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:

Wigmore Mondays: Lise de la Salle plays Bach, Liszt & Brahms

Lise de la Salle (piano) photo (c) Nicolas Brodard

J.S. Bach Italian Concerto in F major BWV 971 (1735)

Liszt Fantasie and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H S529 (1855)

Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24 (1861)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 9 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A nicely planned hour’s recital from Lise de la Salle, focussing on the collision between two different historical periods in music.

The so-called ‘Romantic’ composers rediscovered the music of Bach half way through the nineteenth century, and this led to a series of important performances and rearrangements of the composer’s music. Liszt paid his own characteristically larger than live homage in a fantasy based on the notes of the composer’s name (B-A-C-H translating in German as Bb – A – C – B natural, or H). Brahms, while not directly referencing Bach, built a hugely impressive seam of variations and a fugue on a theme from one of Handel’s Harpsichord Suites. Lise began her recital with Bach’s own act of homage, though this was a concerto for piano only written in the style of his Italian contemporaries.

Follow the music

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

Bach Italian Concerto (12 minutes, beginning at 1:39 on the broadcast)

Listen out for the lively first movement, marked ‘Allegro’ (from 1:39), then an intensely lyrical slow movement marked ‘Andante’, written in the style of an aria (5:12). Then the last movement brings a lively conclusion to the piece, packed as it is with a stream of melodic content (10:56)

Liszt Fantasie and Fugue on the Name B-A-C-H (13 minutes, from 14:45)

Liszt’s gestures are typically bold at the start, where the B-A-C-H theme is stated boldly – but then because of the chromatic nature of the theme the music becomes very mysterious around five minutes in (20:00 or so). Then, from 21:30, we get ‘high voltage’ Liszt in the form of some tempestuous piano writing, where de la Salle responds to the challenge very impressively. Then, from 25:09, we get a big piece of chorale (hymn like) writing, before the theme is stated again and a thoroughly convincing ending ensues.

Brahms Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24 (27 minutes, from 28:50)

In a prolific burst, Brahms wrote no fewer than 25 variations on Handel’s theme. The theme itself is played in the original form, and then the variations begin at 30:02. Brahms achieves a staggering variety of moods, speeds and phrases, moving away from Handel’s outline to explore new tonalities and rhythms. For a notable contrast listen out to the light footed, graceful Variation 3 (31:43) and the following Variation 4 (32:24), a strident march. On more than one occasion Brahms moves to the relatively downbeat minor key, dramatically so in Variation 13 (40:20) – which he follows with the capricious Variation 14 (41:54). The variations are noticeably more playful at this point in the work, but once again Brahms’ serious side exerts itself as we lead towards the fugue. This begins at 51:22, Brahms stating the melody and then bringing in each part with incredible precision, each strand fusing seamlessly.

Thoughts on the concert

This was a fascinating combination of pieces, played with technical brilliance by de la Salle – though her projection was at times on the loud side, meaning that the Bach especially felt as though it was played in capital letters – and the last movement felt rushed.

The Liszt was impressive and big boned, while the Brahms – though perhaps not getting the full contrast of moods – was beautifully and affectionately worked. The staccato eighth variation was especially impressive in its clarity, as was the quickfire fourteenth, though when the Fugue appeared it was initially difficult to grab the rhythm. That said, an impressive reading from a pianist growing in stature.

Further listening and reading

If you like the idea of Romantic composers taking their lead from the Baroque, then I think you’ll like this album from Murray Perahia. It brings together the ultimate Bach revival composer – Mendelssohn – with arrangements of Bach by Busoni.

You can catch up with Lise de la Salle at her website

Meanwhile her Liszt album from 2011 is available on Spotify below:

BBC Proms 2017 – Christian Tetzlaff, Scottish Chamber Orchestra & Robin Ticciati: Brahms, Berg, Thomas Larcher & Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ Symphony

Prom 40: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati

Brahms Tragic Overture Op.81 (1880)

Berg Violin Concerto (1935)

Thomas Larcher Nocturne – Insomnia (first UK performance) (2008)

Schumann Symphony no.3 in E flat major Op.97, ‘Rhenish’ (1850)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are one of the UK’s finest ensembles, and they proved their worth once again with outgoing chief conductor Robin Ticciati leading a fine Prom tracing a course from darkness to light.

Brahms’s Tragic Overture is one of the composer’s deepest orchestral statements, and Ticciati was determined to present its steely side. Often the strings were without vibrato, the lean sound complemented by raucous horns and open textures in the woodwind. Lower strings growled ominously, and only the softer woodwind passages offered occasional respite in their beautifully choreographed choir.

Berg’s Violin Concerto contains music of similarly ominous qualities, in this case uncannily heralding the composer’s final year despite its dedication elsewhere. Though the violin begins with elegiac tones it has a broad emotional range, and Christian Tetzlaff (above) rose magnificently to the occasion, finding Berg’s many and varied colours but crucially balancing them with the excellent orchestral contributions.

The coded messages Berg inserts into the music were on occasion stripped bare, and the anger at the heart of the second movement was almost completely unconcealed. Its crowning moment lies in quiet simplicity, however, and when the quotation of Bach’s chorale Es Is Genug arrived on clarinets the mellow tones were deeply moving. Capping the concerto with his rise to a high ‘G’ at the end, Tetzlaff held the note at a barely audible volume so that it sounded like one last breath in his ascent to another world.

As the evening progressed the darkness drew in ever more closely for Thomas Larcher’s Insomnia Nocturne, an orchestral piece receiving its first UK performance. Written for a relatively small orchestra of eighteen, it was an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of sleep’s refusal to take hold, with a high pitched glockenspiel tone becoming particularly tiresome. Sitting in the background, its tone made an uncomfortable backdrop for the increasingly fractious instrumental activity in front, which finally subsided into a fitful slumber, the sort where it is already too late in the night to be rescued. The piece began with promising tonal material, but in a manner akin to insomnia this was rendered much less appealing by the end.

Thankfully Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony was on hand to pierce the darkness with music of unrestrained joy. The opening surge is one of the happiest in all classical music, and like the river on which it is based it takes everything with it downstream. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were superb, the lofty horns enhancing the open-air sound while the woodwind worked together in beautifully shaded colours, as did the strings with more vibrato this time.

If anything the second movement Ländler was even better, flowing forward with purpose and charm, while the Intermezzo following also had a softer heart. The mood became solemn for Schumann’s powerful evocation of Cologne Cathedral in the fourth movement, the symphony turning inwards with self-doubt and contemplation, but from this the finale emerged with resolve and conviction.

A strong Prom, then, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra giving us something old (Brahms and Schumann), something new (Larcher), something borrowed in the Berg and something blue in the mood that ran throughout. Thankfully the shade of this particular blue changed from deep and dark at the outset to a bright and breezy azure by the end.

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Sam Hogwood will give her verdict on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Prom. Coming shortly!

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Steve Hodges on the Philharmonia Orchestra playing John Adams

Arcana returns to the BBC Proms in the company of friends – and for our second visit this season we are dipping into one of the festival’s themes, the music of John Adams. Offering his thoughts was Steve Hodges (above)

Marianna Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen

J.S. Bach arr. Stravinsky Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm, ich her (1956)

Ravel Shéhérazade (1904)

Adams Naive and Sentimental Music (1999)

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Steve, what was your musical upbringing?

Personally, I would say it was broad. It started with The Beatles, The Monkees and The Rolling Stones. I grew up through the 1970s and enjoyed glam, and Sparks, and Elton John. Then after meeting people who had some really broad taste, I lapped up everything through electronica, David Bowie and punk.

I’ve gone on from there really, and gone sideways as much as I possibly could. I like to reflect on music and on what was going on at the time, socially, and what it actually represents. I think that’s an important factor about music. I really enjoyed the punk ideals that said anybody could do it, it made a new wave of music that was enormously important. Just because people could make a record didn’t mean they necessarily should, because some of them were awful, but there was so much choice and so many good things in the 1980s. Since then we’ve been through house and drum ‘n’ bass as well. My classical representation is a bit smaller, but I enjoy what I enjoy!

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

Starting with an old one, The Beatles – that was through my father’s record collection, which was a great influence as a young person. I appreciated them as they were. Then The Human League, as a lot of the Sheffield music was important to me, because at the time I was fortunate to be dabbling in music myself. It really crossed over, and Manchester music was a reference as well – so I would put Ultravox! in there as well. Those were the things that mattered really.

Turning to the concert, what did you think of the Bach / Stravinsky?

I thought there were subtler things here, I was surprised at the quiet volume, there were not so many people on stage I suppose. I was fascinated by the people playing, and the movement between the sections. I was watching for the technical side as much as the musical side. It was a nice ‘warmer-upper’ for the rest of it.

What about the Ravel?

I was much more in to this, and felt reflections of 1960s TV in the music, there were flurries that I kind of recognised. I really liked it. For the singer to remember the words was good, and being able to follow along in the book was interesting. I liked the shape of the music.

And the John Adams?

There was much more to think about with that one! I think the first movement built up, and we had the pleasure of seeing the orchestra and the punctuation, the offset rhythms, the bouncing around of the parts. There was a lot more percussive use here and the intricacies of the first piece were astonishing. He was definitely testing the technical abilities of the musicians. The crescendo at the end was almost human madness in my mind, it was almost too much to bear. The build up at the end, it went from the crossrhythms going on that were clear and observed, you could feel the pulses, and then that broke down at the end and it was completely consuming. You almost wanted to put your hands over your head.

The second movement was really nice at the start, I really liked that one. Because I’ve worked with sequencing a lot you could feel the repetition, the softness of the play, again testing the musicians in a different way at the limits of musicality. The lightness of touch stood out, and it was mostly driven by the harps to start with, and that was the bass, the pulse that drove it along to start with. I liked the guitar in there, I hadn’t spotted him and wondered where that was coming from.

What I liked about it most was where he was getting the strings to crescendo, it was like reversing an attack, and it was going round and round in a really interesting way. It was powerful and really interesting to hear that executed. I enjoyed that one most of all for sure. The arpeggios on the strings were really good, it was so delicate and ambient in its way. Even though it was gentle it was really strong.

How did you find the Proms as an experience?

Very nice. The reverence for the music was striking, and full marks for the quality of what you saw. The audience were obviously there to enjoy it, and treated it with the respect it duly deserved. It was a beautiful environment to hear such things. I’m almost a little disappointed it was quieter at the beginning but I guess we should have stood closer at the start. After a while though, you tune your ears into it. Everybody shut up so that we could all hear.

Having said that, the volume at the end of was enormous! The variety of the use of the instruments, like bowing the percussive instruments in the last piece, that was a softer element. It wasn’t orchestral techno by any means but there was a lot of crossover. It really was a testing thing for the musicians, and it really resonated how much was being put on them.

Is there anything you would change about the experience?

I did browse the catalogue and felt it was something I would like to do. I don’t think there is anything I would particularly change about it, and I’d be inclined to come again. I heard a few things on the TV last week, and I think I shall be listening out for more!

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Lutheran cantatas by Bach

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (above)

Schütz Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren, SWV 41; Nicht uns, Herr, sondern deinem Namen, SWV 43; Danket dem Herren, denn er ist freundlich, SWV 45 (all c1617)

J.S. Bach Cantata No.79, ‘Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild’ (1725); Cantata No.80, ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (1716, revised 1720s-1735)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 2 August 2017 (late night)

After the earlier evening headiness of John AdamsNaïve and Sentimental Music from the Philharmonia, it was quite a stylistic shift to the night’s second Prom, which began with three canzonas / hymns of Heinrich Schütz, written some 400 years ago.

Yet as the ear gradually adjusted and the members of the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists quickly found their level, it was clear we were listening to something quite special. Under the fastidious but loving direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, an old hand at these scores, Schütz’s own minimalism came to light, helping the transition from first Prom to second. The choir were carefully positioned and instrumental soloists stood where possible for their contributions, an effective technique that spotlit them for the audience but also ensured the Royal Albert Hall acoustic was keenly observed.

Though the Schütz was very good, the two J.S. Bach cantatas took this late night concert to the next level. First was Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, where the vocal soloists Amy Carson (soprano), Reginald Mobley (alto) and Robert Davies (bass) were particularly fine, and the small continuo* (*accompanying) section negotiated their tricky lines with deceptive ease.

The second cantata, Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott, became the focus of the evening, Bach’s Lutheran cantata a cornerstone not just of his sacred compositions but of Baroque music and the Reformation in general. Gardiner took every opportunity to depict the ‘mighty fortress’, whether through the strength of the choral sound or the meaty orchestral textures, capped at the bottom end by the extraordinarily satisfying rasp on Stephen Saunders’ bass sackbut, an ancestor of the trombone. Brought to the front for the Prommers’ benefit, it was a wonderful thing to witness.

This was just the tip of the iceberg though. One of the great assets of the Monteverdi Choir is that its members are all potential soloists, making it a great team of individuals. Soprano Miriam Allan and bass Robert Davies dueted in the Aria and Chorale, and complemented each other very nicely, then tenor Hugo Hymas sang beautifully for the Recitative, while Mobley (above) once again impressed with his passionate and full-bodied tones in a duet with the tenor. The orchestra were once again on top form, though this time oboist Leo Duarte was keenly in focus, moving between the conventional wooden oboe, an oboe d’amore and an oboe di caccia (which looks rather like a banana!) with great dexterity and flair.

The chorus were impeccable with their diction and ensemble, and Bach’s music had that life-giving energy that comes across in successful performances such as this. Eliot Gardiner has written a whole book (Music In The Castle of Heaven) on his love of Bach’s music, and listening to his charges here was akin to standing on the turrets of that building, faces turned skywards. It really was that enlightening.

Ben Hogwood