Wigmore Mondays – Jean Guihen Queyras & Alexandre Tharaud play Debussy, Poulenc, Marais & Bach

Jean Guihen Queyras (cello, above), Alexandre Tharaud (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 28 October 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
Photo credits Marco Borggreve

Who could possibly be better suited for this concert among today’s musicians than cellist Jean Guihen Queyras and pianist Alexandre Tharaud? The long-established pairing constructed a hugely enjoyable programme of dance-based music for the combination, from two composers who were still writing for the viola da gamba to two writing for the modern cello but harking back to that older era.

The viola da gamba was on its way out when J.S. Bach and Marin Marais wrote their respective pieces for it. They did not know at the time, but it was about to lose its popularity to the cello, which – with one less string and eventually a spike for the player to hold it in – gradually took over.

Bach’s sonata, for viola da gamba and harpsichord, is equally rewarding when played by cello and piano as here, with great sensitivity and a lyrical line to the melodies from Queyras. The first movement Adagio (1:43 on the broadcast link) was beautifully weighted, as was the quicker but equally graceful Allegro (3:18). Both players found the deeper emotion of the Andante (7:06), Bach moving into the key of B minor for some aria-like soul searching. The final movement Allegro (11:03) was a delight, the benefit of an established musical partnership clear to see and with nicely judged ornamentation from Tharaud.

Marais wrote extensively for the lower end of the stringed instrument family, and his Pieces de viole contain music that is as challenging for the players as it is rewarding for the audience. This three-movement suite, arranged for the modern cello by Christian Döbereiner, contained a slower Prélude (16:53) and Sarabande grave (25:33) that Queyras and Tharaud played eloquently, the cellist finding wonderful clarity in his higher range. These shorter movements framed the main act, several variations on the popular tune La Folia titled Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), which, while apparently played without repeats, is where we had the real fireworks. There was terrific playing from both and a heightened sense of drama ran throughout.

Poulenc originally wrote his Suite Française for orchestra in 1935 as part of a ballet score, but it proved equally effective in a piano arrangement made later that year. This version for cello and piano was made in 1953, for performance by the composer with French cellist Pierre Fournier. Based on the music of 16th century composer Claude Gervaise, it is a charming suite of seven dance movements looking back some four hundred years, merging the musical language of that time with Poulenc’s perky writing and crunchy harmonies. It was brilliantly realised here.

The seven dance pieces are as follows: a lively Bransle de Bourgogne (30:13), a consoling Pavane (31:40), then a cheeky Petite marche militaire (34:00). The suite continues with an eerie Complainte, the cello in its highest register (35:17), then a largely reflective Bransle de Champagne (36:26), graceful Sicilienne (38:10) and ceremonial Carillon (39:29)

Debussy’s Cello Sonata (43:07) is one of the cornerstones of the cello repertoire, a late masterpiece with clear instructions that the pianist should ‘not fight the cello, but accompany it’. At its centre is a remarkable, forward looking second movement with an improvisatory air and extended episodes for pizzicato (plucked) cello.

This was a terrific performance, Tharaud starting off with a forthright opening statement but responding with great care to the nuances of Queyras and his beautifully shaded tone. The pair caught Debussy’s moods – his bold statements but also the furtive corners of the piece, which sometimes feels like it is hiding in the undergrowth on a hot summer evening.

Both elements were clear in the first movement, and also in the second (47:15), a Sérénade where Debussy’s fragments were all joined together. Queyras had the perfect range of pizzicato colours, but also the clarity of tone right at the top of the register. Tharaud complemented him with the ideal lack of sustain on the stumbling piano figurations and the weight of his responses.

All the while this music was headed for the quickfire finale (50:33), which in its short bursts of melody had charm, worry and glorious colour in equal measure, never quite letting go completely until the final bars and Queyras’ authoritative statement.

As a generous encore the pair complemented the Debussy with Rodion Shchedrin’s entertaining In the style of Albéniz (55:28), not dissimilar to the second movement of the Sonata in its evocative tones but more outrageous in its melodies and harmonies. Queyras and Tharaud set it up brilliantly to cap a memorable recital.

Repertoire

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

J.S. Bach Viola da gamba Sonata no.2 in D major BWV1028 (before 1741) (1:43)
Marais (1656-1728) Suite in D minor: Prelude (16:53), Couplets sur Les Folies d’Espagne (19:11), Sarabande (25:33)
Poulenc Suite française (1935, arr. 1953) (30:13)
Debussy Cello Sonata in D minor (1915) (43:07)
Encore – Shchedrin In the style of Albéniz (1973)

Further listening

You can listen to the music heard in this concert on Spotify below, including Queyras and Tharaud in the works by Poulenc and Debussy:

Poulenc also wrote a Cello Sonata, which forms part of an album with works for cello and piano with works by Debussy, delivered by the Queyras and Tharaud pairing here:

As this concert illustrated, French composers were particularly skilled at taking inspiration from the Baroque and Classical periods of classical music (from c1650 to 1800). The playlist below enjoys some of the best examples, headed by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin but also including works by Fauré, Debussy and Poulenc:

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

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 71: Bach Night – Dunedin Consort & John Butt perform the four Orchestral Suites and commissioned ‘responses’

Prom 71: Dunedin Consort / John Butt (harpsichord)

J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite no.4 in D major BWV1069 (c1730) (from dfgd on the broadcast)
Nico Muhly Tambourin (2019) (22:14 – 25:28)
J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite no.1 in C major BWV1066 (c1725) (28:12)
Stevie Wishart The Last Dance? A Baroque Tango (2019) (49:28 – 52:37)
Ailie Robertson Chaconne (2019) (1:19:50)
J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite no.2 in B minor BWV1067 (c 1738-9) (1:23:38
Stuart MacRae Courante (2019)
J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite no.3 in D major BWV1068 (c1730)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 11 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

A joyous Prom.

One of Sir Henry Wood’s many inventions at the Proms was to instigate ‘composer nights’, where the programme revolved around the output of a composer such as Wagner, Beethoven, the Strauss family, or Johann Sebastian Bach.

This particular Bach night came with a neat twist – the four orchestral suites, grouped together, but each complemented with a new commission receiving its world premiere. The idea of composers writing new music for a group that plays on the instruments of Bach’s time is not necessarily new but it is an intriguing one, and led to four very varied responses. What these short asides ultimately did, however, was make the audience even more in thrall to the music of Johann Sebastian.

The four Orchestral Suites do not get as much air or auditorium time as the six Brandenburg Concertos, but there is nothing to mark them out as inferior works. They make a very satisfying whole, especially when programmed as here by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort – the fourth suite placed first, so that we went through a satisfying key cycle and heard the most affirmative music at the end.

Butt (above) is a Bach specialist, living and breathing the composer’s music. He has scholarly intellect on his side but balances that with enthusiasm in spades. For this concert his energy rubbed off on the audience, and in several faster numbers he literally could not wait to get his hands busy on the harpsichord. Like all bar the cellists and basses he stood to perform, the Dunedin Consort’s freedom of movement translating nicely into their interpretations of Bach’s dance movements, which had a spring in their step.

The last two numbered suites use brass and timpani, so we began with something approaching a fanfare. It took a couple of bars for the Dunedin Consort, numbering nearly 40, to hit their stride, but from then on their playing filled the Royal Albert Hall with the expanse of the fourth suite’s Ouverture, which had a ceremonial air before breaking into a bustling faster tempo. The four dances that followed were fleet of foot, Butt enjoying the humour of the perky Bourrée (10:40), then a stately Gavotte (13:25), Menuet (15:23) and Réjouissance (19:33), at which point brass and drums returned with a flourish.

Nico Muhly’s Tambourin followed without a break, utilising the same grand forces but expanding the harmonic world considerably. As a dance it was syncopated beyond danceable rhythms, starting powerfully but dissolving into D major at the end, dressed by flecks of Stephen Farr’s harpsichord.

The Orchestral Suite no.1 is a rich tapestry of dance movements prefaced by an expansive overture. The most expansive work of the four, its French ‘ouverture’ was elegantly played and dressed with expansive bass notes before moving to a lively fugue, oboes really coming into their own. The dances, again all of French derivation, were light on their feet, propelled by nifty harpsichord accompaniment from Farr and Butt centre stage. They were topped by a bustling Bourrée, its figures flying around the violin section before the complement, a darker, minor key central section for woodwind. With harpsichords silent, this was poignant and beautifully played.

Stevie Wishart complemented the first suite with a striking tribute to the endangered Argentine Hooded Grebe, whose call matched her music and could be heard over the Royal Albert Hall speakers during a witty and rather macabre tango. Once heard the call became ever more poignant, the instruments thrown off course and off pitch. It was effective, haunting and thought provoking.

Ailie Robertson’s Chaconne opened the second half, a reflection on Scottish dance music. A slow and atmospheric piece, it began with eerie held notes in the upper violins which really came into its own when the flutes joined, like Wishart evoking a bird in imagery, though this time a slower, bigger one like an albatross.

For the Orchestral Suite no.2 Butt used reduced string forces and three flutes, headed by the excellent Katy Bircher. The colours of this work are appreciably darker, and the leaner string sound complemented the consoling flutes. After a solemn start to the Ouverture came a lively fast section, then the flutes led us in a sprightly Rondeau, with a quicksilver account of the famous Badinerie to finish. In between there were solemn, more processional numbers – a mournful Sarabande picked up by a quick Bourrée, resolute Polonaise and gallant Menuet.

Stuart MacRae’s Courante was the final commission, an upbeat to the final suite that went off at quite a pace, Stephen Farr’s rattling harpsichord pursued by the orchestra and ultimately caught, before the violins became ‘it’ and took off again, the piece diminishing to a whisper at the end.

The Courante was a cheeky upbeat to a truly joyous performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite no.3. Trumpets were bright and timpani on point, Stephen Burke tapering his strokes to use angle rather than force to create the sound. The celebrated Air ‘on the G String’ was light on its feet and affectionate without overindulging, while the Gavotte, Bourrée and Gigue had the biggest smile on their faces, Bach’s counterpoint as inevitable and toe tapping as ever. The Gigue was especially upbeat, with rolling timpani and celebratory trumpets.

It is incredible to think that only last year Creative Scotland were proposing to cease funding the Dunedin Consort, a decision that was thankfully overturned. This night at the Royal Albert Hall illustrated beyond doubt the collective, creative bloom the group are experiencing, and it was a privilege to be a part of their Bach night.

Further Listening

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort have not yet recorded the Bach suites, but they did recently release an account of the wonderful violin concertos which you can sample below:

Bach Violin concertos with Cecilia Bernardini from Dunedin Consort on Vimeo.

For a choice recording of the suites, a new disc from the Freiburger Barockorchester is recommended here:

On record – Mahan Esfahani: J.S. Bach – Toccatas (Hyperion)

J.S. Bach
Toccata in F sharp minor BWV910
Toccata in C minor BWV911
Toccata in D major BWV912
Toccata in D minor BWV913
Toccata in E minor BWV914
Toccata in G minor BWV915
Toccata in G major BWV916

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

Hyperion CDA 68244 [76’54”]

Recorded August 2019 at St. John the Baptist, Loughton, Essex

Producer Sébastian Chonion
Engineer David Hinitt

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Mahan Esfahani has been playing a lot of J.S. Bach lately. With a series of the composer’s complete keyboard works ongoing at the Wigmore Hall, and with a well-received account of the Goldberg Variations in the bag from his stint at Deutsche Grammophon, now would seem the ideal time to document his thoughts on some of Bach’s most extrovert and unpredictable works for harpsichord, the Toccatas.

What’s the music like?

Exuberant and even flamboyant. Those are two words you might not readily apply to Bach, certainly in the wrong performance, but this is the sort of recording to remind you that not only was Johann Sebastian a master of the more theoretical processes in music, he could write music of breathtaking originality too.

The Toccatas are the work of a young man looking to experiment and explore, and also to entertain. Esfahani really captures that spirit of freedom from the first to last notes, the Toccata in G major setting us down in a crumpled heap around 76 minutes later.

It helps to have the performer’s accompanying notes on the works, and how difficult it is to arrive at a scholarly direction on how they should be played. What matters as much is the performer’s input, and – as he acknowledges – the producer and engineer, to whom he expresses heartfelt thanks as his own ‘therapists’.

Does it all work?

Emphatically, yes. This feels like just the right stage in Esfahani’s career for him to tackle these works, and his response is stylish and reverent, outgoing too – so that the more overtly display-dominated items are real audience pleasers, and the telling pauses or slow passages are delivered with gravitas and great feeling.

For there is music of great theatre and occasion here. Presented in catalogue order, we begin with the Toccata in F sharp minor BWV910, which begins with a thrilling rush of the right hand, before dance figures take over. A stern central section leads to a rediscovery of its positive stance towards the end.

The Toccata in C minor BWV911 follows, its fugue deliberately paced to start with and then allowed to pick up its natural momentum. Esfahani, so assured in his playing, brings each part in with a firm inevitability as the closing pages approach before signing off emphatically.

The Toccata in D major BWV912 features some really impressive, florid passage work, while the D minor work, BWV813, feels like an answer with its stern, imposing contours. This work really springs forward in Esfahani’s hands around the 3:30 mark, before a superb, authoritative finish, with the pleasure of hearing the keys released at the end.

The instrument’s lower register really sings in the Toccata in E minor BWV914, notable for its bold lines, before an extremely descriptive episode that is so strongly characterised it feels like a scene from a play. When the big rush of counterpoint comes later, Esfahani again exerts close control.

The Toccata in G minor BWV915 starts with a sense of occasion, a cascade in the right hand before a nimble dance and a flourish, before the final Toccata in G major BWV916, a solo concerto in all but name. This has a celebratory air, its descending motif in clumps of chords rather like a peal of bells. Then a slow, thoughtful movement in E minor (the closest relative key of G) provides a reflective episode before a lively return home for an upbeat finale.

Complementing these seven impressive utterances are an ideal harpsichord sound and recording, the church chosen by Hyperion offering just the right amount of depth to the recorded sound, so we hear the clarity of Bach’s writing but also its ambitious scope.

Is it recommended?

Without hesitation. If you tend towards the organ works when listening to Bach played on the keyboard, this is just the disc to show you what you are missing on the harpsichord side of the equation.

Mahan Esfahani plays these works with formidable technique and with passion too, taking every opportunity to bring Bach’s flourishing works to life. What a cover, too!

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple file formats, you can visit the Hyperion website

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: