Wigmore Mondays: Aleksandar Madžar plays Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata

Aleksander Madžar (piano, above)

Beethoven Piano Sonata no.29 in B flat major Op.106 Hammerklavier (1817-18) (2:35-48:14 on the broadcast link)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 February 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Is there a more complete work for piano than Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata? Few pieces are bigger in scope, and yet at the same time few speak as intimately as this piece does, especially in the slow movement.

It therefore takes a special performance to communicate the strengths of the piece in full to an audience, but Aleksander Madžar went some way to doing that at the Wigmore Hall.

The name Hammerklavier comes from the German word, specifying the piece should be played on the more modern fortepiano and not the harpsichord. It also phonetically describes the opening phrase in the first movement (from 2:35-14:14 on the broadcast, marked Allegro) where it really feels like the piano is being used as a forceful rhythm instrument rather than for its melodic beauty. Madžar took a much more relaxed view of the opening statement, communicating the onset of the drama but bringing it in much more gradually. He did at times have a shrill ring to the top of his range, especially when the right hands were playing in octaves.

That said, it was clear how he wanted this performance to go, and the structure of the movement made sense under his hands, with the repeat of the first part of the first movement (the exposition) included.

The second movement Scherzo (14:15) had a considerable breadth of colour, and subtly pointed out Beethoven’s harmonic deviations, not least in the ‘trio’ passage where Beethoven briefly visits the minor key (15:18). Here the sound was uncommonly hollow, and try as I might I could not dismiss the notion of empty bottles or bones rattling in a cage. Very macabre!

The slow movement (from 18:05, marked Adagio sostenuto) surely holds the key to a successful performance of the Hammerklavier. It is one of those moments in late Beethoven where time seems immaterial, where each phrase has a great meaning and where the right hand, although slow, is purely melodic. It anticipates music that has been written more than a century since – Mahler and Schoenberg, to name just two – but is still recognisably of Beethoven’s time. We were hanging on each of Madžar’s notes here, as he slowly traversed each section to set himself up for the mighty fugue. The unhurried phrases unfurled with natural ease, and the thoughtfulness and deep seated feeling could be sensed just from watching his movements.

The last movement Introduzione (35:32) began with a strong sense of anticipation, leading up to the big fugue (38:14). This took a little while to straighten itself out – to be fair it must be an incredibly difficult switch in the mind to go from a period of such stillness to rapid movement – but once Madžar had settled on a tempo it gathered considerable momentum. The end, when it came, was fulsome and thrilling.

An encore in this context was risky but the choice was ideal – the Allemande from Bach’s Partita no.1 in B flat major (from 49:30-53:02). Carefully chosen in the same key, it shows to some extent the Hammerklavier’s past.

Further listening

You can listen to the music in this concert in a powerhouse of a recording from Emil Gilels, paired below with what is commonly regarded as the first of Beethoven’s ‘late’ sonatas, the A major work published as Op.101.

Wigmore Mondays: Inon Barnatan plays Bach, Franck & Barber

Inon Barnatan (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Toccata in E minor BWV914 (c1710) (6 minutes)
Franck Prelude, Choral et Fugue (1885) (18 minutes)
Barber Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op.26 (1949) (20 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

This was a fascinating hour in the company of American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, exploring the role of the fugue in piano music while showing off considerable artistry and technical control of his instrument.

He began with Bach, and one of the lesser heard Toccatas for keyboard. This fell into three parts (starting at 4:06 on the broadcast) and initially took on quite a serious tone before relaxing for the fugue (which begins at 5:04). Barnatan signed off expansively, in a sense preparing for what was to come.

This proved to be Franck’s three-movement Prélude, Choral et Fugue, surely written in homage to organ pieces such as Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, but working particularly well on the piano. Barnatan gave a performance of impressive stature, really getting to the nub of the deep and almost religious expression the Belgian composer achieves.

An expansive Prélude (from 12:40) was followed by a reverent statement of the Chorale in hushed tones (at 18:18), before this grew inexorably in stature, leading to a superbly controlled peak at 21:10. The Fugue was confidently delivered, gaining intensity from its initial statement (23:50) until the final peal of bells signalled its triumphant switch from B minor to B major (30:11).

The Barber Sonata was simply superb, and a timely reminder that this is a composer worth so much more than simply the Adagio for Strings. Good though that piece is, the Sonata explores much more aggressive and twisted musical thoughts, perhaps a surprising response to a commission from Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, in honour of the League of Composers’ twenty-fifth anniversary. As announcer Clemency Burton-Hill says in the radio introduction it is a formidable work, perhaps not surprisingly given its dedicatee, Vladimir Horowitz.

It is difficult to imagine a better performance than Barnatan gave here, setting the tone immediately with the jagged outlines of the first movement’s main material (marked Allegro energico, from 32:40). There was considerable drama as this tumultuous piece of music unfolded, with bits of occasional lyrical repose but ultimately big outbursts in the form of the inspiration behind the piece, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Piano Sonata.

All were given with the utmost clarity by Barnatan, who softened the mood for the second movement Scherzo (40:39), then the intimate slow movement (Adagio mesto, from 42:52) which nonetheless reached a hair raising climax some three minutes or so later. Barnatan was totally inside the music, this passage described by Barber’s biographer as ‘the most tragic’ of the composer’s slow movements. Finally a terrific final movement Fuga, brilliantly played and with some complex figurations made to look easy!

The encore (from 54:00) was wholly appropriate, Busoni’s transcription for piano of the J.S. Bach choral prelude Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, in which a sense of stillness returned.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. Inon Barnatan has not recorded any of this repertoire to date, so the versions chosen here are by established pianists Glenn Gould, Jorge Bolet and Joanna MacGregor:

You can also see for yourself what the fuss is about by watching Inon Barnatan playing the first movement of Schubert’s C minor Piano Sonata below:

Meanwhile if you want an introduction to the music of Samuel Barber, starting with the Adagio for Strings, look no further!

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.

Follow the music

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!


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!