses de Delphes (Préludes Book 1) (1909) (2:30-5:45)
Chopin Berceuse (1843-4) (5:50-10:38)
Debussy Clair de lune (Suite Bergamasque) (1890) (10:39-15:44)
Debussy Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Préludes, Book 1) (1910) (15:57-19:36)
Chopin Ballade No 4 (1842-3) (19:44-30:51)
Debussy La puerta del vino (Préludes Book 2) (1913) (32:47-36:15); La sérénade interrompue (Préludes Book 1) (1910) (36:18-39:02)
Falla Fantasia baetica (1919) 39:05-51:16

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 9 April 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

The Debussy centenary has brought out some imaginative programmes from performers, and the inspiration for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert from the Wigmore Hall lay in one of Javier Perianes‘ earlier recital discs. He played much of the music in an unbroken stream, giving a lovely continuity to the music making while linking the composers too.

Debussy loved Chopin, describing him as ‘the greatest of us all, for through the piano alone he discovered everything’. Comparing the first published preludes by the composers was intriguing, the urgency of the Chopin (1:44 on the broadcast link above) countered by the sultry, easily paced Danseuses de Delphes (2:30). Chopin’s Berceuse (5:50) and the famous Clair de Lune from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque (10:39) share the same key of D flat major, and here the join between the two was exquisitely close. In the Berceuse the boat, having initially started out on a millpond, ran into some pretty gusty weather, while the dance of the moonlight on the water in the Debussy was allowed to take its time to ripple.

The following Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (15:57) was deeply atmospheric, shot through with mystery – but then Perianes turned to a powerful and very fluid account of the Ballade no.4, (19:44) passionately played and emphatically signing off the concert’s first sequence.

The second sequence was more noticeably modern, its musical language shifting forwards. La puerta del vino (32:47) crackled with tension, an insistent Habanera rhythm becoming the lynchpin for a rich vein of improvisatory work up top, while the humour of La sérénade interrompue (36:18) was brilliantly caught, with its stop-start gait and Spanish flair.

The latter quality was fully in evidence for an assertive and exciting Fantasia baetica (39:05), Manuel de Falla‘s biggest work for solo piano. This was packed with big dance crossrhythms, powerful musical statements and substantial added note harmonies. There were some very striking moments such as the big, bell-like melody from 49:13, which seems to be an attempt on the part of the piano to imitate the guitar, and Perianes swept all before him to an all-encompassing finish.

For the encore Perianes turned our glances sideways to another of Debussy’s close if less likely influences, the composer Edvard Grieg, whose piano music is still massively underrated. The Notturno (52:21) chosen by today’s pianist was beautifully judged and vividly pictorial.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

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:

Wigmore Mondays: Anne Queffélec plays Bach & Handel

Anne Queffélec (piano)

J.S. Bach arr. Busoni Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,’ BWV659 (1740, transcribed 1907-9)
Marcello arr. J.S. Bach Adagio from Oboe Concerto in D minor (pub. 1717, arr. 1713-14)
Handel arr Kempff Minuet in G minor and Chaconne in G major, HWV435 (1720 & 1733, arr. 1954)
Scarlatti Sonata in B minor, Kk27 (1739)
J.S. Bach Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV826 (1727)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 16 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

As with last week’s Lise de la Salle recital at the Wigmore Hall, Anne Queffélec follows a loose theme of composers interpreting the work of others. Ferruccio Busoni was a master arranger of older composers, often enriching their music with a few parts of his own that would be in keeping with the style of both the original and the new, ‘Romantic’ period. Bach often arranged the music of others and this poignant example from a Marcello Oboe Concerto is followed by pianist Wilhelm Kempff, updating Handel for performance on a modern 20th century piano. Scarlatti’s Sonata is a thinly disguised Bach tribute, while Bach himself then builds a substantial Partita no.2 drawing on the French style – that is, using sharply detached rhythms in some of the movements.

Follow the music

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

J.S. Bach arr. Busoni Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,’ BWV659 (5 minutes, beginning at 4:10 on the broadcast)

A sublime arrangement when played with care, as it is here, allowing the longer melodies to unfold with the minimum of fuss. Bach still manages to achieve interplay between the parts but this is a much slower piece, and there is a great depth of feeling in its inevitable progression. Busoni’s arrangement is largely faithful, though he does allow the bass line to acquire a double part on several occasions, broadening the overall sound.

Marcello arr. J.S. Bach Adagio from Oboe Concerto in D minor (5 minutes, from 9:38)

Queffélec leads straight into the Marcello without a break, which makes sense as its D minor key and the G major of the Bach are closely linked. This is a sublime and almost timeless piece of music, the background chords gently pulsing on the left hand as the right hand expresses itself. Gradually the music grows in intensity, before subsiding again.

Handel arr Kempff Minuet in G minor and Chaconne in G major, HWV435 (17 minutes, from 14:30)

The Minuet is slow – especially for a dance – and restrained, given an intensely intimate air through the arrangement and the choice of tempo in this performance. It leads into the Chaconne (19:07) where a bold and bright statement of the chosen chord sequence, with associated trills, is followed by no fewer than 25 variations on the set sequence. Around the 23:00 this features some dazzling runs on the right hand, and again at 27:40 – though in between Queffélec channels Handel’s innermost thoughts. At 29:08 we get another statement of the full bodied sequence first heard at the beginning.

Scarlatti Sonata in B minor, Kk27 (1739) (4 minutes, from 32:30)

One of Scarlatti’s 550-or-so Sonatas for solo piano! These pieces are all around five minutes long and usually given in two halves, but other than that are remarkably free in form. This particular example is a free flowing stream of notes that could easily be inspired by Bach.

J.S. Bach Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV826 (1727) (21 minutes, from 36:50)

This Bach work is a collection of connected movements, starting with a relatively stern Sinfonia, setting the scene (from 36:50). Then the dance sequences start, beginning with an Allemande, a slower and thoughtful dance from 41:55. The Courante gets under way at 46:40, a swaying dance, and is followed by a slow and graceful Sarabande (48:55). 53:10 sees the perky Rondeaux begin, Queffélec enjoying the distinctive melody and the flowing counterpoint that follows. Bach is especially clever in this movement by taking his main theme and moving it around the beat. The Rondeaux moves straight into the Capriccio (54:33), which initially sounds rather serious but then takes flight, the two hands literally chasing each other around the keyboard.

Thoughts on the concert

A wholly captivating recital by a pianist with a refreshing lack of mannerisms or frills. Anne Queffélec brought timeless qualities to the music of Bach, Marcello and Handel, making each performance feel like a direct communication to a single member of the audience.

During the Handel Minuet especially I felt myself subconsciously leaning forward, so persuasive and intimate was the account, with incredibly soft timbres and sensitive use of the pedal. Here Queffélec was moving dangerously slowly, as she also did in the Marcello ‘Adagio’ and the Bach chorale prelude, but there was never a feeling of these interpretations becoming contrived, more a sense that the pianist had reached a different spiritual and emotional plain.

Further listening and reading

Anne Queffélec has recorded some wonderful albums, one of which – a Scarlatti collection – was reviewed on Arcana back in 2014. You can hear it on Spotify below:

Back in 2009 she released a Chopin album – which is particularly relevant as she chose an encore for this concert of the Fantaisie-Impromptu, heavily influenced by Bach and Scarlatti. You can hear the album below:

Jennifer Pike and friends – Polish Music Day @ Wigmore Hall

Jennifer Pike (violin), Guy Johnston (cello), Tom Poster (piano)

Wigmore Hall London; Saturday 14 October 2017

Szymanowska Polonaise in F minor / Nocturne in B flat (both c1825)

Knapík Partita (1980)

Górecki Pozegnaie (2009)

Chopin Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8 (1829)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This evening’s concert formed the final instalment of an all-day event – as curated by Jennifer Pike (above) – that surveyed Polish chamber music from the Renaissance to the present, so enabling a much wider out-look on this (not least in the UK) little explored area than is usually the case.

Even so, not many such programmes can have opened with pieces by Maria Szymanowski (née Wołowska), whose death in 1831 at only 42 robbed the musical world of an evidently fine pianist and, as evinced by the elegant Polonaise and wistful Nocturne that were played with real poise and feeling by Tom Poster (below), an able composer and the plausible link between Hummel or Field and Chopin, who was surely familiar with her output. No great rediscovery, maybe, but a welcome opportunity to open-out the context of this period within Polish music.

The major discovery came with Partita by Eugeniusz Knapík. Now in his mid-60s, he seems to be among the younger members of a generation as moved away from post-war modernism towards a more traditional, though by no means reactionary discourse. Lasting for almost 30 minutes, this work unfolds from its imposing ‘Entrée’ – far more substantial and emotionally varied than its title might suggest – via a lyrical ‘Air’ in which the influence of Messiaen (this composer’s one-time teacher) was unmistakable; thence on to a central ‘Mouvement’ whose capricious interplay of violin and piano brought with it the most inventive music of the whole work, before a brief while forceful ‘Récitatif’ (mainly for violin) segued into a second though appreciably more sombre ‘Air’ which saw this piece through to a conclusion of tenuous calm.

An uneven though arresting work, then, which Pike gave with unstinting commitment, ably accompanied (an understatement in this instance) by Poster. Hopefully more of his Knapík’s will be heard in due course (his 1971 Violin Sonata just might be a worthwhile place to start).

After the interval, music by Mikołaj Górecki – his brief though undeniably affecting Farewell is not so far removed from some of the later pieces by his father Henryk; albeit with a degree of emotional detachment in keeping with one to has pursued a distinctively classicist idiom.

The main programme concluded with Chopin’s Piano Trio – not a work that tends to receive overmuch praise, but which proved highly enjoyable when rendered with the insight afforded here. A performance such as made light of the awkward tonal follow-through in the opening Allegro, then found due vivacity in the scherzo with its appealingly lilting trio. The Adagio had pathos without undue sentiment, while the finale made much of its folk-inflected themes and underlying krakowiak rhythm as it headed through to a decisive if peremptory close. All three players, not least Guy Johnston (above), made much of their sometimes restricted though never limited roles; suggesting the mature Chopin (his valedictory Cello Sonata uppermost in mind) likely had a masterpiece to contribute to this medium had it not been for his untimely death.

As an encore, Pike introduced a touching piece by Michał Kleofas Ogiński (1765-18330 – his polonaise for piano Farewell to my Homeland (1794) heard in an idiomatic arrangement for piano trio by her father, rounding-off this enjoyable and enlightening evening in fine style.

Photo credits: Jennifer Pike (Eric Richmond); Tom Poster (Toby Poster)

For more concert information on the Wigmore Hall head to their website