Wigmore Mondays: Aleksandar Madžar plays Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata

Aleksander Madžar (piano, above)

Beethoven Piano Sonata no.29 in B flat major Op.106 Hammerklavier (1817-18) (2:35-48:14 on the broadcast link)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 February 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Is there a more complete work for piano than Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata? Few pieces are bigger in scope, and yet at the same time few speak as intimately as this piece does, especially in the slow movement.

It therefore takes a special performance to communicate the strengths of the piece in full to an audience, but Aleksander Madžar went some way to doing that at the Wigmore Hall.

The name Hammerklavier comes from the German word, specifying the piece should be played on the more modern fortepiano and not the harpsichord. It also phonetically describes the opening phrase in the first movement (from 2:35-14:14 on the broadcast, marked Allegro) where it really feels like the piano is being used as a forceful rhythm instrument rather than for its melodic beauty. Madžar took a much more relaxed view of the opening statement, communicating the onset of the drama but bringing it in much more gradually. He did at times have a shrill ring to the top of his range, especially when the right hands were playing in octaves.

That said, it was clear how he wanted this performance to go, and the structure of the movement made sense under his hands, with the repeat of the first part of the first movement (the exposition) included.

The second movement Scherzo (14:15) had a considerable breadth of colour, and subtly pointed out Beethoven’s harmonic deviations, not least in the ‘trio’ passage where Beethoven briefly visits the minor key (15:18). Here the sound was uncommonly hollow, and try as I might I could not dismiss the notion of empty bottles or bones rattling in a cage. Very macabre!

The slow movement (from 18:05, marked Adagio sostenuto) surely holds the key to a successful performance of the Hammerklavier. It is one of those moments in late Beethoven where time seems immaterial, where each phrase has a great meaning and where the right hand, although slow, is purely melodic. It anticipates music that has been written more than a century since – Mahler and Schoenberg, to name just two – but is still recognisably of Beethoven’s time. We were hanging on each of Madžar’s notes here, as he slowly traversed each section to set himself up for the mighty fugue. The unhurried phrases unfurled with natural ease, and the thoughtfulness and deep seated feeling could be sensed just from watching his movements.

The last movement Introduzione (35:32) began with a strong sense of anticipation, leading up to the big fugue (38:14). This took a little while to straighten itself out – to be fair it must be an incredibly difficult switch in the mind to go from a period of such stillness to rapid movement – but once Madžar had settled on a tempo it gathered considerable momentum. The end, when it came, was fulsome and thrilling.

An encore in this context was risky but the choice was ideal – the Allemande from Bach’s Partita no.1 in B flat major (from 49:30-53:02). Carefully chosen in the same key, it shows to some extent the Hammerklavier’s past.

Further listening

You can listen to the music in this concert in a powerhouse of a recording from Emil Gilels, paired below with what is commonly regarded as the first of Beethoven’s ‘late’ sonatas, the A major work published as Op.101.

Wigmore Mondays: SCO Wind Soloists play Beethoven & Poulenc

Scottish Chamber Orchestra Wind Soloists (above) [Robin Williams, Rosie Staniforth (oboes), Maximiliano Martín, William Stafford (clarinets), Peter Whelan, Alison Green (bassoons), Alec Frank-Gemmill, Harry Johnstone (horns)]

Beethoven Sextet in E flat major Op.71 (1796) (from 1:49-19:22 on the broadcast link)
Poulenc Sonata for clarinet and bassoon (1922, rev.1945) (22:30-30:30)
Beethoven Octet in E flat major Op.103 (1792-3) (33:02-54:09)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 12 February 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

There is something immediately comforting and inspiring about the sonorities of a wind ensemble, and in this debut Wigmore Hall concert from the SCO Wind Soloists we got to enjoy Beethoven’s way with those sounds, as well as some typically mischievous tricks from Francis Poulenc.

The late opus numbers assigned to Beethoven’s Sextet and Octet are misleading, for both are comparatively early works that were published much later in the composer’s life. The Sextet, written in Beethoven’s mid-20s, is however unusual in missing out flutes and oboes in its instrumentation, presumably due to those available at the time.

Writing for a pair each of clarinets, bassoons and horns, there was a lovely deeper sound on offer, and this was fully exploited by the SCO Wind Soloists, with the bonus of the slight rasp Alec Frank-Gemmill and Harry Johnstone added with their natural horns. A thoughtful Adagio introduction (from 1:49 on the broadcast link) was soon replaced by a good natured Allegro (2:42).

The music of greatest depth could be found in the Adagio (8:56), with some lovely harmonies and intimate dialogue between the instruments. A brief but nimble Menuetto (13:00), horns in the lead, led to a charming, march-like Rondo (15:34) which wrapped up the piece in good spirits.

Poulenc wrote brilliantly for wind instruments throughout his life, usually with a spiky piano part adding a bit of extra punch to proceedings, but here we heard his music stripped back to just clarinet (Maximiliano Martín) and bassoon (Peter Whelan). This was a brilliant, fun performance, and in the first movement it felt as though the bassoon part had been written specifically to derail the clarinet’s flow. Whelan failed in this aim – but only just! A soft-hearted Romance (24:39) still had some deliberately awkward writing for the bassoon, but it set up a mischievous and perky finale (27:34), crowning a small gem of a piece lasting just eight minutes.

Beethoven’s earlier Octet – early-20s this time – builds on the instrumentation of the Sextet by adding two oboes to the treble end. It is more adventurous in musical content and form, and began with a lovely Allegro (33:02), which gave way to a touching second movement Andante (40:57), led off beautifully by oboist Robin Williams and shadowed equally lyrically by Peter Whelan.

The third movement, a lively Minuet (47:07), is in fact more of a Scherzo, a sign of how Beethoven was upgrading this movement to something much more assertive and energetic. The ensemble here was crisp and incisive, while in the quick finale (50:29), led off by the gurgling clarinet figures, the group enjoyed the close interplay of Beethoven’s writing.

The SCO Wind Soloists clearly relished their Wigmore Hall appearance, and have a distinctive rapport – lots of smiles, subtle encouragement and teamwork in evidence throughout the concert. It fitted the function of Beethoven’s music perfectly, and also suited the humour of the encore, an arrangement by Josef Triebensee of Fin ch’han dal vino from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (55:20). It crowned a thoroughly enjoyable concert.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the below Spotify playlist:

The SCO Wind Soloists will be releasing a disc of Beethoven works for wind instruments shortly on Linn Records, further details of which can be found here You can watch an excerpt from their previous release of Mozart, also on Linn, below:

Mozart and Beethoven were among the first to properly exploit the wind ensemble as a form for communal playing. Mozart wrote several Serenades for different combinations of wind instruments, the best-known of which is the lovely Gran Partita of 1781-2. In seven movements, it is one of his very finest works:

Wigmore Mondays: Isabelle van Keulen & Ronald Brautigam play Beethoven, Fauré & Szymanowski

Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Ronald Brautigam (piano)

Beethoven Sonata for piano and violin in G major Op.30/3 (1801-2) (from 1:37 on the broadcast)
Szymanowski The Fountain of Arethusa from Myths Op.30 (1915) (from 19:51)
Fauré Violin Sonata no.1 in A major Op.13 (1875-6) (from 26:34)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

Full marks to the Wigmore Hall for their choice of established recital partners and an invigorating program to start the 2018 BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert series. Isabelle van Keulen and Ronald Brautigam were clearly brought in to blow away the January blues and dispel any ‘back to school’ feelings among the audience, and they did so with freshly minted interpretations of Beethoven, Szymanowski and Fauré.

Beethoven’s eighth published Sonata for piano and violin, the third of his Op.30 set, began the concert (from 1:37 on the broadcast link). This spring-like work flew off its perch with a flourish, and once a few minor tuning issues at the outset were settled van Keulen and Brautigam enjoyed the close-knit ensemble playing in the first movement.

The second movement, a slow Minuet (from 8:00), was delivered as a passionate song and dance, a little quicker than expected, while the third movement (from 15:00) threw open the doors once again, van Keulen enjoying its folk dance associations.

The first of Polish composer Karel Szymanowski’s 3 Myths, also Op.30, had added electricity. Heralding a new sound world for the composer, The Fountain of Arethusa began with a watery cascade of notes from Brautigam (from 19:51), matched by tensile high register playing from van Keulen, both vividly portraying the fountain but also exploiting the sensual harmonies and rich textures. Hopefully van Keulen will go on to record the composer’s works for violin and piano.

The concert finished with one of the sunniest of works for the combination. Fauré’s Violin Sonata no.1, his first work in the form, surged forwards from the outset (from 26:34), the longer melodic phrases beautifully measured on the violin, while Brautigam’s sensitivity in balancing a busy piano part was a notable achievement.

The second movement (from 35:35) introduced darker, shaded thoughts and grew to a passionate climax of real stature. The third movement Scherzo (from 41:55) was a delight, showing off the qualities that secured an encore at the work’s first performance in Paris in 1877. The finale (45:45), initially elusive, brought all these elements and more together, and finished with an impressive sweep.

There was room at the end for an appropriate encore, giving homage to centenary composer Lili Boulanger. She died in 1918, aged just 24, and her Nocturne (from 52:13 on the broadcast), beautifully shaded here, was an atmospheric example of her unfulfilled potential.

Further listening

You can listen to recorded versions of the repertoire in this concert on this Spotify playlist. Meanwhile if you enjoyed the Fauré and Szymanowski in particular, this lovely disc from Augustin Dumay and Maria João Pires shows the depth of European repertoire from the 20th century for violin and piano.

BBC SSO / Ilan Volkov – Miller, Sciarrino, Croft & Beethoven ‘Eroica’

Ilya Gringolts (violin), Juliet Fraser (soprano), Sound Intermedia (Ian Dearden and David Sheppard, sound design), BBC Scottish Symphony OrchestraIlan Volkov (above, picture James Mollison)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Friday 17 November 2017

Miller Round (2016)

Sciarrino Allegoria della notte (1985)

Croft Lost Songs (2017) [World premiere]

Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, ‘Eroica’ (1804)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s Symphony Hall concert was hardly likely to muster a large audience, though those braving inclement weather and the chaos of redevelopment in the Centenary Square environs were rewarded with this strikingly contrasted programme from the BBC Scottish Symphony.

The first half consisted wholly of music by living composers. Canadian-born Cassandra Miller (b1976) may not yet be widely recognized in the UK, but Round demonstrated a sure feeling for orchestral sonority – drawing on a lesser known Tchaikovsky melody (rendered by cellist Gaspar Cassadó) as a ‘cantus firmus’ around which the texture gradually opens-out; taking in antiphonal trumpets and off-stage tubular bells, while maintaining its hushed aura through to the rapturous culmination. Ilan Volkov secured a committed response in this absorbing piece.

Such was no less true in Salvatore Sciarrino’s Allegoria della notte, yet the work itself was a disappointment. Sciarrino (b1947) has a knack for finding the ‘biting point’ between sardonic and ominous, but this homage to and deconstruction of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (near-quotations from which inform the opening and close) was for the most part an exercise in his trademark glassy textures and frozen gestures. Ilya Gringolts handled some stratospheric solo writing with aplomb, but this remained music appreciably longer on technique than substance.

A pity that the orchestra’s absence from the next piece prompted an exodus from the hall in expectation of an interval (though the programme could have been clearer on this), as many failed to return for the highlight of this contemporary triptych. New Zealand-born John Croft (b1971) is a further composer gaining in profile, and Lost Songs should do his reputation no harm at all. These settings of ancient Greek poets (three by Sappho, two by Alcaeus and one anonymous) for solo voice conjured a remote though never arid or uninvolving sound-world, enhanced by the evocation of lyres and reed instruments through the adept manipulation of live electronics – against which Juliet Fraser was a focal-point of eloquent poise. If any ‘note of reconciliation’ rather failed to emerge, this remained an assured and involving experience.

Was a point being made by the introspection of this first half when compared to the combative presence of Beethoven’s Eroica after the interval? Such thoughts came readily to mind during Volkov’s impressive account of a work as wears its two centuries and more lightly, not least in an opening Allegro (exposition repeat excluded) that unfolded intently yet never hectically via a far-reaching development and on to a coda that brought tangible fulfilment. The Adagio then marshalled its funereal essence with equal purpose, building to an anguished fugato and finally subsiding into a numbed acceptance – countered in the scherzo with its incisive energy and its trio’s horn-led jollity. The finale’s initial stages were ideally paced, and if the broader tempo of what ensued risked momentum, the coda duly surged forth with uninhibited resolve.

Overall, a fine showing for Volkov and BBCSSO alike. Were they to give a first UK hearing for Jorge E. López’s seismic Fourth Symphony (as premiered by Volkov in Luxembourg late last year), this would be worth braving the elements and urban redevelopment alike to attend.

For more information on the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, head to their website, and for Ilan Volkov, his artist website

Interview: James Heather

Stories From Far Away is James Heather’s debut album, a set of piano pieces documenting his emotional and musical response to contemporary news stories. It brings out the pianist’s more ‘classical’ side, a complement to the work he does heading up the communications team at Ninja Tune, where for the last 15 years he has supported the label’s output of pioneering electronic and experimental music. In this chat with Arcana he talks about how the two strands unite for powerful musical impact, and his hopes for the future as a performer. But first…

Can you remember your first encounter with classical music?

The most powerful memory is of a subscription we had to a magazine called The Great Composers Of Our Lives. It was a monthly, with 40 or 50 issues in a binder, and they were different colours for different composers. It started off with the big hitters, like Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, but it was aimed at kids really. It was quite thin and picture-heavy, but it had as much about the academic aspects of the music as it had about their life story. It added a more emotional side, and that seeped in at an early age. It showed me that behind these complicated pieces of work there is a human story. I collected each one in a binder and became obsessed with it!

On top of that my grandparents were very in to classical music. When they came round my dad would like to choose a piece and put it on at just the right level, and sometimes my role was to get the ambience just right with the classical music in the background. My granddad was into classical – personally I am more into the romantic era. My granny was also into Schubert and Schumann, and both of them used to come round and jump on the piano in our house. My granddad was good; he played in the Second World War when he and his colleagues had an off moment – playing in a hotel in Italy. That’s where he met my granny, who I think was a nurse out there. He was playing the piano and she fell in love with him!

My other granny played piano and had a tendency to go off on a mad one, which sounded like Debussy on drugs – quite wayward but had a very distinctive style, quite madcap. I think you can hear that somewhere in my style of piano playing. I used to love listening to them play, and my dad also sent me to blues piano lessons. We had a honky-tonk piano initially, and I learnt the boogie-woogie scales. I can still play them, though they are not what I’ve chosen to put on record so far!

A year or two later I did the classical grades, and got to about Grade Six before going on my own path. That was really good because I learnt some key skills, the scales and theory around it all. What I was most passionate about from 11 or 12 was playing my latest compositions. My teacher was patient with me, and I used to play my new songs for five or ten minutes before the standard lesson.

Even at that age I was composing. I learned to play Beethoven’s Für elise, the Moonlight Sonata, the more simple Rachmaninov stuff, but I wanted to do my own thing. Once a week I would go to my granddad’s house, and he taught me the simple rules of composition – how to change key into another key, the chord sequences – and I was faithful to the rules he taught me but then later on in life I bent them a bit. I always thought he was a stickler for some composition rules. He used to detune his piano so that it was equal temperament; we used to spend hours doing that, and it was really interesting.

How has your style evolved in that time?

Initially I was just improvising, so I would sit down and play for two or three hours, just going off on one, and just play. I loved getting totally immersed, and subconsciously I was training, going off on different tangents of scales and learning what was working. I think I have become more refined, as before I hadn’t worked out introductions and endings. This came later when I started to listen to popular music, and learnt tricks about recurring motifs / hooks, and having a proper end! My early stuff as a young teenager was too repetitive and loop-heavy. The loud bits got loud without a progression to the loud, it wasn’t subtle enough. Now I think I’ve found my style and a way to deliver it in a way that people might appreciate more. I think when playing live it’s good to have a good moment where you improvise, and show that side of you. As you mature as a person your sound evolves of course.

Do you find playing the piano cathartic?

In the early times it was primal; I would just get up and do it. Some people use yoga and meditation but for me if I’m going home and I know I’ve got time to step on to the keyboard I’m excited, because I know I’m going to be relaxed. It calms my centre, and for me that’s what it’s all about. It’s nice to share, and I never assumed that anybody would like it. That’s great, but I’m also sensitive that you should remember the struggle, that for many years nobody seemed to care. Just because people care now, you’ve got to keep it on a level plain.

Given your family history, that must bring an extra personal edge to what you do?

Yes. I do think of my family, and certain chord sequences my grandparents played that seeped into me, and my late Dad’s unparalleled enthusiasm for music. It’s a shame they never saw me have any sort of proper success, but I wanted to protect myself in my teenage years. Everyone heard me play at family gatherings, but I never opened myself up to a wider audience. I didn’t want to be criticised, but you get over that!

Was that partly because your work at Ninja Tune deals with the reception of records and music?

I did become acutely aware of that one, and maybe I was overanalysing what people might think of my stuff – but also I don’t think it was quite ready. I was so busy doing my job that I knew I would get round to it. Who knows why we do things in certain orders?! In the ‘electronic’ and ‘hip hop’ networks I was in a 23-year old classical pianist was slightly odd, but as you get older you find people becoming more responsive to it. I love a rave as much as the next person, but I also have this other side. People knew about it but I do believe in organic stuff, and don’t want to push things down people’s throats. If they want to hear it, then great!

I think it’s good I’ve left it late to let myself ‘out’, because there are intricacies in all composition, and I hope that mine sounds like ‘me’ now. I would hate to just be adding to things. As a solo instrumentalist it’s harder, because if you’re a producer you’re working with hundreds of different sounds. I think I had to find my ‘person’, what made me ‘me’, and sometimes you don’t know that until you’re older.

One angle I would like to potentially go down eventually is that I’d like to do a piano album with a grime MC. I listen to classical music, new classical musicians – maybe 10% – but I listen to all of Wiley and Skepta’s catalogue. Stormzy at Glastonbury was amazing! I don’t just want to put on a bow tie and play a classical gig. I would like to do that as well but it’s all about the flexibility.

There is a certain element of classical music that is very upper class and perhaps more elitist, but then you’ve got all the new people coming through like Nils Frahm, and earlier on artists like Amon Tobin and Cinematic Orchestra opening things up more from the indie world. Now you look at 6Music with the Proms, and people like A Winged Victory for The Sullen, it’s inspiring. There’s not really an obvious place for my current sound as a solo pianist whose brain is more in the electronic world, so I’m going to try and find that. Where I have to add other instruments, why not do more young facing, risky things? I don’t want it to be seen as elevator music!
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Have the artists you work with at Ninja influence you musically at all?

Before I was at Ninja I had a keyboard in my room at university I was very passionate about what I did, but I had no idea how I could make it successful – a few friends liked some songs. Before that I tried to be in a band,  and also make electronic music with friends, but it was hard to get off the ground for various reasons. Then at Ninja I started to get a feel for how the industry worked. I think I’m a very loyal and hard working person, and I was surprised to get the job with no experience – but was in the right place at the right time. For many years I was very focused on not fucking it up, doing well in my position, and became very passionate about promoting the artists and was blown away by their music. Piano remained a hobby, and in London I was in small flats so had a keyboard, which wasn’t the real deal. I kept it going, and what it did for me was realising I had to up my game. Hearing Bonobo and Cinematic Orchestra, and then hearing one of my piano tracks, I was thinking that I need to up it somehow.

That’s how it influenced me, and I guess Ninja has given me a knowledge of how the industry works. I got signed kind of by accident, but had this network of people and could lean on a few for help. I never particularly sent it to the artists, I didn’t want to be the person who had a self-agenda. It made me more ambitious, because I see the ambition in our office. For the foreseeable I think I can put both hats on. Solo piano music is pretty different to what I’m doing at Ninja Tune. I’m going with the flow really, and I don’t pr myself, i got the great Duncan Clark @ 9PR for that – that would be slightly strange and not particularly healthy for me to promote me!

You played at Glastonbury this year – how was that?

It was a random one, because it was a connection through Greenpeace. I know the booker there, and he asked me to play – but there was no piano there, so I had to take my USB keyboard. It’s not my perfect performing situation, but I’m a believer in Greenpeace, so I wanted to help them. It’s also pretty cool to have said that’s my first ever gig! I’ve done Sofar Sounds and random singer-songwriter nights on the piano as a teenager, but it was my first real gig. The scheduling wasn’t perfect for my music, because the act before was a vocal-techno set, and before that there was a very upbeat brass band! Then I was playing my style of piano music, which is on one level very chilled but there are things going on in it. It was a small stage with 30-40 people but then lots on the perimeter. It was Sunday, around 5pm, the sun had just come out – and Shaggy was on the other stage, there was a skateboarding competition – lots of distractions. I had to keep going, and couldn’t hear myself properly, but did a 45-minute set and didn’t bugger it up. Some people zoned into it and contacted me afterwards. It’s not something I would rush into again but it’s an early sign of me not doing what’s expected.

I have a Solidarity of Arts Festival gig coming up in Gdansk, with Johann Johannsson, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Penguin Café. It’s like a Barbican vibe, I’m playing a 400 capacity room on a grand piano. I’m also playing at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, not in the main room but the equivalent of the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m going to be the first gig in that room, and I’m really looking forward to it. Hopefully that will open up a new world. After 25 years of composing I’ll believe it when I see it, but hopefully those gigs will be the true James Heather experience!

Does the classical music you listened to growing up still resonate now?

Of course, yes. I grew up with Beethoven’s Pathétique Piano Sonata, and the whole grandiosity of it – but then it gets so quiet. Debussy, I have his ‘best of’ – and I just love it. The other day I was listening to the John Cage piece Landscapes, one of the first example of classical music and turntables, and loops. Then I put on a Gangstarr record – which shows how anything goes!

Finally, what does classical music mean to you?

It’s very hard to articulate in words. When classical music hits me in the right way it’s very profound, a transcendent experience. I think it means independence. In indie music you have bands, and in electronic music you often have duos, if you have an orchestra a lot of the time it’s coming from one composer, and it feels like a staunchly independent thing. This is the vision of one composer, and it’s like a big statement, and here are 50 musicians playing it. I think you possibly get less ‘bands’ or ‘duos’ in classical music so for me classical music means Independence. That’s a random on the spot theory!

James Heather’s album Stories From Far Away is out now on Ahead Of Our Time. For more information on James Heather, head to his artist website