Wigmore Mondays – Mariam Batsashvili plays Bach, Haydn & Liszt

Mariam Batsashvili (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903 (c1720) (1:45 – 13:19 on the broadcast link below)

Haydn Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (1780) (13:59-24:20)

Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C sharp minor S244/12 (25:39-35:15)

Liszt, edited Busoni & Leslie Howard: Fantasy on themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni S697 (1842) (36:40-55:20)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 February 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Mariam Batsashvili has made a name for herself as a specialist in the music of one of the most masculine of piano composers. Franz Liszt is regarded very much as a showman, his music often thought to be for virtuosos only who will play it with as much blood and thunder.

However as the Georgian pianist Batsashvili showed here that does not always have to be the case. Her Liszt has its fair share of drama and power, for sure – no let-up there – but hers is a very musical approach, getting beneath the surface to show Liszt’s other compositional talents.

Before Liszt, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue from J.S. Bach – one of his pieces that does if anything look forward towards the free form Liszt and his contemporaries would use. Played on a piano it has a strong, instinctive flow – something Batsashvili gets into immediately as the Fantasy plays. With ideal use of the sustain pedal and enough sense of freedom, she delivers an un-showy but very strong musical performance, with a fugue notable for its clarity and expression from 8:14, gathering intensity as it progresses.

Having reached the sunny key of D major by the end of the Bach, Batsashvili stayed out on stage and in the same key while changing composer. Joseph Haydn wrote a large number of piano sonatas, the early examples of which were for friends. This good natured Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (from 13:59) was for the sisters Franziska and Maria Katherina von Auenbrugger, who judging by this were positive souls with a sense of humour and strong technique.

Haydn’s own wit is there in the main theme from the start, and the busy figuration suggests the sisters had pretty nimble fingers too. The slow movement (marked Largo, from 18:22) takes a pensive turn in the minor key, with spicy harmonies suggesting some discomfort. That is removed by the finale (marked Presto ma non troppo, from 21:15), which takes us near to the spirited mood of the first movement if not fully shaking off the doubts recently aired.

Liszt wrote a total of 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, celebrating his home country in music of great passion and virtuosity, and often incorporating folk tunes into the mix. The Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C#minor S244/12 (25:39) starts with suitable drama and contrasts jagged left hand playing with more delicate tunes in the treble, particularly the twinkling, skipping dance at 31:14 when the harmonies turn from minor key to major. Batsashvili finds an exquisite delicacy in this music, sweet but not overly bearing and beautifully played.

Liszt also wrote a number of some incredible fantasies based on existing opera themes. The tour de force heard here, which he premiered in Berlin in 1843, takes themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni as the starting point, working them into a big-boned piece. This was reworked by Busoni, but left incomplete. Leslie Howard, who has recorded the entire piano works of Liszt for Hyperion, added the missing pieces to the jigsaw using the thematic material Liszt was dealing with, and staying true to his spirit and style.

Coincidentally or not, all the themes are from arias dealing with the ‘dangers of philandering’, as Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch puts it – suggesting there is far more to Liszt’s arrangements than might initially meet the eye.

Batsashvali skips through the opening breezily, but the warning notes in the left hand are there to check progress – before we move into a delightfully played slower selection. Her pacing of the drama feels just right, especially the lead-up to 49:16 and another new theme. The principal material for the piece comes from Cherubino’s aria Voi che sapete and Figaro’s Non più andrai (both from Le nozze di Figaro) and the minuet scene from Don Giovanni. These themes are interwoven and developed to make a substantial whole, with the real big guns coming out for the coda, which Batsashvili plays with considerable panache up to 55:20.

As an encore she gave us two more Liszt arrangements on a much smaller scale. These were two of Chopin’s Polish SongsThe Ring and Bacchanal – and are included below.

Further Listening

Mariam Batsashvili has recorded Liszt’s operatic fantasy, but not the other works in this program – so the playlist below comprises recommended versions of the Bach, Haydn and Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody:

Liszt made a number of transcriptions of the music of Bach – and in particular his Preludes and Fugues. Artur Pizarro collected a good deal of these together for an album for Collins Classics:

Haydn’s piano sonatas do not always get the credit they deserve – so to hear more, listen to this wonderful collection from Alfred Brendel:

Calin Huma – ‘Carpatica’ Symphony World Premiere

philharmonic-orchestra-london

Richard Whitehouse on the London premiere of a new work from Romanian composer Calin Huma from the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London under Christopher Petrie, with Leslie Howard joining them for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto

Cadogan Hall, London on Thursday 17 December

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no.2 (1901)

Enescu: Romanian Rhapsody no.2 (1901)

Calin Huma: Symphony, ‘Carpatica’ (London premiere) (2015)

Leslie Howard (piano), Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London / Christopher Petrie

The Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London has demonstrably established itself on the London calendar over its two years of existence, with tonight’s programme surely the most enterprising yet. Leslie Howard was on hand for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto – and a reading which, while offering little in the way of a fresh perspective, was for the most part finely articulated and well-coordinated. The opening Moderato was a touch stolid in its earlier stages, though the second theme was raptly conveyed on its return, then the central Adagio had pathos and, in its scherzo section, deftness to spare. The twin themes of the final Allegro were pointedly contrasted, the PCO nimbly negotiating the fugato at its centre, and the return of the ‘big tune’ capping the whole in a generous yet not over-bearing peroration.

Music by Romanian composers followed in the second half, which began with the welcome revival of Enescu’s Second Romanian Rhapsody. While its predecessor has latterly regained much of its former popularity, this piece is heard but seldom – its melodic eloquence at one with its largely ruminative persona. Christopher Petrie assuredly had its measure – whether in the soulful expression of its initial pages (Enescu’s deployment of traditional melodies at its most alluring), cumulative build-up to its fervent central climax, then the gradual ebbing away of emotion towards its close; a sense of place fleetingly if tangibly evoked. Hopefully this orchestra will go on to perform other works by Enescu – not least the First Orchestral Suite, whose mesmerising unison ‘Prelude’ would doubtless be relished by the PCO strings.

For now, listeners were treated to the London premiere (and only the second performance)   of the ‘Carpatica’ Symphony by Calin Huma (b 1965), the Romanian entrepreneur who has been based in Hampshire these past two decades. Huma has professed himself an avowed neo-Romantic in terms of aesthetic, and the present piece looks back beyond Enescu to the Romantic nationalism of Eduard Caudella (1841-1924) while evincing the melodic directness of more recent figures as Nicolae Kirculescu (1903-85), whose Moment Muzical (or at least its main theme) was well known to Romanian listeners in the 1960s and ‘70s. Huma’s work shared something of its unabashed nostalgia, yet whether the three movements of this half-hour piece amounted to anything which approaches a cohesive conception is open to doubt.

That it failed to do so was hardly the fault of the PCO, whose strings played with lustre, or of Petrie – who directed with sure conviction of where this rhapsodic music ought to be headed. Not that this prevented the lengthy first movement from losing focus before its final climax, while its successor – more a slow intermezzo than a slow movement – would have benefitted from a more flowing tempo. The finale brought a welcome degree of energy, its main theme capping the whole with a decisiveness in which the ends came closest to justifying the means.

A section from Petrie’s own Fantasia on Christmas Carols made for a winsome and appealing encore. More Romanian music from this source would be most welcome: the 90th birthday of Pascal Bentoiu, doyen of post-war composers, in April 2017 provides just such an opportunity.

You can listen to more music from the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London on their website