Wigmore Mondays – Louis Lortie plays Chopin

Louis Lortie (piano)

George Benjamin Shadowlines (6 Canonic Preludes) (2001)

Chopin 24 Preludes Op.28 (1839)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 24 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Louis Lortie has a long-held affinity with the music of Chopin, and that was abundantly clear in the affection with which he played the composer’s 24 Preludes.

Completed in 1839, they are an extraordinary set of pieces that travel through each of the conventional Western tonal centres in the course of just 40 minutes. Chopin structures them cleverly, pairing them up so that each prelude appearing in a major key (for instance the first one in C major) is followed by its closest relative in a minor key (in this case A minor). The series proceeds using the ancient ‘cycle of fifths’, so that after ‘C’ we move to ‘G’, then ‘D’, and so on until a complete circuit is reached.

Previous exponents of this sort of cycle include Bach, whose famous ‘48’ also uses all the keys, but moves in a stepwise movement from C to C sharp, then D. In visiting the form Chopin was clearly aware of Bach’s efforts in the previous century, for he took the music with him on holiday to Majorca, where some of the preludes were written.

Lortie brought the cycle to life (from 18:06 on the broadcast link provided), with some of the shorter pieces reeled off at dazzling speed. The quick ones, for instance those in G major (21:02) or a particularly stormy affair in F sharp minor (27:29) were on occasion a bit too swift for the phrasing to be abundantly clear, but when he spent time over the melancholic no.4 in E minor (21:57), or the serious no.6 in B minor (24:37), the melodies were beautifully shaped, the depth of feeling immediately evident.

The natural centrepiece of the cycle is no.15 in D flat major, known as the Raindrop (from 36:27). It is at least twice as long as any of the others but also contains at its heart a very strong reference to plainchant, the speculation being that Chopin was capturing a haunted abbey in his writing. It looks forward to Debussy in this sense, and Lortie played it with the grandeur it deserved. Following it with the whirlwind B flat minor prelude (41:50) was the storm after the calm, the whirlwind superbly energised.

A beautifully crafted finish included the delicacy of the F major prelude from 51:35) and the stern countenance of the final D minor prelude (52:25), carrying its head high to put a cap on a superb performance of 24 strongly characterised pieces.

A little less effective were the 6 Canonic Preludes by George Benjamin, written so that whatever is played in one part has to be shadowed by the other. Some of the pieces were effective characterisations, not a million miles from Schoenberg’s mysterious piano pieces, but others felt emptier emotionally. Lortie played them superbly, but perhaps repeated hearing on the broadcast will bring them to life.

Further listening

Lortie is in the process of recording the complete piano works of Chopin, and his first album in the series for Chandos is a great next step after the Preludes, containing as it does the great Piano Sonata no.2.

Wigmore Mondays – Nelson Goerner plays Debussy & Chopin

nelson-goerner

Nelson Goerner (piano) © Jean-Baptiste Millot

Chopin Polonaise in F# minor Op.44 (1841) (11 minutes)

2 Nocturnes Op.62 (1846) (12 minutes)

Polonaise in A flat major Op.53 (1842-3) (7 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 23 November

Arcana’s commentary

For both Chopin and Debussy the piano became arguably their primary means of musical expression. Both used relatively traditional forms – studies, preludes for instance – but stretched them from conventional structures to suit their own means.

Here we heard seven of the twelve Préludes Debussy wrote as a book, the first of two, published in 1909 and 1910. These are character pieces where he was painting a picture or an impression, without always specifying his exact stimulus. Some were more obvious; others were left to the player for interpretation.

Nelson Goerner made each of these his own. The languid, humid atmosphere of Danseuses de Delphes (1:32 on the broadcast), with control and shading, set the scene and led to an enjoyable and mysterious La serenade interrompue (4:35). This was playful but wary too – dancing but not wanting to fully let itself go.

The ‘underwater rolling of pebbles’ from Verlaine’s poem could be sensed in Le vent dans la plaine (7:00), while the simplicity of La fille aux cheveux de lin (9:09) was rather moving. La danse de Puck (11:24) could have found the Midsummer Night’s Dream character in a more playful mood perhaps, while the thick atmospherics of Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (14:02) hung heavy on the air. Finally Les collines d’Anacapri (17:58) danced and shimmered, controlled but letting itself run wild too. The last four high notes were hammered out convincingly (20:37)

Goerner’s Chopin was rather different. The first of the Polonaises (22:14) was Chopin’s most ambitious work to use the dance form, using a Polonaise in its outer sections but a Mazurka in the middle (from 26:56). This central section had more charm but the outer sections were stern, almost obsessive – and brilliantly played. Their return after the Mazurka (30:05) was like two bolts of lightning, the mood almost that of a Tango from Goerner’s native Argentina.

The Nocturnes (33:40) and (40:12) could have done with a bit more air and relaxation; Goerner seemed rather anxious to push on with them. That said the trills of the first (from 37:55) were expertly managed, while the second was really nicely pointed.

The Polonaise (45:53) was heroic indeed, strutting its stuff but frequently dazzling, especially in Goerner’s white hot ostinato (49:02)

There was an encore to finish, an Impromptu of poise and grace (53:48), more of a Nocturne than the other two arguably.

Further listening

There is something rather special about Polish piano music – and to continue from the Chopin the Spotify playlist below offers up some lesser-heard treats in the form of piano concertos by Paderewski and Moszkowski, prefaced by a sprinkling of exotic Mazurkas from Szymanowski.

by Ben Hogwood

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

Wigmore Mondays – Behzod Abduraimov: Chopin Ballades and Brahms Variations

behzod-abduraimov

Behzod Abduraimov (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 15 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07032zw

Available until 17 March

What’s the music?

Chopin (1810-1849) – Ballades:

No.1 in G minor Op.23 (c1835) (9 minutes)

No.2 in F major Op.38 (1839) (7 minutes)

No.3 in A flat major Op.47 (1841) (7 minutes)

No.4 in F minor Op.52 (1842-43) (10 minutes)

Brahms – Variations on a theme of Paganini, Book 1 Op.35 (1862-63) (12 minutes)

Spotify

Behzod Abduraimov has not recorded this repertoire as yet, so in case you are unable to hear the radio broadcast the below playlist contains recordings of the Ballades by the legendary Artur Rubinstein – and an equally thrilling recording of the Brahms from pianist Julius Katchen:

About the music

As the name implies, the Ballade is a form that has a literary origin. Chopin seemingly opted to use this name in response to the writings of Adam Mickiewicz – and using such a name gave him freedom of expression and form. So it is that the four ballades for piano each tell their own story, sometimes deciding to apply rigorous structure but on other occasions letting their ideas run free.

More recently it has become a popular concert trend for the four to be performed together, as they span a good range of Chopin’s composing career (12 years) and because their key centres and emotional impressions are complementary. The first and fourth are the most substantial pieces and arguably the most difficult to bring off, while the second is rigorously structured and the third described as more of a ‘salon’ piece – which should not demean it in any way.

Brahms wrote two books of Paganini Variations, taking as his inspiration the composer’s very last Caprice for solo violin, which you can view below:

It was the composer’s last large scale work for solo piano, and was perhaps a surprise to those who had gotten to know him as a serious composer. Here he lets himself off the leash, writing music that seems to be for display purposes as it becomes ever more difficult – despite him referring to his writing as modest ‘finger exercises’. Brahms being Brahms, though, there is still that customary attention to detail throughout the fourteen variations.

Performance verdict

An ambitious program for a lunchtime concert, but one the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov pulled off with aplomb. He clearly knows the Chopin Ballades very well, for the melodic phrases were invested with a natural instinct that gave him a deceptive amount of room. There were some passages of play that took the breath away, such as the end of the fourth ballade, while in contrast the quieter moments, such as the very private beginning to the third ballade, were equally involving.

The first ballade flowed beautifully, a stream of consciousness that felt instinctive and gained a lot of momentum in its tempestuous central pages.

On occasion the Paganini Variations were too loud, the really fast and firm bits given out with just a bit too much force. Yet that is perhaps the best criticism, for it shows the extent to which Abduraimov was really going for his shots, as it were – nailing most of the really tricky runs and dazzling especially in the right hand of the thirteenth variation.

What should I listen out for?

Chopin

2:54 – the first Ballade begins with a call to arms that soon dims down – where we hear the main theme at 3:25. For much of the first section the pianist appears deep in thought, but soon these thoughts come to the surface, and from 5:00 onwards we hear music of great feeling, rising to a tempestuous climax and a thoroughly convincing finish.

11:45 – the second Ballade has none of the brooding expression of its predecessor, and could almost be mistaken for a Christmas piece at the start, with its blend of grace and nostalgia. Things change dramatically at 13:41 with an outburst from the right hand, a sudden whirlwind of notes that will almost certainly make you jump on headphones! The two contrasting moods alternate through to the end.

18:46 – the third Ballade starts with a beautiful theme and then turns into a graceful, almost balletic triple time dance. A second section at 20:27 is also in the mood for a dance, turning gracefully but then becoming deeper and much firmer. This starts to dominate the ballade as Chopin moves it through increasingly distant key centres, before the main theme returns joyously at 24:40.

25:47 – the fourth and final Ballade does not begin in its ‘home’ key, approaching it by way of an introduction – before arriving at 26:19 with a new theme. The final flurry to the end begins at 34:49 and is brilliantly played.

Brahms

38:16 – Paganini’s theme is heard in some distinctive voicing – and it is not long until the first variation at 38:43, with what sounds like an incredibly difficult piece of writing to play! Other notable variations are the flighty third (39:37), a much quieter and sombre fifth (40:58), and a sixth (41:48) where Brahms’ characteristic rhythms of two against three take hold. There are then some inward looking, quieter moments where the music takes time for thought.

Then at 47:58 we hear the thirteenth variation, and there are some frankly outrageous showboating with glissandi (very fast runs) in the right hand. Who said Brahms isn’t fun?! The end is pretty explosive stuff, and if you listen closely you might be able to hear Abduraimov stamping towards the finish.

Encore

51:49 – very much the calm after the storm, the encore is the pianist Alfred Cortot’s arrangement of the Sicilienne – originally composed by Vivaldi and arranged by Bach (3 minutes)

Further listening

The last Paganini caprice has sparked the imagination of a number of composers, each of whom have written variations on its melody – so at the bottom of the concert playlist you will find the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini from Rachmaninov, along with Variations from Lutoslawski and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Which one is best?

Meanwhile you can compare Chopin’s approach to the Ballade with that of Brahms, who published his set of four in 1854. The items are on the bottom of the playlist containing the music used in the concert:

Wigmore Mondays – Adrian Brendel and Aleksandar Maksar

brendel-madzar

Adrian Brendel (cello), Aleksandar Maksar (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 7 December 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06r5dhh

on the iPlayer until 6 January 2016

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of some of the music in this concert. The Birtwistle is not on Spotify, and Adrian Brendel has not yet recorded either of the Debussy or Chopin Cello Sonatas, so alternative versions have been chosen:

What’s the music?

Debussy: Cello Sonata in D minor (1915) (11 minutes)

Birtwistle: Variations for cello and piano (2007) (6 minutes)

Chopin: Cello Sonata in G minor (1846) (31 minutes)

Every piece of music that Chopin published features the piano in some way. Most of his output is for piano solo but there are a couple of exceptions – two piano concertos and some works for piano and orchestra, the Polish Songs, the Piano Trio and this, Chopin’s only Cello Sonata.

It is a substantial piece, written late on in its composer’s career, and has a curious structure of four movements where the first is as long as the other three put together. It is a substantial piece of work, deeply felt in the slower music especially, but is also restless, the cello and piano playing closely together in melodies of unusual rhythm and contour. Chopin achieves the difficult task of honing his instincts for the piano to play as a solo instrument, balancing the two forces extremely well.

Debussy’s Cello Sonata is much shorter, a third of the length of the Chopin, but is equally concentrated in feeling. The work was to be the first in a series of six sonatas for different instrumental combinations from the composer, but sadly ill health determined he would not be able to get any further than three (the others are for violin and piano, and flute, viola and harp). The Cello Sonata is a sultry piece, particularly in the second movement Sérénade, which features plucking on the cello.

Bisecting these is one of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s several pieces for cello and piano. The Variations are very closely linked to the Brendel family, and although they were commissioned by Adrian they take as their theme a piece written by Birtwistle for father Alfred. The theme is taken from another piece for the same combination, the Lied, and Birtwistle complemented that with this piece and several more to make a continuous sequence for cello, baritone and piano lasting just over half an hour.

Performance verdict

Adrian Brendel and Aleksandar Madzar gave highly accomplished performances of these three works, the result an extremely satisfying concert of contrasting musical language. The Debussy is a perennial favourite but sounded very fresh here, Brendel enjoying the almost complete freedom of the improvised second movement.

The Birtwistle, a gritty, concentrated piece, was very well done also, with characterisation of each of the short variations and some really vivid shades of colour from Brendel in particular.

The Chopin exploited the cellist’s singing tone beautifully, especially in the soaring second theme of the second movement. The duo stressed the uncertainty of much of this piece, and in particular the sizeable first movement, which here seemed to have just as many intriguing questions as it had answers. Brendel took everything in his stride technically, and the rapport and ensemble between the two performers – Madzar employing plenty of light and shade with the piano – was a real asset throughout.

What should I listen out for?

Debussy

2:04 – the first movement, a Prologue, begins with an opening statement from the piano, before the cello comes in expansively. The mood evokes to me a late summer evening. Debussy impresses with his economical use of form here, packing a lot of musical incident into a short movement before it finishing thoughtfully.

6:29 – the Sérénade is a nocturnal movement, and sounds like an improvisation, the plucked cello leading the piano in a stuttering series of musical gestures, showing off a more obvious Spanish influence. Gradually Debussy brings both instruments into line, and the cello uses the bow a lot more, building the tension and moving straight into…

9:50… the Finale, which starts with urgent piano and soaring cello before a vivacious theme makes itself known from the cello (10:08). This becomes the main focus of the movement, though the sultry mood of the Sérénade is not entirely forgotten.

Birtwistle

15:27 – the piece begins with a mysterious sound world on show, the cello playing two notes at once and the piano sounding very uncertain. The variations unfold in wildly differing moods, and without following the score it is relatively difficult to say where one ends and the next begins. After a tense beginning the piano stabs out two penetrating notes and then the music becomes faster – though the performers seem much more at odds. The end, when it comes, is slight.

Chopin

23:28 – the very substantial first movement (16 minutes) starts on the piano, with a solemn introduction. It doesn’t take long for Chopin to show off the pianist’s technique, but he is careful not to write a part that impinges on the cello once it appears with the theme. After a slow start the pace picks up a little, the mood intensifying – until Chopin works around to a repeat of the whole first section (from 28:42)

39:54 – a short scherzo that flits about without seeming to settle. The instruments are very closely linked in their musical discussion, both sharing the distinctive rhythm that Chopin gives to the main theme. The second theme () has a soaring quality very unusual to Chopin (in that he wrote so many melodies for the piano) and it has a penetrating beauty in this concert.

45:10 – a soft but warm-hearted slow movement, with a songful melody first aired on the cello but then repeated on piano. This is a surprisingly short movement, profound but giving the sonata a slightly lopsided form.

48:40 – the finale takes us back to the sonata’s ‘home’ key of G minor and finds an impressive urgency, with cello and piano working very closely together. Chopin employs a number of extremely catchy hooks but the form is relatively compressed…and soon the music moves into the major key and a thoroughly affirmative finish at 54:30.

Further listening

The Spotify playlist containing the music for this concert has been enhanced to include Chopin’s other large-scale chamber work, the Piano Trio. After this you can enjoy some music for cello and piano by a composer best known for his piano music, Franz Liszt – and played by the great Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi: