Wigmore Mondays – Nicolas Altstaedt plays Bach & Dutilleux

Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)

Dutilleux 3 Strophes sur le nom de SACHER (1976) (1:36 on the broadcast link below)
J.S. Bach Cello Suite No 1 in G major BWV1007 (c1717-23) (12:54)
Cello Suite No 5 In C minor BWV1011 (c1717-23) (32:13)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 June 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The Wigmore Hall is an ideal venue for solo cello, as Nicolas Altstaedt showed in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert. Yet before we heard his solo Bach he switched the order of the program slightly, placing the Dutilleux piece first. I must admit I had thought it would be even more effective in between the two Bach suites, but with playing of this insight and quality it soon seemed harsh to quibble.

Along with eleven other composers, Henri Dutilleux wrote a piece to celebrate the 70th birthday of the Swiss conductor and patron Paul Sacher. The brief was to construct a solo cello work using the intials of the conductor’s name (Eb – A – C – B – E – R). Dutilleux was in exalted company – Britten, Boulez, Lutoslawski and Ginastera were some of the other names involved – but he constructed 3 Stophes sur le nom de SACHER, three short but deeply expressive pieces.

Altstaedt played them passionately, immediately enjoying Dutilleux’s ways of exploiting the instrument’s colour through pizzicato, harmonics and a detuned ‘C’ string. The first piece (from 1:36 on the broadcast link) created a heady atmosphere but with plenty of nervous energy, before retreating to a distance. The second piece (4:45) brooded in the cello’s lower register before ascending to a lonely-sounding melody on high. The third (7:20) went at a terrific rate, scurrying figures down the cello punctuated by plucking, then reaching dizzy heights with harmonics that could almost have been from another planet, before swooping down and finishing with aplomb.

Moving to J.S. Bach, the mood eased for a wonderful performance of the Cello Suite no.1. Altstaedt played at a lower ‘baroque pitch’, with very little vibrato and with relatively little flamboyance, happy to let the music do the talking. With an airy Prelude (12:54) followed by a softly voiced Allemande (15:29) and light footed Courante (20:35), notable for its tasteful ornamentation, he was allowing Bach’s dance movements every chance to express their graceful side.

When it came to the slow Sarabande (22:56), he resisted the temptation to do what a lot of cellists do and overplay the double stopped chords, again letting the music speak in quiet, thoughtful tones.

He decided against using the Minuet repeat – a minor shame, as it is such good music! – but the light and shade with the trio section (25:48 and then 26:33) was exquisitely judged, before the Gigue (28:19) danced its way into the distance.

Altstaedt’s choice of suites was very much light and shade, for there is little in Bach with a darker colour than the Solo Cello Suite no.5. The Prelude (32:13) of this suite is austere in the extreme, and again a slightly reserved approach dynamically played to the music’s strengths. The Allemande (37:40) and Courante (43:32) were stern, each dance movement given the appropriate room but very darkly coloured, the rich chords beautifully judged.

The famous Sarabande (45:27), which some have compared to the falling of tears, was suspended in mid-air, time almost stopping as the feather light notes traced their bare outlines. After this a slight pick me up came in the shape of the first Bourrée (49:18), but the second was wispy and elusive (50:48). The concluding Gigue (52:35) gave us more closure but retained the serious air of the suite.

After these performances the lack of an encore was completely understandable, heightening the impact of the music we had heard. It was a very fine concert, and one would hope when he is ready Altstaedt will commit his striking Bach interpretations to disc.

Further reading and listening

You can watch Nicolas Altstaedt play the Dutilleux Strophes here:

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

Altstaedt has not yet committed any of the Bach suites to record yet, but he has released a disc of the Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, with Jonathan Cohen. They can be heard on Spotify here:

The Bach Cello Suites are wide open to interpretation, not just from cellists but from the wider electronic music community. Peter Gregson has a foot in both camps, and last year’s addition to Deutsche Grammophon’s ‘Recomposed’ series was both imaginative and respectful:

On record: Orchestre National de Lille / Jean-Claude Casadesus – Dutilleux: Symphony no.1, Métaboles & Les Citations (Naxos)

Cyril Ciabaud (oboe), Kasia Tomczak-Feltrin (harpsichord), Mathieu Petit (double-bass), Romain Robine (percussion) (all Les Citations), Orchestre National de Lille / Jean-Claude Casadesus

Dutilleux
Symphony No. 1 (1951)
Métaboles (1964)
Les Citations (1985/90)

Naxos 8.573746 [61’27”]

Recorded 18-21 July 2016 at Auditorium de Nouveau Siecle, Lille
Producer/Engineer Phil Rowlands

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Jean-Claude Casadesus marks his four-decade tenure at the helm of the Orchestre National de Lille with this disc of Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013), with whose music he has been associated across his conducting career and whose current status he has played no small part in securing.

What’s the music like?

Numerous listeners will have come to know Dutilleux’s First Symphony through a recording Casadesus made with his Lille forces in 1977 (released on LP by Forlane in 1984 then on CD by Erato as part of its five-disc compendium in 2014).

The present account offers no radical reassessment; rather an intensifying of what was already a taut and involving take on a work which channels elements drawn from Roussel and Honegger into a distinctive if not yet fully characteristic statement. Thus, the stealthy Passacaille and incisive Scherzo now comprise an unbroken and cumulative continuity; the ensuing Intermezzo exuding calm though little repose prior to a Finale whose variations on its bracing initial chorale unfold eventfully yet purposefully to a hushed close. Rarely has this piece evinced greater cohesion or conviction.

One of George Szell‘s selective though influential commissions for the Cleveland Orchestra, Métaboles is a linked sequence of five pieces which combine the formal logic of a symphony with the expressive immediacy of a concerto for orchestra. Casadesus places emphasis firmly on the former quality, there is assuredly no lack of impetus as he steers these musicians from the striking Incantoire, through the rapturous Lineaire then impetuous Obsessionnel and alluring Torpide, to the energetic Flamboyant which makes for a scintillating apotheosis.

Les Citations is a diptych that alludes to Britten, Mannequin and Jehan Alain over its succinct yet highly unpredictable course; in scoring which evokes the French baroque and Debussy’s revitalising of it in terms at once authentic and capricious – as this fine reading makes plain.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. Dutilleux may have come to international prominence well before his death, but there remains something innately French about both his music’s content and its sound-world, as these readings confirm. A conductor who has never sought worldwide acclaim, Casadesus has choosing to hone his repertoire and musicianship from a long-term location, so explaining the tangible chemistry and unanimity of purpose that exists between him and the Lille players.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, especially as the recording offers a near-ideal combination of detail and perspective, and the booklet notes a sure knowledge of this composer’s idiom. Anyone new to Dutilleux now has a range of options, with this new release as good a starting-point as any available.

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about the release on the Naxos website, while the video below gives a generous glimpse of the equally desirable recording these forces have made of the Second Symphony:

François Le Roux & Olivier Godin – Henri Dutilleux birthday concert

François Le Roux (baritone, above), Olivier Godin (piano, below)

Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013)
4 mélodies (Féerie au clair de lune, Pour une amie perdue, Chanson au bord de la mer, Fantasio)
Au gré des ondes: Prélude en berceuse
3 mélodies inédites (L’Ange pleurer, Vers de Ronsard, La Faute en est à toi)
Improvisation
Regards sur l’infini
Hommage à Bach
Chanson de la déportée
3 sonnets de Jean Cassou (Éloignez-vous (XVII) (Leave us), La geôle, Il n’y avait que des troncs déchirés
J’ai rêvé
Petit air à dormir debout
San Francisco Night

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 22 January 2019

Review by Ben Hogwood

This was a remarkable hour of music; the only regret being that not more people were present at the Wigmore Hall to see it. In a relatively rare Tuesday lunchtime concert at the venue, François Le Roux and Olivier Godin treated us to an hour-long celebration of the birthday of Henri Dutilleux, one of France’s finest 20th century composers – which is certainly saying something!

Dutilleux (below), who died as recently as 2013, left a small but perfectly formed musical canon, consisting mostly of works for the orchestra or the piano. His songs are little known and for good reason, as the composer himself did not think greatly of them, preferring to suppress their performance and recording. There are however enough to form more than an hour of music.

Only the baritone François Le Roux performs them regularly, and with pianist Olivier Godin he has recorded them all on a single disc. From that disc came much of the music performed here; songs written in the 1940s when the composer was establishing his mature voice.

Dutilleux was very hard on himself, it has to be said – and to explain why we had the peerless programme notes of Roger Nichols to guide us. They told us of Charles Panzera, a distinguished baritone who became the muse of the first eight songs in the recital, all written for performance on French radio.

The first of the 4 mélodies was Féerie au clair de lune (Moonlight of Fairies), which had bluesy undertones to its sparkling piano part, brilliantly played – and a vividly pictorial response to the words which Le Roux had no trouble in communicating. This was a feature of the recital, the baritone’s open performance style, extending through a simple but moving Pour une amie perdue (For a Lost Lady-Love), with its straightforward stepwise progressions, and then a slow, meandering Chanson au bord de la mer (Song by the Sea). The direct responses contained flashes of humour in the entertaining Fantasio, a setting of André Bellessort with the opening line (translated), ‘Death caught you costumed for the fancy ball’.

The concert was helpfully bookmarked with some of Dutilleux’s solo piano output, about which he was once again dismissive – but which once again far exceeded his evaluations in my opinion! The Prélude en berceuse was an attractive pairing with an easy charm and hints of Ravel. A later Improvisation enjoyed its freedom, while Hommage à Bach was clarity personified, an ideal bit of pastiche writing.

By then Le Roux had given us the Borsent setting L’Ange pleurer (The Weeping Angel), then a very cheeky Vers de Ronsard to make even the most liberally minded audience members blush a little! The same poet’s Le Faute en est à toi (Love, blame yourself) was perfectly clear but also given an extra sense of yearning by a slight husk to the singer’s voice.

1941 was a good year of songwriting for Dutilleux – we heard Chanson de le deportee (Song of the departed woman), a downhearted and rather powerful lament. Then we moved to four settings of Jean Cassou, the startling violence within Éloignez-vous (XVII) (Leave us) making a strong impact, together with a cold coda. After that, the descriptive powers at work in La geôle were equally startling, notably for the full range of the piano expertly used by Godin. Il n’y avait que des troncs déchirés (Only torn tree-trunks) was also remarkable, a wild-eyed and rather stark setting, before J’ai rêvé (I dreamed), which inevitably inhabited a much more languid world.

Dutilleux was never a composer for unnecessary or lengthy discourse – as the short piano piece Petit air à dormer debout proved. The final song, too, San Francisco Night – with words by Paul Gilson – took much longer for Le Roux to explain than it did to sing. His storytelling was rather wonderful though, as was the song – a beautifully judged and very poignant tribute to Francis Poulenc, and part of a collection commissioned by the American soprano Alice Esty. Dutilleux’s final song, it effectively marked the end of the French mélodie begun by Berlioz – but what a lovely, bittersweet way to finish.

Further listening

Unfortunately François Le Roux and Olivier Godin’s disc of Dutilleux’s songs is not available on any streaming services currently. However you can listen to a wonderful disc of Anne Queffélec playing the composer’s piano works on Spotify here:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Tim Squier on Beethoven, Dutilleux and HK Gruber

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
gruber-buskingThis is the continuation of a series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Tim Squier gives his thoughts on Prom 34.

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Claudia Buder (accordion), Mats Bergström, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Dutilleux Timbres, espaces, movement (1990)
Gruber Busking (2007)
Beethoven Symphony no.5 in C minor (1804-1808)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Tim, what was your musical upbringing?

It was my mum that brought me up, and in terms of music it’s not worth going there really! It was very middle of the road – Cliff Richard, some of The Beatles. I discovered most things myself pretty much, she would have the radio on sometimes – but when I first discovered my own music it was via an alarm clock, an FM radio that she gave me. It was all the pop of the time in 1984-1986 – Madonna, Prince, A-ha, your Now 1984. Certainly in my early years there was Band Aid – and I wasn’t particularly cool. There wasn’t anything of a classical background in there!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Harold Budd is a big one for me. I do love my ambient and he doesn’t seem to put a foot wrong really. He just seems to have a certain emotion and style where you can just get lost in it. It can be background but it can be foreground as well. I can work to it, and not be fully tuned in, or I can be sitting down and listening to it and it works just as well.

I’m going for artists who have been with me for a long time, and Fleetwood Mac are an act that I could never really get enough of. They’ve gone through different phases like the 1980s pop side but I can also do the Peter Green stuff, and the Stevie Nicks especially. I just keep discovering new things off the albums too, like Oh Daddy from Rumours recently. Stevie Nicks solo – just brilliant, too. Not every single track but she’s the sort of person you can see her rehearsal footage on YouTube and it’s amazing. I’m watching it thinking it’s better than the album version!

For the third one I’ll go for someone electronic – Carl Craig. Certainly between 1990 and 1996 where he couldn’t put a foot wrong. He could do an ambient track, a banging techno track, stuff that doesn’t all into a genre – something for the dancefloor, something for the home. Carl recorded a lot of that on cassette tape, it didn’t sound very good but still did the business!

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I think almost unintentionally my first experience of anything like classical music would have been through film scores. One of my best friends in London has been responsible for playing me some classical music but not so much for a long time now. I have been to one Prom before but it was a long time ago and I can’t remember the actual pieces – but I know I enjoyed it. I quite enjoy listening to it but I don’t know much about it. I’ve heard some Ravel before, and quite enjoyed that.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

The Royal Albert Hall is always a joy, it’s a great venue – and the acoustics are really good for classical rather than pop I think. I really rated the first piece (the Dutilleux) and enjoyed that the most I think.

What did you think of the Dutilleux?

It was thoroughly enjoyable, I’m a real sucker for that deep sound from the lower strings – there is a certain orchestral sound I really love, the lower frequency, and you get a lot of that in film scores. There was a lot of that coming through and it flowed really well. I wasn’t bored at all, I really loved it.

What did you think of the HK Gruber?

It started out interesting, and the introduction was good, but the trumpet was too much of a focal point and I found myself drifting out. I was trying to listen to the background more but because of the positioning I was trying to hear what was going on my right hand side, but every time I tried I could hear the trumpet. There was a variety of devices going on (the mutes and three different trumpets – Ed) I’ll always give things a chance, and I tried but it didn’t work out!

And the Beethoven?

That was really enjoyable, a nice take on it – it’s been a while since I heard the entire piece and I think it really worked. There were some quirky moments, it was great watching the whole orchestra. There was one really young player who really stood out (oboist Henry Clay), he was really good. Another thing going back to the first piece, the Dutilleux – the percussion was great. With the Beethoven I loved the whole thing and there was a really nice stereo effect coming through, the clarity was there more and I could pick up on certain things, especially being a bit of an audiophile.

There are bits you forget as well – you don’t get them played on Capital Radio four times a day after all! It was good to hear those. So I think the Dutilleux first, then the Beethoven, then the Gruber.

Would you go again?

Absolutely, for sure. I’m quite open to new musical experiences and will try most things but would do this again!

Verdict: SUCCESS

You can read Arcana’s review of the whole Prom here – and you can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer

BBC Proms 2016 – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Beethoven’s Fifth, Dutilleux & HK Gruber

gruber-busking

Soloists Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Claudia Buder (accordion) and Mats Bergström (banjo) pictured during the performance of HK Gruber‘s Busking, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 34; Royal Albert Hall, 10 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Sakari Oramo continues to inspire. His tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to date has been characterised by imaginative programming and excellent performances, and putting an obvious spring in the orchestra’s musical steps.

Last year they delivered a Prom capped by Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, an account that fizzed with enthusiasm and vigour, and these same qualities were on show for the Fifth Symphony here. Oramo’s speeds were on the aggressive side, the slow movement arguably losing a bit of expressive heart because of it, but the faster movements unquestionably thrilling in their verve and forward drive.

Because of this approach, music that could have been over familiar received a new, sparkling coat of paint, and excellent woodwind contributions, particularly from new oboist Henry Clay, elevated the standard of playing. Guest leader Malin Broman set the tone with great vigour.

The first half gave us two contemporary pieces of very different impact. Timbres, espaces, movement became a three-movement orchestral piece when Henri Dutilleux revised it in 1990, and in this performance we could revel in its beautifully shaded colours, its sudden, strident unisons, and its captivating rhythms – all reflecting the painting on which it is based, Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

1280px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

These were expertly delivered by the BBC Symphony percussion, while in the second movement the glorious spectacle of twelve cellos highlighted the genius in the composer’s part writing as well as the deep lyricism of his melodies. This was the third Dutilleux performance of the week, capping a very strong trio begun with The Shadows of Time and the Cello Concerto Tout un monde lointain…

Less obviously successful was the substantial piece by HK Gruber, Busking – a work from 2007 receiving its UK premiere. Again the composer’s inspiration was a painting, in this case Picasso’s Three Musicians:

Picasso_three_musicians_moma_2006

Despite an excellent performance, in which trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger turned various shades of red and purple, all the while staying fully in command of his instruments, this was a piece that unfortunately ran out of steam quite early on.

A very promising beginning, with swaying syncopation brought on by the trumpeter with just his mouthpiece, ultimately lost its rhythmic impetus. Unfortunately the balance between the three soloists also became skewed heavily in favour of the trumpet, at the expense of brilliantly played detail from accordion (Claudia Buder) and banjo (Mats Bergström).

A doleful slow movement briefly evoked a melancholy cabaret, and did so very effectively, but here again the tones of the trumpet dominated, despite Hardenberger’s use of the mellow flugelhorn. This was not the fault of the players – and could also reflect Arcana’s position in the arena – but it was a shame to miss out on the touches of humour elsewhere. By the third movement, where some energy returned, the piece had by that time run out of substance.

That should not count against the overall success of this Prom, however, as the excellent performances of the BBC Symphony Orchestra reaped their just rewards.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear other Dutilleux performances at the BBC Proms by following the links below:

The Shadows of Time with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

Tout un monde lointain… with Johannes Moser (cello) and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena