Distance – Mario Brunello plays Bach, Cage & Weinberg at the National Gallery in London

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1502-4), by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano

Mario Brunello (cello, below)

J.S. Bach Solo Cello Suite no.5, BWV1011 (c1720s)
Cage 4’33” (1952)
Weinberg Sonata for Solo Cello no.1, Op.72 (1960)

Room 61, The National Gallery, London; Thursday 7 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A rare treat indeed – the chance to witness a concert in the very heart of the National Gallery. Given by cellist Mario Brunello, the hour of music was entirely inspired by the Cima work The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, a powerful and colourful depiction of the apostle’s doubting of Christ’s resurrection.

Brunello chose three pieces to bring the work to musical life, the first of which was entirely appropriate. Cellists such as Steven Isserlis have long held a belief that the six suites for solo cello by Johann Sebastian Bach carry a parallel with the story of the crucifixion and resurrection, and in choosing the Fifth Suite Brunello picked the one most closely associated with Christ’s death. The Sarabande in particular is some of Bach’s most extraordinary music, a single line portraying in vivid detail the darkest of moments, dispensing almost entirely with obvious rhythms or harmonic movement. The solemn prelude and faster dance music tends to occupy the lower registers of the instrument, and here it found a perfect match in the rich baritone of Brunello’s 1600 Maggini cello. Meanwhile the wispy lines of the second Gavotte were especially effective, tracing invisible lines around the performing space.

The second piece was a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, a work that will divide opinions for eternity it seems. Never failing to raise a smile or a more extreme reaction, the three movements of silence – each conducted in by Brunello, as the composer instructs – were here an effective postscript to the Bach. While inevitably there was some extraneous noise from people walking around in the gallery, and a brief solo from a vibrating phone in the middle distance, the period of reflection if anything enhanced the impact of the Bach that had gone before, whilst enabling us to focus afresh on the painting behind Brunello’s left shoulder. I did not time the ‘performance’, though it felt a lot longer than the specified duration – perhaps an indication that, in a busy city, 4’33” can be a surprising length of time.

Coming out of the silence with the Suite no.1 for solo cello by Mieczysław Weinberg was a fascinating move. Only in the last five or so years has the music of this Soviet / Polish composer gained recognition, thanks in part to Brunello’s close associate Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica. Brunello grew the first movement out of nothing to a powerful apex before dropping back to the low note where it started, while the second movement was a charming yet muted dance, played as though the real drama was being held back. And so it proved, for the final movement started with such ferocity as to knock the listener back in their seat. Three powerful bow strokes of unison ‘C’s – the same tonal centre of the Bach – brought all manner of parallels with the three hours between crucifixion and death, though the violence was also portraying Thomas’s disbelieving prods at Christ’s side.

Either way this was incredibly powerful in its realisation, Brunello making up for the occasional tuning idiosyncrasy with a forceful tone which seemed to grow ever more powerful as the range went higher. Weinberg’s music carries great meaning, given the composer’s responses to the tragedies of his personal life, and its use here with Bach and Cage put it in the best possible context. Even the weather responded in kind – when we entered the gallery it was raining, but we emerged blinking into powerful sunshine. A true darkness to light experience.

Further listening and reading

You can experience the same program from the National Gallery on this Spotify playlist, including Mario Brunello’s recording of the Bach:

Meanwhile if you are interested in more Weinberg, the release below, of chamber symphonies and the Piano Quintet, is a substantial document completed by Gidon Kremer with the ECM label:

Wigmore Mondays: Andrei Ioniţă & Itamar Golan – Bach, Shostakovich & Bartók

Andrei Ioniţă (cello, above – picture Daniel Delang), Itamar Golan (piano, below)

J.S. Bach Cello Suite no.1 in G major BWV1006 (c1720)
Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor, Op.40 (1934)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 27 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

There is a frustrating lack of information around J.S. Bach’s music for solo cello. Frustrating because the music itself is so good, a cornerstone of the instrument’s repertoire that satisfies experienced players and novices alike. In an interesting program note for this concert Richard Bratby outlined how Bach’s Six Suites for solo cello could indeed have a biblical theme running through them, a conviction that the cellist Steven Isserlis holds, though as he is the first to admit there is no hard and fast evidence for this.

The Suites are beautifully structured, with a Prelude giving way to five different dances – two relatively quick (in this case Allemande and Courante) – then one slow (always a Sarabande) and then two more quick (here two Bourrées) and always ending with a triple time Gigue.

The first cello suite has music you may recognise from Master and Commander among many other film and TV uses.

The Shostakovich is one of the most-played works for cello and piano from the 20th century, and it is easy to see why when you hear it – packed full of incident and tunes. It was written at the start of a new era for the composer, his wife having just moved out – and found him in a particularly rich vein of creativity, completing the half-hour work in just over a month in 1934. It was written for the cellist Viktor Kubatsky, who with the Stradivarius Quartet had taken part in the premiere of the composer’s 2 Pieces for String Octet in 1925. Shostakovich had yet to write any of his 15 string quartets, or his concerti for violin and cello, so this marks his first large scale writing for a stringed instrument. It received a mixed reception, some of its critics branding it too simplistic, but its lyricism and humour have given it a wide audience.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

J.S. Bach Cello Suite no.1 in G major BWV1006 (c1720) (1:47) (16 minutes)

The suite follows the outline described above, beginning with an expansive Prelude (1:47) that uses a series of arpeggios to plot its harmonic and melodic course. The dance movements begin with a fairly relaxed Allemande (4:02), where the steps are relatively slow, but steps up in pace with a Courante (7:52).

A slow and gorgeous Sarabande follows (10:20) where the cello uses a lot of ‘multiple stopping’ – playing more than one note with the bow simultaneously – before we move to a pair of Bourrées. The first one (13:14) is boisterous, the second (14:22) more withdrawn – but the first is repeated (15:32) to reclaim the upbeat mood. Then the distinctive triple time of the Gigue (16:09) closes out the suite.

Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D minor Op.40 (from 20:20) (28 minutes)

The Sonata begins in relatively genial mood, with a legato approach to the cello, as lyrical as anything Shostakovich has written. Soon, however, the clouds begin to form – though they are not visible anywhere when the cello gives out the second main theme of the first movement (22:35), a beautiful moment where it sounds suspended in mid-air. The movement ends deep in thought, but with a little frisson of worry around the edges.

That worry is emphatically thrown off in the bold as brass second movement (32:20) where both instruments go at it hammer and tongs. After that outburst we return to quiet and an introspective slow movement (from 35:45), where Shostakovich captures that exquisitely private intimacy only he can in a chamber setting.

When we emerge from deep thought the piano gives out a witty theme (44:06) to signal the start of the finale, where both players duck and dive through a set of highly enjoyable tunes and countermelodies. This is Shostakovich having fun – but even then there is a note of caution in the background.

Thoughts on the concert

Andrei Ioniţă gave a thoughtful performance of the Bach First Cello Suite, though could perhaps have shown us more of the sunnier side of the music, which can come through in the Courante, first Bourrée and Gigue especially. The Courante felt too fast – certainly something you’d have trouble dancing to! – though it did show off his quickfire technique, of which more later. The Sarabande could perhaps have been more outwardly expressive too, though the Gigue had a nice rustic feel.

The Shostakovich was a different story, Ioniţă and Itamar Golan straight to the heart of the work with an intimate yet wholly involving performance. The cellist’s tone was ideal, and so was the balance struck with the piano, who intervened in crushing style where necessary but drew back in the quieter moments. The bracing second movement was powerfully wrought, both players sparring with the gloves off, but the slow movement was especially affecting, helped by Ioniţă’s control of the high melodic line. The finale was brilliantly done, bringing just the right measure of humour and introspection to the performance.

With some time left Ioniţă and Golan gave a generous encore, an arrangement of Bartók’s Six Romanian Folk Dances for cello and piano (from 49:43 on the broadcast). This had all the flair and pizazz you would expect from a native Romanian, brilliantly played and with all the melodic inflections beautifully realised. The accuracy of the harmonics in the third dance (51:41) had to be seen to be believed!

All in all an excellent concert from a prodigious talent, who can only benefit from having someone as experienced as Golan – who has in his time accompanied Mischa Maisky and Maxim Vengerov – alongside him.

Further listening and reading

You can watch Ionita in the final of the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition below, where he plays more Shostakovich:

Meanwhile the pieces making up the concert are grouped in the following Spotify playlist

Wigmore Mondays: Florilegium visit Paris and Germany

Florilegium (Ashley Solomon (flute, director), Bojan Čičić (violin), Reiko Ichise (viola da gamba), Stephen Devine (harpsichord)

Telemann Paris Quartet No.4 in B minor, TWV43:h2 (1738)
J.S. Bach Trio Sonata in G major, BWV1038 (1732-35)
Rameau Pièces de clavecin en concerts – Suite No.5 in D minor (1741)
Rebel Les caractères de la danse (1715)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 30 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Georg Philipp Telemann. If that name doesn’t mean anything to you, then perhaps it should – especially if you are a follower of the music of Bach or Handel. Telemann, so the concert note for this recital informed us, wrote more than the two composers combined – an extraordinary feat when you think that he wrote a number of large scale stage and sacred works.

Some of his most admired works are on a smaller scale however, such as the collection of Paris Quartets he published in two parts, in 1730 and 1738. They are intimate works for flute, violin, viola da gamba and continuo (usually harpsichord) that allow a great deal of flexibility for the performers, subtly pushing the boundaries Baroque chamber music was exploring at the time.

Complementing the Telemann in this concert are works by J.S. Bach – a Trio Sonata co-written with son Carl Philipp Emanuel – and works by the Frenchmen Rameau and Rebel, each bringing the spirit of the dance to an intimate grouping of musicians.

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Telemann Paris Quartet No.4 in B minor, TWV43:h2 (from 1:41) (19 minutes)

A bright and brisk Prelude gives a good illustration of how Telemann writes so well for strings and wind, but the performers often have difficult lines to play, as in the passage from 5:09 where the tempo quickens. After the Prelude the quartet moves into a series of dances, with an elegant Coulant led by the flute (7:26), then movements entitled Gai, Vite (11:18), Triste (a sombre, melancholy dance from 13:19) and finally a Menuet (15:55) that proves to be much lighter on its feet, especially in its quick middle section.

J.S. Bach Trio Sonata in G major, BWV1038 (from 23:32, 7 minutes)

Bach was always aware of musical developments in his age, and with this particular Trio Sonata it appears he only wrote one part of the three, delegating the other two for son Carl Philippe Emmanuel to complete. Although there are three parts, typically with Baroque instrumental pieces there are actually four instruments taking part – the harpsichord and viola da gamba (an early form of cello without a spike, and in this case with five strings) share the bass / harmony roles.

This piece starts with an attractive, languid line on the flute that the violin shadows. The mood is – perhaps for Bach – surprisingly relaxed. A quick movement, marked Vivace (lively) follows from 26:42, but it’s gone in a flash – and a much slower Adagio movement begins at 27:38, with thoughtful interplay between flute and violin. Then at 29:40 a more substantial quicker movement, marked Presto, features typical Bach figures passed between each of the four instruments.

Rameau Pièces de clavecin en concerts – Suite No.5 in D minor (from 32:31, 13 minutes)

Rameau named the three movements of this suite after his fellow composers, although it doesn’t suggest in the concert note if he was painting a character portrait of each. If he was, then Forqueray, the first subject, would be a genial sort with a memorable hook – in this case introduced by the harpsichord from 32:31. Cupis (from 37:10) would be a thoughtful, deep kind of person, prone to a few bouts of melancholy, while Marais (42:34) would be a bright, energetic figure, again with a catchy tune with frequent and highly enjoyable repeats!

Rebel Les caractères de la danse (from 46:00, 8 minutes)

An early medley, if you like – a collection of short dances all rolled up into one. In the course of a fun-packed eight minutes, Rebel fills the music with eleven different dance forms, both slow and fast, giving his ensemble plenty to do. The harpsichord provides the crisp rhythmic emphasis, along with the viola da gamba, but is also given the tune at times, and invited to show off. The piece ends with a rapid dance with which only the quickest of feet could keep up!

Encore

A Bolivian dance from one of Florilegium’s three albums of Bolivian Baroque music (55:10), with some lively lines for violin and flute – and Reiko Ichise ditching the viola da gamba for shakers!

Thoughts on the concert

This was a very stylish and enjoyable concert. Florilegium have been together since 1991, and their performing style shows them totally at ease with the music of the Baroque period. Here they flourished especially in the Rameau and Rebel dance-based works, where harpsichordist Stephen Devine prompted and probed with tasteful, rhythmic playing.

The Telemann was a charming performance, the seriousness of its home key of B minor given a lift in the dance movements, while the Bach was unusually lyrical for the trio sonata form. A concert played with good humour and considerable panache, topped off by the exoticism of the Bolivian encore.

Further listening and reading

You can hear Florilegium’s recordings of the complete Telemann Paris Quartets in three volumes on Spotify. The third volume includes the quartet heard in this concert:

Meanwhile their explorations of the Bolivian Baroque can also be heard here, a first disc of three:

Telemann’s Water Music is one of his best loved works, and makes an excellent companion piece to the Handel. From experience I can say it is a thrilling work to be part of, as this performance from the Musica Antiqua Köln and Reinhard Goebel illustrates!

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: