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:

Live review – CBSO / Riccardo Minasi: Haydn & Mozart

Oliver Janes (clarinet), Nikolaj Henriques (bassoon), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Minasi (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 27 November 2019

Haydn Symphony no.88 in G major (1787)
Richard Strauss Duet-Concertino (1946)
Beethoven Coriolan Overture (1806)
Mozart Symphony no.39 in E flat major K543 (1788)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing concert for a dank November evening. This was a slightly stripped back version of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with their guest conductor Riccardo Minasi overseeing energetic accounts of Haydn and Mozart, a high octane Beethoven overture and a youthful take on the music of an elderly Richard Strauss.

The Haydn first, in the form of a strongly characterised account of his Symphony no.88, premiered in Paris in 1787. We still take Haydn’s astonishing output of 104 published symphonies for granted, for while they make effective concert openers they are full of invention, wit, and – especially in this case – drama.

After a poised first movement, Minasi lovingly shaping the phrases with tasteful rubato, the second movement Largo was laid bare as a strongly emotive utterance with dark twists and turns, interventions from brass and timpani sounding powerful warning notes. By contrast the Minuet was a light hearted dance, its trio section employing bagpipe-like drone effects that anticipate the Brahms Serenades. Minasi and the players clearly love this music, and their effervescence carried over into the finale, the conductor dancing on the podium as upper and lower strings egged each other on.

Richard Strauss was looking intently at the Classical period when he wrote his penultimate orchestral work at the age of 83. The Duett-Concertino is an unusual piece, bringing forward clarinet and bassoon soloists to shine in front of a decorative chamber orchestra. This is recognisably late music in its assured and economical treatment of form, and in some unexpectedly spicy harmonic twists, but the soloists captured its ‘Indian summer’ profile.

Oliver Janes and Nikolaj Henriques were superb, plucked from the orchestra and fully enjoying their moment in the spotlight in front of their colleagues, who responded with rustic string accompaniment and beautifully rendered harp (Katherine Thomas). Janes’ clarinet tone was delightful, with Henriques’ bassoon cajoling and prompting in response. Both came into their own with some dazzling acrobatics in the finale. The light hearted approach spilled over into a brilliantly designed encore, a selection of Mozart themes arranged for the two solo instruments to often comic effect.

The second half began with high theatre, an account of Beethoven‘s Coriolan overture that crackled with atmosphere and descriptive content. The opening chords bore the effect of powerful slamming doors, such was the crisp ensemble, and as the overture gradually opened up so did a vivid response to Heinrich von Collin’s tale. As the story unfolded there was no doubt on its tragic ending, and here Minasi’s management of the quiet string dynamics looked forward to equivalent drama in the first movement of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony.

Even in the context of this concert the best was saved for last in an account of Mozart‘s Symphony no.39 that positively fizzed with good spirits. When he composed the piece in 1788 Mozart was writing without commission, a relative rarity for him, and this was the first of three symphonic works that were to redefine the form, effectively preparing the way for Beethoven and Schubert.

The atmosphere crackled in a fulsome introduction to the first movement, which took on a waltz-like form, Minasi’s prowess as an opera conductor clear for all to see through his dramatic instincts and more tasteful rubato. The slow movement was perfectly judged, initially and deceptively straightforward but with stern interventions from the woodwind. These highlighted the lyricism of the main subject, once again beautifully phrased. A warmly coloured Minuet followed before the finale sprang out of the traps, violins easily handling the considerable demands placed on them in rushing scales and rapid string crossing. Minasi was if anything even more energetic than he had been at the start of the concert, prompting the wonderful syncopations and interplay of Mozart’s inspiration which were brought right to the front.

So good was this concert it was a shame when we entered the closing bars of the symphony, but we did so with great positivity, Mozart – and Minasi – inspiring us through their wonderful craft.

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, made up of some leading recordings of the works played.

Live review – Jeremy Denk, CBSO / Gustavo Gimeno: Beethoven & Stravinsky

Jeremy Denk (piano, below), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gustavo Gimeno (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 20 November 2019 (2.15pm)

Beethoven
Egmont Op.84 – Overture (1810)
Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37 (1800, rev. 1803)
Stravinsky
Petrushka (1911, rev. 1947)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Beethoven and Stravinsky might not be felt natural bedfellows (whatever the latter claimed in later life), but this afternoon’s concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and fast-rising conductor Gustavo Gimeno was evidently intent on demonstrating otherwise. The overture from Beethoven‘s music for Goethe’s play Egmont duly launched the programme in imposing fashion, Gimeno securing a trenchant while slightly inflexible response across the main Allegro, with no lack of rhythmic definition as held good during an incisive peroration.

If his Third Piano Concerto finds Beethoven more overtly indebted to Classical precedent, its palpable emotional breadth is a clear pointer to what lay ahead. As soloist, Jeremy Denk had the measure of the opening movement’s often abrupt alternation between imperiousness and intimacy – not least a probing take on the development with those eloquent woodwind contributions. If the cadenza was a shade too volatile in its later stages, the fateful emergence of the coda (timpani and strings) was suitably rapt in its intensity. Raptness was equally the watchword of the central Largo, Denk pointing up the stark contrast of his E flat entry then duetting blissfully with bassoon and flute in its transition to the main theme, but as the coda (seemingly) evanesces into silence a greater dynamic subtlety would have been welcome.

Interestingly, Denk supplied this in abundance at that mesmeric point in the finale when the rondo theme ventures into the major as if to goad the music back to the prevailing C minor. Elsewhere, this was an impetuous and assured account which reached its culmination with a heady solo transition into a coda that dispersed preceding tensions through its unchecked ebullience. Denk returned for an unlikely yet appealing encore – a paraphrase (his own?) on the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner‘s Tannhauser as rapidly evolved into a full-blown rag.

Few British orchestras can have performed Stravinsky‘s early ballets with the frequency and consistency of the CBSO, which is not to suggest Gimeno was other than his own man in this reading of Petrushka – heard in its streamlined 1947 revision rather than the texturally more imaginative 1911 original (which this past nine decades the orchestra has only played under Pierre Boulez). Certainly the revision’s tendency to encourage a headlong and even ruthless approach was evident in an overly regimented take on the Russian Dance, the scene-setting that precedes it audibly lacking atmosphere, but thankfully not the central tableaux depicting Petrushka and the Blackamoor – the former as nervous and agitated as the latter was moody and, not least following the arrival of the Ballerina, ominous in its smouldering sexuality.

No less impressive were the surrounding evocations of the Shrovetide Fair – the latter with its various set-pieces vividly and tellingly characterized, on route to the sudden reappearance of the main protagonists then Petrushka’s death and ghostly apparition for what remain some of the composer’s most affecting pages. The stentorian trumpet writing was fearlessly delivered, and if those concluding pizzicato chords might have been more unanimous, it only marginally detracted from the conviction of what was a well conceived and finely executed performance.

This performance will be repeated at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on Saturday 23 November at 7pm. For more details head to the CBSO website

Live review – English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Matthew Taylor Symphony no.5, Mendelssohn & Beethoven

Pavel Šporcl (violin), English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (above)

Cadogan Hall, London
Sunday 9 June 2019 (3pm)

Taylor Symphony no.5 Op.59 (2018)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 (1844)
Beethoven Symphony no.5 in C minor Op.67 (1808)

Written by Richard Whitehouse, who also introduced the concert with Matthew from the Cadogan Hall platform

This debut at Cadogan Hall by the English Symphony Orchestra was also the third in its 21st Century Symphony Project, having previously included the Third by Philip Sawyers and the Ninth from David Matthews. This afternoon brought the Fifth Symphony of Matthew Taylor (below).

Symphonism goes back to the start of Taylor’s composing career, his Sinfonia Brevis having been completed at just 21. The present work is only his second such piece in four movements, but here the formal and expressive emphasis feels very different. Indeed, the opening Allegro is unprecedented in his output for its tensile volatility (not unlike that of Beethoven’s Serioso Quartet), its driving impetus and explosive culmination creating a momentum pointedly left unfulfilled by the ensuing intermezzi: the first (a tribute to composer and teacher Cy Lloyd) as terse and equivocal as the second (a tribute to Angela Simpson, wife of composer Robert Simpson) is poised and wistful. It remains for the final Adagio (a tribute to Taylor’s mother Brigid) to secure that eloquent apotheosis towards which the whole work had been headed.

The ESO responded with playing of sustained emotional power such as carried through this movement’s plangent twin climaxes and on to its resigned coda. Not that there was any lack of commitment earlier – Kenneth Woods having set a suitably headlong tempo for the first movement as left his players unfazed, then characterizing the central intermezzi with regard for their subtly different auras. A fine rendering of a piece which amply reinforces Taylor’s standing as a symphonist of stature. Hopefully further hearings will not be long in coming.

The rest of this concert consisted of standard repertoire, but there was nothing routine about the performances. Pavel Šporcl (above) was soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, notable for the trenchancy and forward impetus of its opening movement – not least the structurally crucial cadenza placed between development and reprise, then the alternately easeful and searching Andante. The finale had no lack of wit or insouciance – Šporcl duly returning for a dynamic account of the Fifth Caprice by Paganini, its coruscating passagework delivered with aplomb.

After the interval, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony received a reading as attentive to the smaller detail as to its overall trajectory. The initial Allegro was incisive though never inflexible, not least in delineating the myriad variants on its indelible four-note ‘motto’, and if the Andante evinced a marginal lack of grandeur at its relatively swift tempo, those teasing asides which open-out its expressive course were deftly underlined.

Using the Clive Brown edition of this piece, Woods (rightly) opted to include the second-time repeat of scherzo and trio – giving it an enhanced presence as ideally complemented the finale’s ensuing majesty. There was little to fault in the latter’s uninhibited course: whether, or not, this edition places greater emphasis on the piccolo part, the clarity with which it emerged itself proved something of a revelation.

A memorable conclusion to a concert which also underlined the importance of this project in bringing together past and present of the symphony as a genre of ongoing and vital relevance. Next year sees a third instalment in the guise of the First Symphony by James Francis Brown.

Further listening

Toccata Classics have previously issued an album of Matthew Taylor orchestral music, recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Garry Walker. The composer’s Second Symphony and Viola Concerto can be heard here:

Pavel Šporcl can be heard in violin concertos by Richard Strauss and Korngold on the album below:

For more information on Matthew Taylor, visit the composer’s website Meanwhile Kenneth Woods has a detailed website of writing and engagements here, and you can read more about the English Symphony Orchestra here

Music for Burns Night

Here is an Arcana playlist for Burns Night! Made up of Scottish classical music and settings of the poet, it is a mixture of vocal and instrumental music that will hopefully give an idea of the breadth of responses to Robert Burns and his poetry – not to mention his own songwriting. Make sure you serve with haggis, neaps and tatties, and a warming whisky…