Live: Jörg Widmann & Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

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Jörg Widmann (clarinet, above – photo by Marco Borggreve) & Mitsuko Uchida (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Thursday 9th February, 2017

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 (1894)

Berg 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5 (1913)

Widmann Fantasie for solo clarinet (1993)

Schubert Impromptu in C minor D899/1 (1827)

Widmann Sonatina facile (2016, UK première)

Schumann 3 Fantasiestücke Op.73 (1849)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The sound made by the clarinet is surely one of the most beautiful in classical music.

Yet, as Jörg Widmann reminded a packed Wigmore Hall when playing his Fantasie for solo clarinet, the instrument’s qualities extend far and wide. Widmann explored multiphonics – playing more than one note at once – and also used the clarinet to evoke a lilting Alpine dance, some outrageous Gershwin-style slides and baleful, shy asides as though he was the only performer in the room.

Widmann has been chosen as the Wigmore Hall’s Composer in Residence for 2017-18. It is a chance to appreciate his versatility, for clarinet pieces are one side of a substantial catalogue. He has written for solo piano, but although Mitsuko Uchida’s UK premiere performance of the Sonata facile was superbly characterised, it was not as successful musically. Widmann takes Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C major, K545, as a starting point, but he effectively screws up the pages of the work, distorting and fragmenting so that they did not quite add up to a meaningful whole.

mitsuko-uchida-240815Far more purposeful was Uchida’s performance of Schubert’s first published Impromptu, where we explored the composer’s very heart through an interpretation that had the hall on the edge of their seats. The repetitive march theme was darkly coloured, but the transition from minor key to major brought brilliant shafts of light under Uchida’s quick fingers.

When the two musicians played together the results were electric. In spite of a mobile phone that rang for more than a minute, and a hearing aid that shrilled in close proximity to the pitch of Widmann’s clarinet, their Brahms was beautifully poised. The Clarinet Sonata in F minor Op.120/1 is a late, nocturnal treasure, its tension giving way to an autumnal glow in exchanges between the instruments that behave as though they are old friends. This performance caught that intimacy, especially in the slow movement, and enjoyed the dance of the finale with a spring in its step.

Schumann’s 3 Fantasiestücke faired similarly, closing the program wreathed in smiles, despite the occasional furrowed brow in the first piece. Here the interaction was again on the most intimate of scales, Widmann’s control exquisite in the slower music and matched by Uchida’s voicing of the individual parts.

Even better was the duo’s performance of Berg’s 4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, a relatively early publication from 1913 that explores the outer limits of tonality. The mysterious second piece had an extraordinary inner tension, fully released in a flurry of notes, while the last piece, also slow, hung on the air for an age.

Widmann’s control here was almost superhuman, and although he admitted to being out of breath after the Schumann, he and Uchida gave a substantial encore by the 14-year old Mendelssohn. The graceful second movement from his Clarinet Sonata sounded like the work of a much older man, and was lovingly played.

On record: Music For My Love (Toccata)

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Brahms (arr. Söderlind) Von ewiger Liebe
Casulana (arr. C. Matthews) Il vostro dipartir
Dean Angels’ Wings (Music for Yodit)
Elcock Song for Yodit, Op. 23
Ford Sleep
Holloway Music for Yodit
Kerem A Farewell for Yodit
Lord (arr. Mann) Zarabanda Solitaria
Pickard …forbidding mourning…
Ruders Lullaby for Yodit
Söderlind 15 Variations on a Norwegian Folktune

Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra / Paul Mann

Summary

The Music For My Love project has its basis in the life, cut short by cancer, of Yodit Tekle – the Eritrean-born partner of Martin Anderson, whose desire to commemorate her in music led to his contacting those composers he knew personally, resulting in over 100 pieces for string orchestra which he intends to record for his Toccata Classics label. This first volume takes in eight pieces and three arrangements, ranging from around two minutes to a full quarter-hour.

What’s the music like?

Appreciably more varied in expression than might be expected given the context.

Among the original pieces, Robin Holloway has written a pensive elegy whose dance-like central section offers but minimal contrast, whereas Poul Ruders contributes a wistful and affecting lullaby. Mikhel Kerem’s miniature amply sustains its rapt atmosphere, while Andrew Ford takes an earlier vocal setting for his gentle round-lay. Steve Elcock conveys a consolatory mood via the subtlest of means, then Brett Dean draws on an earlier piano piece in music of ethereally diffused harmony. John Pickard draws more obliquely upon an earlier cello piece for what is the most animated of these works in its textural contrasts, while Ragnar Söderlind takes the Norwegian folksong Oh, the cooling wind as the basis for 15 variations whose cumulative impact feels a little diffused in context – for all that its emotional consistency is undeniable.

Among the arrangements, the late Jon Lord’s evocative sarabande for string quartet responds effortlessly to Paul Mann’s skilful adaptation. Framing the sequence overall, Söderlind makes of Brahms’s song a threnody of Grieg-like plaintiveness, whereas Colin Matthews draws out the assertive eloquence inherent in a madrigal by the still little-known Maddalena Casulana.

Does it all work?

Indeed, given that it would have been all too easy to assemble a programme unrelieved in its emotional range. Thanks to judicious sequencing of the pieces at hand, this disc amply fulfils its commemorative function while also making for an hour’s absorbing listen in its own right.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely, not least as the Debrecen-based Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra responds with commitment to Paul Mann’s direction. The sound endows the string textures with plenty of space and definition, while booklet annotations are as comprehensive as ever from Toccata.

Richard Whitehouse

Further instalments in this worthwhile project are much anticipated: in the meantime, read more about its continuation via the Toccata Classics website

Wigmore Mondays – Marie-Elisabeth Hecker & Martin Helmchen

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Marie-Elisabeth Hecker (cello) & Martin Helmchen (piano)

J.S. Bach Viola da gamba Sonata no.3 in G minor, BWV1029 (late 1730s-early 1740s) (14 minutes)

Stravinsky Suite Italienne (arr. Piatigorsky) (1932/33) (20 minutes)

Brahms Cello Sonata no.1 in E minor Op.38 (1862-5) (23 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 23 November

Arcana’s commentary

Pairing Bach with Brahms was a smart move for this concert.

When Bach was writing for the viola da gamba – essentially an early form of cello with no spike and sometimes five strings! – he was one of the first to recognise its potential as a treble instrument as well as a bass.

To that end the three sonatas he published for viola da gamba and ‘continuo’ – which in this case would normally mean a harpsichord. The pieces transcribe well for modern cello and piano though, as can be heard from 1:35 on the broadcast. It took a little while for Marie-Elisabeth Hecker to settle her tone and intonation in this performance, but once evened out the performance is notable for its clarity and expression at the higher end of the cello. This becomes especially obvious in the Adagio slow movement (from 7:00), which takes the form of an aria. The last movement (12:22) is like a fugue, with its question and answer phrases.

Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne comes from a period in his compositional life where he was looking back to the music of classical and baroque times, taking that music as inspiration, and remoulding it into something that sounded much more modern. For his ballet Pulcinella he took the music of Pergolesi (1710-1736) – or a contemporary, as was recently suggested – and gave it new musical clothes, with spiced-up harmonies and colourful orchestration. Several movements from Pulcinella were reworked for violin and piano to become the Suite Italienne, after which point the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky realised with a few more tweaks he could expand the repertoire of his own instrument.

This was done with Stravinsky’s approval, and the results – as you can hear from this concert – are invigorating and humourous. The nip and tuck between cello and piano is brilliantly caught in the Tarantella (29:49) but in truth all the movements carry the same levels of excitement – running through a sprightly Introduzione (17:33), Hecker’s graceful Serenata (20:00), a surprisingly vigorous Aria (23:45), a sombre and slow Minuetto that grows in stature (32:30) before leading into the vivacious Finale (34:48)

The Brahms (beginning at 39:25) is a piece that also looks back for its inspiration – to Bach, who inspires the finale (55:29) and perhaps to classical composers for the second movement minuet (50:00)

Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Martin Helmchen give a superb and very fluent performance of this work, getting the balance between cello and the active piano part just right. The similarities between Brahms and Bach are clearest in the two composers’ use of counterpoint – that is a number of different melodies being played simultaneously or in complement to each other.

The flow of melodies in the first movement is unbroken and rather beautiful, especially when the piano briefly switches to a major key (42:13) Elsewhere the mood is darkly passionate and powerfully played.

The Minuet has an attractive poise, enjoying the relative mystery of its central section (from 51:43) while the finale has a steely sound to its theme from the piano (55:29) and the cello’s response (55:37) – all set out as a fugue, developing considerable momentum through to the end, which is straight faced but roundly optimistic at the same time.

This was a brilliantly played account of the Brahms, ideally balanced and communicating the composer’s rich abundance of melodies.

Further listening

The Spotify playlist below – Looking back to move forward – examines more of Brahms and Stravinsky’s use of techniques of the past to shape their own music of the future. You can also hear Marie-Elisabeth Hecker and Martin Helmchen in their new disc of the Brahms Cello Sonatas.

by Ben Hogwood

The Genesis of Minerva: Schumann and the Young Brahms – Minverva Piano Trio

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Minerva Piano Trio (above): Michal Cwizewicz (violin), Richard Birchall (cello), Annie Yim (piano)

St John’s Smith Square, London; Sunday 23rd October, 2016

Schumann Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.63 (1847)

Birchall Contours (2014)

Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8a (original 1854 version)

A season-long residency as Young Artists at St John’s is enabling the Minerva Piano Trio to schedule several worthwhile recitals. None fitted the bill more than this afternoon’s programme, culminating in a rare revival for the First Piano Trio of Brahms as heard in its original version.

Completed when he was barely into his twenties, this is the only work from the outset of Brahms’s maturity to have survived essentially as it was conceived. That the composer substantially re-wrote it in 1889 (after his temporary ‘retirement’ from composition) but allowed the versions to co-exist suggests that, dissatisfied though he may have become with them, he was unable to suppress those earlier thoughts. One does not look to the 1854 version for formal unity or finesse, but it certainly has the edge in terms of expression and tonal cohesion.

The opening Allegro is as much about charting an emotional course through its constituent themes than fashioning them into a logical argument, yet such is the imaginative resource with which Brahms elaborates his material that the movement as it evolves becomes its own justification. The Minerva audibly appreciated this with playing as perceptive as the music required, then was equally inside the Scherzo with its alternately brusque and elegant ideas – and an intriguingly fugitive ending that the revision streamlines into something less arresting.

With its multiple allusions to the then nascent Lieder tradition, the Adagio casts a magnetic if unsettling spell and the Minerva accordingly brought out its exquisite ambiguity in full measure. No less impressive was a Finale which, irrespective of how convincing – or otherwise – is its reworking (and Clara Schumann’s strictures cannot be lightly dismissed), the audacious homecoming in B minor is here suffused with inevitability such as the older and wiser Brahms was unable to achieve by modulatory means alone: a QED in every sense.

A commanding performance, then, and the Minerva had been hardly less inside the idiom of Schumann’s own First Piano Trio at the start of this recital. Whether or not the emergence of his wife Clara’s masterly work for the medium just a year before was indeed the catalyst, the present piece harnesses those sombre hues often to the fore in Schumann’s later music with a textural translucency which never spills over into opacity. This, at least, was the impression left by a reading that plotted a resolute course through the discursive design of the opening movement then clarified the scherzo’s rhythmic intricacy without sacrificing its poise. The plangent ‘song without words’ that follows was seamlessly dovetailed into the finale, which unfolded with no lack of incident on its way to a decisive while tenuously affirmative close.

Coming between these expansive staples of the repertoire, Contours by the Minerva’s cellist Richard Birchall proved a diverting entity – its four brief movements amounting to a discreet unity that, with its evocative Nocturne and engaging Fast Waltz, confirmed a real grasp of this difficult medium. There was further music at the close – when, in response to generous applause, the Minerva gave an easeful reading of the Andante from Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor. An eloquent conclusion to an impressive recital by an ensemble which is clearly going places.

Richard Whitehouse

The Minerva Piano Trio returns to St John’s for further concerts on 9th March and 1st June 2017. Further information can be found at the St John’s website. You can hear more of the trio below:

Wigmore Mondays – Nicola Benedetti & Alexei Grynyuk in late sonatas by Beethoven & Brahms

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Nicola Benedetti (violin, above), Alexei Grynyuk (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 29 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b071cl1c

Available until 29 March

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What’s the music?

Beethoven – Violin Sonata in G major, Op.96 (1812) (28 minutes)

Brahms – Violin Sonata no.2 in A major, Op.100 (1886) (23 minutes)

Spotify

Nicola Benedetti and Alexei Grynyuk have not yet recorded this music, but other versions can be accessed via the playlist below, in case you can’t get to the broadcast:

About the music

Beethoven’s tenth and last published violin sonata sits on its own in his output, a decade after than the composer’s previous work in the form. It is dedicated to the same ‘Archduke’ (Rudolph of Austria) for whom Beethoven wrote his famous B flat major piano trio, also published in 1812. Beethoven supposedly wrote it in a slightly easier style, as the violinist Pierre Rode – who was performing the piece with the Archduke playing piano – was not as skilful as he once was. The G major piece makes allowances, then – but not in a way that you would ever know from listening! It is unusually tranquil, and has instances of the timeless music Beethoven was to find in the slower movements of his late works.

There are no such concessions to technical ability from Brahms, who wrote the second of his three violin sonatas while on holiday by Lake Thun, Switzerland. This is however a relatively late work, and although Brahms has found and established his style the piece still carries some of the pressures of writing for Joseph Joachim. Its lyrical and tuneful nature have helped make it one of the composer’s most popular pieces of chamber music – and like the Beethoven it has a largely sunny outlook.

Performance verdict

A nice combination of two violin sonatas that seemed ideally suited to a bright Spring lunchtime – and how refreshing to hear young artists such as Benedetti and Grynyuk take on two later works like this.

The Beethoven was lovely, performed in a spirit of enjoyment where the violin and piano really were equals. Benedetti’s tone, slightly sweet, was ideal, while Grynyuk proved a very sensitive pianist, with some lightly brushed contributions that made sense of Beethoven’s unusual contentment.

The same mood infused the Brahms sonata, though here there was a greater sense of purpose, as the first movement, having begun relatively slowly, surged through to a much more animated development section. The finale was also notable for revealing some of the shadows that became a greater part of Brahms’s late works – but overall the feeling was one of positivity, celebrating the composer’s good spirits and warm lyricism in this work.

What should I listen out for?

Beethoven

1:58 – as the piece begins there is an immediate feeling of contentment, and although the opening idea is quite innocuous it is distinctive, with its use of the trill ornament. The piano introduces an airy second theme at 3:10, which the violin soon takes up. The mood is summery, and even a bit drowsy. The first section is repeated again at 4:40. Beethoven then develops his ideas fluently before we hear the main tune once again at 8:31, shared this time by the violin and piano. The balmy warmth continues until the end.

13:12 – the second movement is slow, marked Adagio espressivo, and has that kind of heavenly timelessness often found in later period Beethoven. It has a spacious introduction from the piano and is if anything even more relaxed than the first movement. It operates at a similar tempo and mood to the slow movement from the Emperor piano concerto. From around 14:35 the violin lines become quiet and bare, Benedetti using little vibrato, but the warmth does not take long to return.

19: 19 – the third movement, a Scherzo, is short, and if you blink you’ll miss it! Its first idea is once again light of touch, and though there is a heavier trio section it is not at all long before the minor key asserts itself again.

21:48 – the final movement also has a light touch, with a Haydn simplicity, and is particularly rich in the lower register and strong in the continuous, lower runs. The slower music is a delight, still airy and relatively carefree. There is then a quicker, invigorating run to the end.

Brahms

32:37 – one of Brahms’s most celebrated tunes opens this piece, a lovely outpouring of good feeling. It is quite slow and quiet to begin with but grows into a full blooded interpretation as the theme is developed further. There is greater affection here than in much of Brahms’s output.

42:07 – this is definitely the lighter side of Brahms, with a tender slow movement that segues into a more jaunty Scherzo section (43:32), marked by tumbling triplets in the piano part. The slow movement music follows again at a safe distance (44:38) – and then once again the scherzo music trips along (46:43), this time with plucking from the violin.

49:28 – in the last movement we get the warmth of the violin’s lower register, taking the ‘grazioso’ marking in to account. There are though some shadows that the listener might sense occasionally, the odd harmonic turn towards the dark side that never lasts too long but is there nonetheless.

Encore

54:35 – a substantial encore from Benedetti and Grynyuk, and a very different mood in the exotic and intense Myth no.3 by Polish composer Szymanowski.

Further listening

At the bottom of the playlist you will find some further suggestions for violin and piano in the form of sonatas by Schumann – Brahms’ friend, of course – with his Violin Sonata no.1 – and César Franck, whose own Violin Sonata shares the same key and mood as Brahms’s Second. Finally some shorter pieces by Schumann for solo instrument and piano – the joyous Adagio and Allegro and the 5 Pieces in Folk Style, arranged here for cello and piano. Each will put you in a good mood!

Meanwhile if the Szymanowski appeals, Nicola Benedetti has recorded his Violin Concerto no.1: