RSNO Friday Night Club – Brahms’s German Requiem

A second installment for the RSNO Friday Night Club today – and an appropriate choice for Good Friday in the form of Brahms‘s German Requiem. This particular archive performance is conducted by Gregory Batsleer, with soloists Alison McNeill (soprano) and Oskar McCarthy (baritone), with the RSNO Chorus and pianists Edward Cohen and Christopher Baxter.

You can watch the on the orchestra’s website here, or join on Facebook here

Live review – CBSO Chorus and Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Brahms’ German Requiem & Mozart Serenade for wind

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Florian Boesch (baritone), CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 March 2020

Mozart Serenade for wind in C minor K388 (1782-3)
Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Op.45 (1865-9)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s current season features several major choral works that have long been central to this orchestra’s repertoire. While it has received numerous readings (most recently with Andrew Manze), Brahms‘s A German Requiem is not among these – so it was fascinating to hear what Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla might make of a piece that, though it has never fallen from favour since its premiere 152 years ago, remains a stern interpretive test in terms of projecting formal integration and an expressive essence more elusive for its restraint.

In the event the performance was a fine one – not least because this conductor found the right balance between flexibility of motion, without which the textures all too easily risk stolidity, and that seriousness of manner without which the music soon loses any sense of purpose. A balance as evident in the lengthy second movement, the inexorable tread of its outer sections framing an interlude of wistful grace then with the ensuing fugue building animatedly to its serene close, as in the brief fourth movement whose blithe exterior conceals music of artful dexterity. Camilla Tilling (above) summoned a winsome response in the fifth movement, a late but necessary addition in its opening-out the work’s emotional range, while Florian Boesch (below) was suitably if not unduly vehement in his initial contributions to the third and sixth; the former crowned by a fugue of visceral and unflagging energy, though that in the latter movement marginally lost focus as its grandly rhetorical gestures ran their (too?) predictable course.

It is in the first and seventh movements that Brahms’s highly personal concept of redemption through love is at its most explicit, MG-T duly having the measure of their calmly insistent searching towards eventual catharsis – even if the finale’s gradual winding-down resulted in less than the ideal repose. The CBSO Chorus was on fine form throughout – a tribute to the expertise of associate chorus director Julian Wilkins, who also made a pertinent contribution in an organ part no less crucial for its understatement; underpinning and often motivating an orchestration which adds in no small measure to the work’s humane and compassionate spirit.

A relatively short first half gave welcome opportunity for the CBSO’s woodwind to take the stage for an un-conducted reading of Mozart’s Serenade in C minor, last in his trilogy of such pieces which transcended an ostensibly lightweight genre and, in doing so, made possible the emotional substance of the symphonies that followed. Ensemble seemed a shade insecure in the opening Allegro, but its underlying intensity carried over to an Andante whose ineffable rapture was itself contrasted with the textural severity of the Menuetto. Best, though, was the final Allegro – a set of variation on an unassuming theme with the formal outline of a sonata-rondo made explicit with its major-key ending. Overall, a winning account of a piece whose scoring for wind octet has gained it less exposure than Mozart’s comparable orchestral works.

It also made for an unlikely while successful coupling and a similarly thought-provoking one is scheduled for next Tuesday, MG-T making her first foray into Bruckner with the erstwhile elusive Sixth Symphony alongside the deceptive simplicity of Bartók‘s Third Piano Concerto.

Further listening

Here is a Spotify playlist of music from the concert. The CBSO have not recorded either of these works before but these are fine alternatives:

For further information on the current season of CBSO concerts, visit the orchestra’s website

Wigmore Mondays – Lise Berthaud & David Saudubray: Schubert & Brahms sonatas

Lise Berthaud (viola), David Saudubray (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 2 March 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Neither of the two principal works in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime concert originated as viola pieces, but both have become repertoire staples for the instrument, the warmth of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata and the sage experience of Brahms’s First Clarinet Sonata being ideal vehicles for its silvery tone.

The Schubert is an especially unusual case, being the only prominent piece written for the arpeggione. This was an instrument with six strings and frets like a guitar, which was bowed and held between the knees.

Though it did not catch on as an alternative to the cello or the viola, Schubert wrote a substantial piece for a friend of his who played it. Because of the practicality of performing the work it was not until 1867 that it was finally published, with the realisation that it transcribes ideally for either cello or viola with piano accompaniment, the melodies lying under the fingers with deceptive ease.

The Arpeggione Sonata is a largely happy work, though it begins lost in thought (from 2:42 on the broadcast link). This was a measured intro from David Saudubray but as the first movement progressed the songful tone of Lise Berthaud’s viola took over, the pair enjoying the spring in the step of the faster music as though they were venturing out to dance. There was a really nice passage around the 8:38 mark, the viola using pizzicato to accompany the piano.

The second movement Adagio (14:28) explored more tender thoughts, the piano’s rocking motion suggesting the profile of a lullaby, especially with Berthaud’s soft musings above. However it was not long before we were straight into the Allegretto finale (18:13), the players investing more urgency until we arrived back at the dance (19:31), Schubert unable to resist setting the players on the floor once again. This good humour continued until the bright ending.

Brahms’s first contribution to the viola and piano repertoire is a very different animal, being from late in his career. Having decided to finish as a composer in 1890 it was something of a surprise when Brahms, having rid himself of the pressure of a Fifth Symphony, found inspiration in the clarinet. He wrote a Trio, Quintet and two Sonatas for the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, but it was soon brought to his attention that the Trio and both Sonatas transcribed very easily for viola – and those arrangements were made with his blessing.

As Lise Berthaud showed, the profile of Brahms’ melodies in the Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 are ideal for the instrument, the wide range of the first movement (29:07) easily under her fingers. The sweep of this melody and its subsequent development was impressive, as was the graceful second theme, with just the occasional slip from Saudubray in Brahms’s more congested piano writing. The controlled but expressive Andante was delightfully played (37:14), its roots clearly in song. A lilting Intermezzo was third (42:10), both players finishing each other’s musical sentences as equals, the music itself like a breeze in the branches of an old tree. The fourth movement (46:07), marked Vivace, threw caution away, with a peal of bells from the piano leading to a flowing and good spirited exchange, prone to the odd outspoken burst from the piano. Here was proof that the older Brahms still had the enthusiasm and musical vitality of his youth.

Repertoire

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

Schubert Arpeggione Sonata in A minor D821 (1824) (2:42)

Brahms Viola Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 (1894) (29:07)

As an encore we had a lovely piece from Frank Bridge, the Berceuse (52:40), whose rocking motion was evident in Saudubray’s sensitive piano playing, the ideal foil to Berthaud’s velvety tone.

Further listening & viewing

The music from this concert can be heard in the playlist below, with versions of the Schubert and Brahms recorded by Berthaud herself:

As alluded to in the review, late Brahms works particularly well for the viola, as this collection shows – with both sonatas and the trio for viola, cello and piano coupled together:

Frank Bridge wrote some winsome music for his first instrument, collected here by the viola player Louise Williams and pianist David Owen Norris, joined for three songs by mezzo-soprano Jean Rigby:

In concert – Martin Fröst & Roland Pöntinen at Wigmore Hall

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Roland Pöntinen (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 December 2019

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

A concert that was relatively short on music but extremely high on musicianship and virtuosity. Martin Fröst is one of the finest clarinettists at work today, and fellow-Swede Roland Pöntinen, with whom he has enjoyed a musical partnership for 25 years, is an extremely highly respected pianist either in a solo capacity or here as a chamber music ally. Both delighted their young Wigmore Hall audience – yes, that can be a thing at this venue’s concerts! – who were on their feet at the end.

The two gave us ‘French Beauties and Swedish Beasts’, a concert based on their first disc for BIS made 25 years ago. The beauties were first, in the shape of Debussy and Poulenc. The former’s Première rapsodie was written as a competition piece for the Paris Conservatoire, and later orchestrated in a form revealing its stylistic parallels with the composer’s ballet Jeux. There was a balletic feel to this interpretation too, Fröst’s languorous tone complemented by the stop-start rhythms of Pöntinen’s piano part. Initially the music was happy to indulge in its warm, lush surroundings but gradually it grew more agitated until Fröst’s final, bluesy solo.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata, a late work, is dedicated to the composer Arthur Honegger and received its first performance in the hands of no less a duo than Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. It is difficult to imagine a better account than here, with Fröst’s tone in the quieter and reflective passages simply sublime, layered with emotion. This was complemented by a sparky finale, where the music flew out of the gate like a horse let into an open field. The performers finished each other’s musical sentences in a performance of wit, charm and sensitivity.

The first of the ‘Swedish Beasts’ followed, a piece from Anders Hillborg written for the partnership before his breakthrough work, the Clarinet Concerto which Fröst recorded some seven years later. This was a piece of two extremes, flitting between reflective slow phrases and sharp retorts where the clarinet used the outer limits of its register. It was effective and a concentrated piece showing off Fröst’s technical prowess.

The second Swedish Beast was much more benign, but Roland Pöntinen’s own Mercury Dream showed an affinity with the blues. Nocturnal New York seemed to be its focus, especially in the easily paced piano introduction and postlude, but when Fröst joined the music became more animated.

Prior to that the pianist (above) gave us two substantial chunks from Ravel’s Miroirs. His account of Une barque sur l’océan was highly pictorial, and his Alborada del gracioso had swagger, even if some of the initial phrases were clipped. Pöntinen has not yet recorded Ravel and it would be interesting to set alongside his many BIS recordings of earlier music.

The partnership finished with Chausson’s Andante and Allegro, a discovery from the composer’s Bayreuth period in his mid-twenties, before Wagner’s spell exerted itself on his music. This was an enjoyable piece, full of melodic grace in the flowing Andante before turning slightly darker for the passionate Allegro.

We had two superb encores from the duo, playing pieces Fröst has previously given with orchestra. BrahmsHungarian Dance no.1 in G minor surged forward passionately, while Göran Fröst, the clarinettist’s brother, contributed the hugely entertaining Klezmer Dance no.2, full of good tunes and musical banter between clarinet and piano. Given the technical expertise on show, the standing ovation that followed was inevitable.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music:

Debussy Première rapsodie (1909-10)
Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962)
Hillborg Tampere Raw (1991)
Ravel Miroirs: Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso (1904-5)
Pöntinen Mercury Dream (1994)
Chausson Andante and Allegro (1881)

Encores
Brahms Hungarian Dance no.1 in G minor ()
Göran Fröst Klezmer Dance no.2

Further listening

You can hear the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

You can hear the album French Beauties and Swedish Beasts in its entirety on Spotify below. Alongside the items from this concert it includes the rather wonderful Saint-Saëns Clarinet Sonata:

Meanwhile Anders Hillborg’s Clarinet Concerto Peacock Tales’ written for Fröst, can be heard in its premiere recording here:

Wigmore Mondays – Nicolas Angelich plays Bach / Busoni, Brahms & Beethoven

Nicolas Angelich (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 9 December 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

A concert of the three ‘B’s, all of them greats of keyboard literature – with a fourth, Busoni, added for good measure.

J.S. Bach and Busoni make a winning combination, the Italian 20th century composer having discovered a strong affinity with his ‘ancestor’s’ work in transcribing his organ and harpsichord works for piano. These were always done in a reverent way, and the famous Advent chorale prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Now come, Saviour of the heathens) is no exception. Nicolas Angelich ensured all was still before beginning this account, and once started he left plenty of room for musical thought and variation of tempo and phrasing. Although at times it was a little too mannered, it was a nicely gauged start to the concert.

Angelich continued without a break into Brahms 7 Fantasien, hailed by Clara Schumann as ‘a true source of enjoyment, everything, poetry, passion, rapture, intimacy, full of the most marvellous effects’. The seven pieces work well as a whole, with three Capriccios placed 1, 3 and 7 in the group, interspersed with four Intermezzi. The relatively ambiguous labels mean Brahms has plenty of freedom for expression, and beyond the Capriccios being faster and stormy, and the Intermezzi slower, intimate and experimental, there is little to confine his work.

The performances here were well-informed, Angelich having recorded these works for Virgin Classics back in 2006. The first Capriccio in D minor (9:51) exhibits power and authority, with the composer’s beloved triplet rhythms in evidence, and is complemented by the first Intermezzo in A minor (12:11), one of several moments where Brahms’ thoughts turn wholly inwards – apart from the slightly sunnier middle section. The third piece, a Capriccio in G minor (16:23) has arpeggios tumbling downwards, and has a central section anticipating the tonal area (E) of the three Intermezzi to come. These are the fourth piece in E major (19:23), full of subtle but noticeable questioning in its melody, and the longest piece of the set. It is followed by the thoughtful fifth piece in E minor (23:59) and a sixth, mostly chordal piece back in E major (26:56) which quickly moves away from its harmonic base. Finally the power and passion returns for the seventh piece, a Capriccio in D minor (30:21). Brahms again is in his favourite two-against-three rhythmic figuration, and this signs off the set in the major key with some aplomb in Angelich’s performance.

Fantasy is also a theme for Beethoven’s most famous piano work, his Moonlight Sonata. In truth this piece sits between a fantasy and a sonata (hence the composer’s subtitle, Sonata quasi fantasia), and the first movement, though static in the profile of its arpeggios, is pure and magical imagery, Beethoven intentionally or not evoking moonlight over Lake Lucerne as perceived by his friend, the poet Ludwig Rellstab.

Angelich brought the stillness of the moment to the Wigmore Hall (35:30), reflective and deep in a reverie, only rousing slightly for a Scherzo of relatively downbeat thoughts (41:35). Those sentiments were well and truly blown away by the Finale (44:12), the only one of the three movements written in true ‘sonata form’ by Beethoven. This was a terrifically played account, carefully thought through and played with feeling rather than a need for technical prowess – though that was present too.

Angelich returned to late Brahms for his encore, the Intermezzo in E flat major Op.117/1 (54:02) Another late work, this one is based on an old Scottish ballad, Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament – and brought the mood and chronology of the concert full circle.

Repertoire

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

J.S. Bach arr. Busoni Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659 (c1748, arr.1898) (4:36)
Brahms 7 Fantasien Op.116 (1892) (9:51)
Beethoven Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Moonlight’ (1802) (35:30)
Encore: Brahms Intermezzo in E flat major Op.117/1 (1892) (54:02)

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard in leading available versions on Spotify below. These include Angelich’s recording of the Brahms pieces, with Murray Perahia playing the Bach / Busoni and Beethoven:

Angelich can be heard in a double album of late Brahms that includes the composer’s piano pieces published as Op.117-119. They hold a unique place in the piano repertoire, written by Brahms in the knowledge that his compositional career was nearly over and looking forward to innovations by composers such as Mahler, Berg and Schoenberg:

Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach organ works repay further exploration, especially at this time of year. This album from Kun-Woo Paik brings together some of the more famous examples, including the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue:

Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas remain one of the wonders of his output, but even a listen to the four published after the Moonlight sonata reveal a composer striking out for new shores. The Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28, known as the Pastoral, is similarly magical – before the group of three works published as Op.31 reveal humour in the first, stormy Romanticism in the second (nicknamed The Tempest) and an openness of expression in the beautiful third. The playlist below brings together leading recordings from Emil Gilels: