Wigmore Mondays: Meccore String Quartet – Szymanowski & Sibelius

Meccore String Quartet (above – Jarosław Nadrzycki, Wojciech Koprowski (violins), Michał Bryła (viola), Karol Marianowski (cello)

Szymanowski String Quartet no.1 in C major, Op.37 (1917)
Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 ‘Voces intimae’ (1909)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 20 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

Szymanowski’s two String Quartets took a while to establish themselves in the string quartet repertory, but certainly not on grounds of quality. The first anticipates the composer’s biggest stage work, King Roger, and has music of great depth with a relatively exotic harmonic language.

Sibelius wrote his only published string quartet – there are three other unpublished works – at his new home of Ainola, where he moved with his wife in 1903. At this point the composer was suffering from the effects of alcoholism and debt, and needed to move away from Helsinki and temptation. Ultimately this did not provide full relief, but he was at least able to move on with composition, and the Symphony no.3, written just before the quartet, offers more optimism. The quartet however is dark and unforgiving.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Szymanowski String Quartet no.1 in C major, Op.37 (from 1:51) (17 minutes)

At 1:51 the quartet begins as though in a time warp, the soft harmonies in a chorale from the four instruments harking back to a much earlier time. Gradually the music establishes its rich harmonies, helped by added notes from the instruments using double stopping (playing more than one note at once), which gives added density to the music.

The added note harmonies are a big part of the composer’s newer style, where he does still on occasion imitate Debussy but where he now has one foot planted relatively firmly in the explorer’s camp. The music goes through some unexpected harmonic shifts towards the end, but then from 9:27 feels on firm grounds once more with the luxurious beginning to the slow movement.

This features soaring melodies from the first violin and higher playing from the rest of the instruments towards the end, where the listener feels suspended in the air.

A different air altogether hangs in the third movement (15:07) where the music is quick, urgent and full of smaller phrases passed between the instruments. At 17:19 a dance section gives cut and thrust, before the quartet wraps up with surprising haste.

Sibelius String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 ‘Voces intimae’ (from 21:24) (28 minutes)

The theme from the violin (21:24), answered by the cello, is the melodic material on which the first movement is based. The phrases are restless, passed between the instruments and often overlapping with little pause for breath. There is a sense of the wide open countryside in which Sibelius now finds himself, but also of the dark days. This comes to a head around 26:48, a sparse cadence played by the quartet, before they move on to the second movement with flitting motifs from each instruments, creating a vision of circling birds.

The slow movement (29:36, marked Adagio di molto) is the centre of the work both emotionally and musically, deeply emotional but also offering resolution. Here the quartet are closely together, and the main theme, which comes back several times, has a deep yearning.

From 39:00 the fourth movement begins, and here the quartet digs in as though searching for strength and resolve. Gradually the individual lines become restless again, the melodies increasingly fractured, and the textures are heavy. Leading on from this is an even faster movement (44:35), where the instruments become even more reckless and desperation sets in (especially from 46:17). There are fleeting glimpses of folk melodies but the momentum carries all before it to a dazzling flurry of semiquavers at the end.

Thoughts on the concert

A powerful concert from the Meccore String Quartet. Their Syzmanowski felt utterly authentic, played with style and feeling, and with the quartet full in voice. They took a standing position for the concert (except the cellist of course) and this suited their freedom of expression.

The quartet tended to take the fast music at daringly fast tempi, especially in the Sibelius, where the second and fifth movements seemed to be gone in a flash of breakneck speed. Despite the technical brilliance this did mean a few musical statements were swept up in the sheer momentum of it all. However the quartet were more measured for the slow movement, where emotion was concentrated and intonation wonderfully secure. There was a feeling throughout that the interpretations from the quartet were singular in voice, and watching them in person made the experience much more meaningful.

As a substantial encore it was nice to hear the second movement (a Romanze) from Grieg‘s String Quartet in G minor, Op.27 (51:00), which the quartet have recently recorded, and which here provided a reminder of the melodic gifts of the Norwegian composer, whose music seems to have fallen off the radar a little bit of late. The cello is particularly beautiful in its melody here.

Further listening and reading

Here is the first movement of the Grieg String Quartet, performed by the Meccore String Quartet live from the Polish Radio in 2015.

For a further taster of their Szymanowski, here is the third movement of the String Quartet no.2, part of a disc of the composer’s quartets recently released on Warner Classics:

Meanwhile for further listening on Spotify, in the absence of the Meccore versions, here are the Emerson String Quartet in a winning combination of the Sibelius and Grieg Quartets, with a little Nielsen for good measure:

Meanwhile both Szymanowski Quartets can be found here, in a version from the Goldner String Quartet:

Tasmin Little, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Edward Gardner at the Barbican – Janáček, Smetana, Szymanowski & Eötvös

Ed Gardner
BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner (above) (photo © Benjamin Ealovega)

Barbican Hall, Saturday January 9, 2017

Janáček Jealousy

Smetana Ma vlast: Vltava; Šarka

Szymanowski Violin Concerto No.2 (soloist – Tasmin Little)

Eötvös The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies [UK premiere]

Janáček Taras Bulba

L-R Leoš Janáček (1854-1928); Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884); Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937); Péter Eötvös (b1944)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Edward Gardner returned to the BBC Symphony for this diverse if not wholly successful programme, which opened with the ultimate in terse curtain-raisers. Intended then abandoned as the overture to his opera Jenůfa, Janáček’s Jealousy (1895) has latterly enjoyed a peripheral place in the repertoire. Heard here in the late Charles Mackerras’s realization of the original version, it made for a vivid impression – not least when its alternation between strident brass gestures and eloquent string writing unerringly evokes Sibelius during much the same period.

Next came the second and third instalments from Smetana’s cycle of symphonic portraits, Ma vlast. The performance of Vltava (1874) was a disappointment – its constituent sections rather failing to cohere, with Gardner making little of the visceral ‘St John’s Rapids’ episode and the apotheosis doddering along at a jog-trot.

Šarka (1875) fared better – Gardner exerting a tight grip over its scenario of female retribution, with felicitous playing from solo clarinet and horn prior to the fateful close. In context, these pieces sounded curiously adrift, suggesting that a different selection (Šarka, then From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields maybe?) might have proved more effective. Even better to opt for one of those early ‘Gothenburg’ symphonic poems that are rarely revived, of which Wallenstein’s Camp would ideally have complemented the Janáček in the second half.

Tasmin Little

Tasmin Little

Time was when Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto (1933) existed in the shadow of its predecessor, but this last major work by the composer enjoys increasingly regular revival – its amalgam of luscious textures and folk-inflected harmonies underpinned by a formal cohesion where elements of sonata and rondo forms link hands over a powerful cadenza (by the initial soloist Paweł Kochánski) that Tasmin Little rendered with aplomb.Elsewhere her intonation occasionally faltered as she strove for parity against often dense orchestral writing, though a cumulative impact was rarely less than evident on the way to the affirmative closing pages.

After the interval, a welcome first hearing in the UK for a recent orchestral piece by Peter Eötvös. Written for the Basque National Orchestra, The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies (2012) utilizes not only the quirky rhythmical profile of that region’s traditional music but also its indigenous percussion – two cajóns situated near the front of the orchestra goading the music on with their distinctive timbre. The piece follows an eventful (and suspenseful) trajectory in which the imagery conveyed by the title is amply though subtly conveyed; the typically stratified textures making possible the luminous final stages then an ending which, not for the first time with this composer, suggests a possible continuation just out of reach.

Later Janáček fairly specializes in such oblique endings, and if Taras Bulba (1918) is not one of these, this rhapsody’s graphic yet by no means literal depiction of events related by Gogol leaves no doubt as to its composer’s identification with his subject. Gardner brought fervency then starkness to the respective deaths of Andriy and Ostap, and while the opening stages of the final section were a little temperate, the apotheosis had a glowing inevitability – though some fallible playing was a reminder of this music’s demands for all its relative familiarity.

Wigmore Mondays – Nelson Goerner plays Debussy & Chopin

nelson-goerner

Nelson Goerner (piano) © Jean-Baptiste Millot

Chopin Polonaise in F# minor Op.44 (1841) (11 minutes)

2 Nocturnes Op.62 (1846) (12 minutes)

Polonaise in A flat major Op.53 (1842-3) (7 minutes)

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

Arcana’s commentary

For both Chopin and Debussy the piano became arguably their primary means of musical expression. Both used relatively traditional forms – studies, preludes for instance – but stretched them from conventional structures to suit their own means.

Here we heard seven of the twelve Préludes Debussy wrote as a book, the first of two, published in 1909 and 1910. These are character pieces where he was painting a picture or an impression, without always specifying his exact stimulus. Some were more obvious; others were left to the player for interpretation.

Nelson Goerner made each of these his own. The languid, humid atmosphere of Danseuses de Delphes (1:32 on the broadcast), with control and shading, set the scene and led to an enjoyable and mysterious La serenade interrompue (4:35). This was playful but wary too – dancing but not wanting to fully let itself go.

The ‘underwater rolling of pebbles’ from Verlaine’s poem could be sensed in Le vent dans la plaine (7:00), while the simplicity of La fille aux cheveux de lin (9:09) was rather moving. La danse de Puck (11:24) could have found the Midsummer Night’s Dream character in a more playful mood perhaps, while the thick atmospherics of Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (14:02) hung heavy on the air. Finally Les collines d’Anacapri (17:58) danced and shimmered, controlled but letting itself run wild too. The last four high notes were hammered out convincingly (20:37)

Goerner’s Chopin was rather different. The first of the Polonaises (22:14) was Chopin’s most ambitious work to use the dance form, using a Polonaise in its outer sections but a Mazurka in the middle (from 26:56). This central section had more charm but the outer sections were stern, almost obsessive – and brilliantly played. Their return after the Mazurka (30:05) was like two bolts of lightning, the mood almost that of a Tango from Goerner’s native Argentina.

The Nocturnes (33:40) and (40:12) could have done with a bit more air and relaxation; Goerner seemed rather anxious to push on with them. That said the trills of the first (from 37:55) were expertly managed, while the second was really nicely pointed.

The Polonaise (45:53) was heroic indeed, strutting its stuff but frequently dazzling, especially in Goerner’s white hot ostinato (49:02)

There was an encore to finish, an Impromptu of poise and grace (53:48), more of a Nocturne than the other two arguably.

Further listening

There is something rather special about Polish piano music – and to continue from the Chopin the Spotify playlist below offers up some lesser-heard treats in the form of piano concertos by Paderewski and Moszkowski, prefaced by a sprinkling of exotic Mazurkas from Szymanowski.

by Ben Hogwood

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

nicola-benedetti
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

alexei-grynyuk

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: