Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert:

In honour of Raymond Leppard

This week we learned of the sad passing of Raymond Leppard, a conductor whose legacy should truly be celebrated. Anyone getting to know the music of Bach or other Baroque greats in the 1980s and 1990s would surely have encountered his wonderful recordings with the English Chamber Orchestra, either in their first pressings or through judicious reissuing on the Philips label.

Leppard offered a modern instrument alternative to the burgeoning movement of period instrument performance. Although the two sides had their differences, he ultimately showed there was room for both approaches, the music always foremost in his mind.

Leppard’s recordings always have poise, grace and energy, and hopefully the attached playlist will bring them to a wider audience. He was a fine choral and vocal conductor, resurrecting many operas from the Baroque and furthering the cause of composers such as Rameau and Monteverdi. It also includes part of a recent disc he did for Decca with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where he was conductor from 1987 until 2001.

The playlist includes John Alden Carpenter’s Sea Drift from that disc, the Holberg Suite by Grieg and two works by J.S. Bach. Chiome d’oro, a short excerpt from Leppard’s recording of five books of Monteverdi madrigals, is included on account of its appearance as one of the conductor’s Desert Island Discs in March 1972.

Picture of Raymond Leppard (c) Thomas J. Russo

Proms at … Cadogan Hall 3: The English Concert / Kristian Bezuidenhout

The English Concert / Kristian Bezuidenhout (harpischord, above)

Purcell (1659-95)
The Virtuous Wife (before 1694): Overture (1:45 on the broadcast link below)
The Fairy Queen (1692): Hornpipe (4:38)
The Virtuous Wife (before 1694) – First Act Tune (5:41)
The Indian Queen (1695): Rondeau (8:41)
Chacony in G minor (c1678) (10:21)
Marchand (1669-1732)
Pièces de clavecin, Book 1: Allemande (publ. 1702) (17:33)
de La Guerre (1665-1729)
Violin Sonata in D minor (publ. 1707) (20:46 – 35:45)
Telemann (1681-1767)
Sonata in A minor, TWV 43:a 5 (unknown date) (39:43 – 48:47)
Handel (1685-1759)
Trio Sonata in G major Op.5/4 (publ. 1739) (50:02 – end)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 5 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

This was a really interesting hour of music from the English Concert and director / harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout, and it was all the more refreshing for a willingness to look beyond the more conventional repertoire you might have expected as part of the Proms’ look at 800 years of music in the Cadogan Hall chamber concerts this year.

Petroc Trelawny, always a consummate professional when introducing at the venue, gave helpful context behind the works chosen, and explained how each was looking to emulate the French style that was so fashionable thanks to the tastes and influence of Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’.

First up was Henry Purcell, who was of course a popular figure and well enough established in England – but the choices here were not conventional. The Virtuous Wife, a comedy for the stage (beginning at 1:45 on the broadcast link), is just one example of many works Purcell wrote for the theatre in England. In this performance the overture was perhaps a touch too virtuous to begin with, though by the time the music broke at 2:43 a natural tempo and phrasing had been reached. The Fairy Queen’s Hornpipe (4:38) was vigorous, with a satisfying twang to the theorbo strings of William Carter.

The First Act Tune (5:41) was pensive but nicely phrased, showing off Purcell’s rich chromatic spectrum, and was followed by a graceful Rondeau, dancing slowly but elegantly (8:41), before the Chacony (10:21), one of his most famous instrumental pieces that we often hear today for string orchestra. It is a powerful set of variations over a ‘ground’ (a pre-set bass and chord progression) that gathers in intensity.

Next we had solo harpsichord, Bezuidenhout showing off his instincts in an improvisatory Allemande by the French composer Louis Marchand (17:33), with some expansive harmonic twists. That was followed by a dazzling Violin Sonata no.1 in D minor by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (20:46). Written in 1707 as part of a set dedicated to Louis XIV, it was deftly handled here by Tuomo Suni, with its six short movements marked as Prelude (20:46), Presto (23:20), Adagio (25:18), Presto-Adagio (26:00), Aria (29:53) and Presto (33:36). The Presto-Adagio showed not just only Suni’s clear tone, without vibrato, but the punchy ‘continuo’ accompaniment from Bezuidenhout and viola da gamba player Piroska Baranyay. A similarly crunchy sound inhabits the final Presto, after a graceful Aria.

Telemann’s enormous output can sometimes mask his achievements as a composer, and the Sonata in A minor – little known, it seems – showed itself to be an accomplished and dramatic piece, ‘praising the instrumental texture’ as Bezuidenhout explained. Bolstered by the double bass of Christine Sticher, the English Concert (above) really benefited from the extra depth to their sound, meaning a Trio Sonata had seven people on the platform managing the three parts!

The short suite made references to Poland, France and Italy in a Grave (39:43), Allegro – Adagio (40:32), Allegro (44:10), Largo e staccato (45:43) and final Allegro (46:15). The stylish performance had a rustic feel in the faster movements, with an earthy snap to the staccatos of the fourth and a brilliant cut and thrust to the final Allegro.
Finally Handel, and a brightly voiced Trio Sonata in G major Op.5/4, the kind of which he would surely have played with friends in his Brook Street flat in London. This performance played the piece in a different order to the norm, beginning with the ‘second’ movement, marked A tempo ordinario (50:02), which had an enjoyably full texture from the seven instruments, and then moving onto the ‘first’, an Allegro (53:55), where the violins took a more prominent role. An elegant Minuet (56:04) followed, then a Passacaille (58:02), with increasingly elaborate lines spun over a recurring bass line – which itself became enjoyably coarse.

An enlightening hour of music, then, which you are encouraged to enjoy on the link above.

Listen

The playlist below replicates the concert in available recordings, and includes the Gigue movement of the Handel which appears to have been omitted from the original concert:

Meanwhile to enjoy the many and varied delights of Purcell’s complete Theatre Music, the below recording from Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music will bring much pleasure:

Miah Persson – songs for voice, violin and piano at the Wigmore Hall

Miah Persson, Malcolm Martineau and Birgit Kolar perform works by Handel, Donald Waxman and Richard Strauss

miah-persson

Miah Persson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano) and Birgit Kolar (violin) – Wigmore Hall, London & live on BBC Radio 3, 20 April 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05qypn8

on the iPlayer until 21 May

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of the songs sung by Miah Persson. She has not recorded any of them as yet, so I have selected suitable alternatives. The playlist can be found here:

spotify:user:arcana.fm:playlist:0GxLX32yLf0mMVTaq7rE1J

What’s the music?

Handel – 3 German Arias (1724-1727) (17 minutes)

Donald Waxman – Lovesongs (1989) (14 minutes)

Richard Strauss – Violin Sonata, Second movement – inspiration (1887) (8 minutes)

Richard StraussSeptember and Beim schlafengehen (from the Four Last Songs)(1948) (10 minutes); Morgen (1894) (4 minutes)

What about the music?

The combination of voice, violin and piano is not heard much in the concert hall these days, but here Miah Persson, Birgit Kolar and Malcolm Martineau constructed a program of compositions using the forces spanning 265 years. A little imagination was required on the part of the listener – particularly in two of the three Strauss songs where the violin was introduced – but otherwise the combination worked well.

Handel’s three German Arias are part of a group of nine he wrote while setting poetry by his friend Heinrich Brokes – and they are his only settings in the language. Each is scored for a singer, a treble instrument (the violin in this case) and ‘continuo’ – which is the group of people supplying either bass line, chords or both. In this case Malcolm Martineau’s piano comfortably fulfilled that discipline.

Donald Waxman celebrates his 90th birthday this year, inviting comparisons with Elliott Carter, the grandest of old men of American music. Waxman’s best known musical currency is the song, and this group of four love songs contains poems about love by Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Herrick, an anonymous author and Thomas Hardy.

Finally three songs by Richard Strauss, introduced by the luscious, Romantic harmonies of the second movement of his Violin Sonata. Two of the composer’s last songs are chosen as well as an early song, Morgen, which was a wedding present to his wife.

Performance verdict

Miah Persson has a rather special voice, and heard in person at the Wigmore Hall it could easily melt the most stubborn heart.

This program was a slightly curious one, but made sense in the way it was presented. Handel’s word painting was brought to life by Persson in three of the Nine German Arias, which she sang beautifully – restrained but elegant. Meanwhile Donald Waxman’s rich Loveletters offered a more obviously Romantic view of the world and were passionately sung.

The violin was a helpful counterpart here, but was not always at its most useful in the Strauss songs, picking up elements of the orchestral part for which it was written, and ensemble with Martineau was just occasionally scrappy at the beginning and end of songs.

Two of Strauss’s Four Last Songs felt a bit bereft without the others, and despite Malcolm Martineau’s superhuman efforts there was too much going on in the piano version. Morgen, however, was a sumptuous finish to the program.

What should I listen out for?

Handel

1:49 Das zitternde Glänzen der spiegelden Wellen (The shimmering gleam of dancing waves)

This attractive aria begins with a bright violin solo, before a similarly bright entrance from the soprano. The two instruments Martineau’s very sensitive playing brings out the countermelodies when they are needed.

7:53 In den angenehmen Buschen (In these pleasant bushes, where light and shade intermingle)

A shadow falls over the music initially, with a solemn violin solo presumably painting the shade of the text. The bright soprano soars beautifully overhead, however, and finds a rather lovely major key at 9:01, then a brief but really stunning piece of virtuosity to close at 12:11.

13:00 Meine seele hort ihm Sehen (My soul hears through seeing)

‘How all things rejoice and laugh’ is the text during this aria, and Persson seems to be doing just that, her bright voice complemented perfectly by the relative restraint from Kolar and Martineau. This aria, as the BBC Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch observes, is full of the joys of spring.

Waxman

20:07 Lovesong (Rainer Maria Rilke) – this piece is just for voice and violin and has a curiously exposed feeling, right from the opening notes from the violin. Kolar plays double stopped (more than one note at once) until Persson glides in, at which point she largely switches to a single note. The tonality is often elusive but the song is carefully thought.

23:57 The Mad Maid (Robert Herrick) – the two instruments begin with unhinged figures that threaten to settle into a busy, Stravinsky-like rhythm, with plenty of syncopations – yet the song feels beyond reach, rather like the mind of the maid, right through to its colder conclusion.

28:16 Nocturne (Anon) – a more obviously romantic song. The close interplay between violin and piano leads to a slow, sonorous melody from the singer. There is a much sweeter aftertaste to this encounter.

32:04 A Bygone Occasion (Thomas Hardy) – a festival air to the last song through the busy piano line, with some jazzy elements in the exchanges with violin. Again Persson’s voice is imperious, and joyful too.

Richard Strauss

35:20 – Violin Sonata, Second movement – an improvisatory and rapturous movement for violin and piano, exploring rich harmonies and melodies. The piano part is particularly full-bodied, as though Strauss were writing for a miniature orchestra. A choppy central section introduces some turbulence that rights itself for a return to the main theme.

43:37 – September from the Four Last Songs­ – this may be music of an old man (Strauss was 84 at the time of composition) but it is clearly a man who has enjoyed a good life. Persson sings with real passion, and the note where she comes back in at 45:07 is worth hearing several times!

48:06 – Beim schlafengehen (When falling asleep)­ – the sleep here of course is the ultimate, end-of-life sleep – but Strauss paints a contented picture, as does Persson – though the piano part has a job rendering all the orchestral detail with just two hands! The violin arrives to help at 49:44, upon which the soprano becomes more and more powerful, the vocal line sweeping upwards as though reaching for heaven.

Encore

54:09 – Morgen (Morning) – one of Strauss’s most celebrated songs, and in the intro the listener can almost imagine the sun hovering at the horizon, ready to break through and begin the day. With it comes an atmosphere of intense calm, taken up by Persson.

Want to hear more?

During the Waxman in particular I was put in mind of the songs of Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland, both found on a wonderful disc from the soprano Barbara Bonney, accompanied by none other than André Previn. It can be heard on Spotify here

For more concerts click here