Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 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

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

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

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert:

Prom 1 – BBC Singers, Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Karina Canellakis – Janáček Glagolitic Mass, Dvořák & Zosha Di Castri


Prom 1: Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnson (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass), Peter Holder (organ), BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis (above)

Di Castri Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (2019) (BBC commission: World premiere)
Dvořák The Golden Spinning Wheel Op.109 (1896)
Janáček Glagolitic Mass (Final version, 1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 19 July 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Sounds app here

In its including of a female conductor, a premiere alluding to the 50th anniversary of the first moon-landing and a Henry Wood ‘novelty’, the First Night of this year’s Proms encapsulated the season in almost all essentials while making for an engaging programme in its own right.

The premiere was that of Long Is the Journey, Short Is the Memory from Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri. Now in her early thirties, Di Castri has achieved recognition for the arresting timbres and textures of her music and there was no doubt as to the scintillating sonorities she drew from the orchestra in what, loosely defined, was a cantata where changing conceptions of the Moon were articulated through a text drawn centred on the musings of Chinese-British writer Xiaolu Guo alongside fragments by Sappho and Giacomo Leopardi. A pity, then, that the composer’s rather moribund word-setting and vagaries of the Albert Hall acoustic meant the emotional affect of this text went for relatively little, for all the orchestral component was often spellbinding in its evoking the immensity yet also intimacy of space above and beyond.

Certainly the BBC Singers projected its contribution with audible assurance, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded ably to the astute direction of Karina Canellakis both here and in a rare revival of Dvořák‘s symphonic poem The Golden Spinning Wheel. Third of his four late such pieces drawing on the folk-ballads of Jaromir Erben, this is usually heard in the abbreviated version prepared by Josef Suk but tonight brought the full-length original with Erben’s poem set line by line in an uncanny musical embodiment of the text. That said, its sheer repetition of motifs and themes can prove excessive and while Canellakis had the measure of the work’s evocative aspect, she was less successful when trying to infuse the sprawling structure with any cumulative impetus such that the rousing final peroration seemed all too long in arriving.

There could not be a piece less given to longeurs than Janáček‘s Glagolitic Mass, first heard in the UK almost nine decades ago but not at these concerts until 1972. Recent hearings have opted for the conjectural urtext whose sometimes reckless audacity its composer toned down before the premiere, but this evening reinstated the final version that Canellakis directed with verve and sensitivity, if lacking a degree of fervency which turns a fine performance into an indelible embodiment of that pantheist spirituality central to the music of Janáček’s maturity.

Not that there was much to fault in the singing, with Asmik Grigorian more than equal to the demanding tessitura of the soprano part and Ladislav Elgr hardly less attuned to the stentorian tenor role. Jennifer Johnson was a mezzo of no mean eloquence, while bass Jan Martiník was only marginally too impassive. Peter Holder duly put the Albert Hall organ through its paces in an incisive and ultimately thunderous organ solo – after which, it was hardly the BBCSO’s fault if the final Intrada sounded a little underwhelming as its rhythmic elan was undoubted.

Throughout this account, the contributions of both orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus left little to be desired. Hard to believe the intricacies of Janacek’s writing were once put down to technical inadequacy. In that respect, as with space exploration, progress has been absolute.

Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Bach, Janáček, Messiaen, Martinů & Edmund Finnis @ Wigmore Hall

Britten Sinfonia soloists [Thomas Gould (violin), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Emer McDonough (flute), Huw Watkins (piano)]

J.S. Bach Violin Sonata no.1 in B minor BWV1014 (1720)
Janáček Pohádka (1910)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1952)
Finnis Five Trios (world premiere tour) (2019)
Martinů Trio for flute, violin and piano (1936)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 13 February 2019

Photo credit Harry Rankin (Britten Sinfonia)

Review by Ben Hogwood

For years now Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series has been a steady delight, a way to discover the new and rediscover the old in chamber music. Using interesting combinations of instruments and building consistently innovative programs around them, the group offer a very accessible way in to discovering classical music’s treasures of the small scale.

This latest series, given in Norwich, Cambridge and London, is no exception, exploring 300 years of chamber music for flute, violin, cello and piano. Pianist Huw Watkins was the one constant for the whole concert, which at London’s Wigmore Hall gave off the unmistakeable aroma of spring.

Watkins and Thomas Gould began proceedings with a very tasteful account of Bach’s Violin Sonata. It is always good to hear Bach with piano accompaniment, for the music is so versatile that it suits the colours available. In a work like this particular sonata, where the piano plays much more than the role of a traditional accompanist, the textures were ideal. The violin, too, had more notes than normal thanks to Bach’s ‘double stopping’ writing, and Gould played these passages beautifully.

Janáček’s Pohádka represented quite a step forward stylistically but the transition was natural, and the fierce lyricism so often associated with the Czech composer was brought to the fore. Caroline Dearnley enjoyed the song-like passages and Watkins gave great clarity to the busy accompaniments, neither musician stinting on the intensity of Janacek’s writing as the plot of the fairy tale took hold.

The same could be said of Le merle noir, Messiaen’s only published work for flute and piano. An important work that signals his intent to accurately reproduce birdsong on traditional instruments, it is a remarkable piece – and Emer McDonough brought to it a wide range of colour. Most importantly she made it sound natural, for while the notes are all written out the intention of the piece is to sound as instinctive as possible. Again Watkins was the catalyst with some carefully voiced and wholly complementary thoughts.

Each ‘At Lunch’ concert features a new work on its world premiere tour, and the springlike atmosphere was ideal for Edmund Finnis and his Five Trios, for the conventional piano trio grouping of violin, cello and piano. Finnis finds an unusual amount of space in his music, and here his blend of quick movement over slow, drone-like figures opened out the textures very attractively.

There was very little bass in the five trios, notable for their translucence and bright textures. The first introduced softly oscillating figures, while the second spread shafts of light from spread piano chords and string harmonics. The dappled sunlight streaming through the Wigmore Hall roof was the ideal companion for the rippling textures of the third piece, but then in the fourth we enjoyed a bolder statement from the cello, its fuller sound ringing through a haze of sustained piano and glassy violin. To finish, the prayerful fifth piece completed a meditative ten minutes from a composer whose rarefied textures are well worth further investigation.

The Britten Sinfonia members closed their generous concert with Martinů’s Trio for flute, violin and piano. So prolific was the Czech composer that it is easy to overlook his achievements, particularly in the chamber music field. While it can on occasion be tricky to recall some of his melodies after the first hearing of a piece, the overall feel of his writing is uniformly positive and, in this case, capable of making the audience smile and clap spontaneously.

The third of four movements was responsible for the clapping outburst, a wonderful piece of effervescent writing betraying his Parisian location when writing it. The outer movements were a little grittier but still charmed with their syncopation, colour combinations and piquant melodies. The tender second movement was heartfelt too.

The standard of musicianship in this concert was extremely high. Particularly memorable moments include Emer McDonough’s final movement cadenza in the Martinů, where Watkins held the performance together admirably despite the tricky rhythms, the graceful playing of Thomas Gould in the Bach and Caroline Dearnley’s rich cello tone in the fourth of Edmund Dinnis’s trios, not to mention the expressive Janáček.

Once more from this source, an enlightening hour of music in an imaginative context. If you live in London or the East of England you really should catch them live soon!

Further listening

You can listen below to an interview with Edmund Finnis, talking with Dr Kate Kennedy about Five Trios ahead of the Wigmore Hall concert://embeds.audioboom.com/posts/7174837-edmund-finnis-talks-about-his-new-work-five-trios/embed/v4?eid=AQAAACp5ZVy1em0A

You can also hear a new release of Finnis’s music for orchestra here:

Meanwhile the remainder of the program is grouped together on this Spotify playlist:

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 7, 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.

On record: Stephen Hough plays Scriabin & Janáček: Sonatas & Poems

stephen-hough

Two of the giants of the piano from the twentieth century lock horns in Stephen Hough’s newest release for Hyperion – which actually brings together recordings made in 2011 and 2013. Scriabin and Janáček complement each other as they both explore rich variants of tonal writing – and in Scriabin’s case, leave tonality altogether.

What’s the music like?

Alexander Scriabin has an output almost entirely based around the piano, which became his primary means of expression. Within that, Scriabin seems to have loved the black keys and in particular F sharp, around which many of his works are centred. The Piano Sonata no.4 and Piano Sonata no.5 both reside in that key, although both make frequent and increasingly exotic bids for freedom, part of the mystical style the composer was working towards.

In Vers la Flamme (Towards the Flame) he reaches his goal, making a complete break with tonality in music that seems to be flying through the air – apt, really, as Scriabin believed in the concept of levitation. Here he conveys it in musical form.

By contrast the piano music of Leoš Janáček has a remote but incredibly intense form of intimacy that can at times be truly disconcerting. The music of Book I of On an Overgrown Path is fraught with anxiety but also has astonishing power, and it has eerie premonitions of death – the fate tragically befalling the composer’s daughter Olga, who lost her life to typhoid in 1903.

The Piano Sonata ‘1.X.1905, From the street’ has an equally tragic genesis, and would have been lost completely had the pianist Ludmila Tucková not copied two of its movements before Janáček lobbed them into the Vltava river. The date is that of the death of Frantisek Pavlík, a Moravian carpenter killed by Austrian forces for his support of a Czech-speaking university.

Does it all work?

Yes. Stephen Hough gets right inside the worlds of these two differing but complementary composers. He gives a frankly astonishing account of Scriabin’s Piano Sonata no.5, notable for its total technical command. This can also be applied to Vers la Flamme, where the fiendish trills reveal a work right on the edge.

Meanwhile the Janáček works thrive on the same levels of clarity, and the vivid picture painting in a piece such as The barn owl has not flown away!, from On an Overgrown Path Book I, lingers long in the memory. Meanwhile the latent anger in the Sonata is undimmed.

Is it recommended?

Without reservation. Stephen Hough is a superb pianist and musician, and plays these works with a command and clarity beyond the reach of most pianists.

Listen

You can get a preview of each track from this disc on the Hyperion website