BBC Proms 2016 – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Beethoven’s Fifth, Dutilleux & HK Gruber


Soloists Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet), Claudia Buder (accordion) and Mats Bergström (banjo) pictured during the performance of HK Gruber‘s Busking, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 34; Royal Albert Hall, 10 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Sakari Oramo continues to inspire. His tenure with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to date has been characterised by imaginative programming and excellent performances, and putting an obvious spring in the orchestra’s musical steps.

Last year they delivered a Prom capped by Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, an account that fizzed with enthusiasm and vigour, and these same qualities were on show for the Fifth Symphony here. Oramo’s speeds were on the aggressive side, the slow movement arguably losing a bit of expressive heart because of it, but the faster movements unquestionably thrilling in their verve and forward drive.

Because of this approach, music that could have been over familiar received a new, sparkling coat of paint, and excellent woodwind contributions, particularly from new oboist Henry Clay, elevated the standard of playing. Guest leader Malin Broman set the tone with great vigour.

The first half gave us two contemporary pieces of very different impact. Timbres, espaces, movement became a three-movement orchestral piece when Henri Dutilleux revised it in 1990, and in this performance we could revel in its beautifully shaded colours, its sudden, strident unisons, and its captivating rhythms – all reflecting the painting on which it is based, Van Gogh’s Starry Night.


These were expertly delivered by the BBC Symphony percussion, while in the second movement the glorious spectacle of twelve cellos highlighted the genius in the composer’s part writing as well as the deep lyricism of his melodies. This was the third Dutilleux performance of the week, capping a very strong trio begun with The Shadows of Time and the Cello Concerto Tout un monde lointain…

Less obviously successful was the substantial piece by HK Gruber, Busking – a work from 2007 receiving its UK premiere. Again the composer’s inspiration was a painting, in this case Picasso’s Three Musicians:


Despite an excellent performance, in which trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger turned various shades of red and purple, all the while staying fully in command of his instruments, this was a piece that unfortunately ran out of steam quite early on.

A very promising beginning, with swaying syncopation brought on by the trumpeter with just his mouthpiece, ultimately lost its rhythmic impetus. Unfortunately the balance between the three soloists also became skewed heavily in favour of the trumpet, at the expense of brilliantly played detail from accordion (Claudia Buder) and banjo (Mats Bergström).

A doleful slow movement briefly evoked a melancholy cabaret, and did so very effectively, but here again the tones of the trumpet dominated, despite Hardenberger’s use of the mellow flugelhorn. This was not the fault of the players – and could also reflect Arcana’s position in the arena – but it was a shame to miss out on the touches of humour elsewhere. By the third movement, where some energy returned, the piece had by that time run out of substance.

That should not count against the overall success of this Prom, however, as the excellent performances of the BBC Symphony Orchestra reaped their just rewards.

Ben Hogwood

You can hear other Dutilleux performances at the BBC Proms by following the links below:

The Shadows of Time with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen

Tout un monde lointain… with Johannes Moser (cello) and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Juanjo Mena

Wigmore Mondays – Ensemble Marsyas and Kristian Bezuidenhout

Ensemble Marsyas, Kristian Bezuidenhout (left)

Ensemble Marsyas (Josep Domènech Lafont (oboe), Nicola Boud (clarinet), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Peter Whelan (bassoon), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 11 July 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

Available until 10 August

What’s the music?

Mozart Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major, K451 (1784) (23 minutes)

Beethoven Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major, Op.16 (1796) (24 minutes)


Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Ensemble Marsyas have not recorded this music, but in case the broadcast link does not work the Spotify playlist below gives alternative versions from pianist Stephen Hough and the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, available on BIS:

About the music

Mozart held his quintet in extremely high regard in comparison with the rest of his output. Its first performance was part of a marathon concert that also featured the Linz and Haffner symphonies, but all the composer could talk about was his satisfaction with the new quintet. It does mark something of a departure, being the first work for the combination of piano and wind quartet, and the writing for both is superb.

In some of his early works Beethoven was consciously using instrumental combinations already mastered by Mozart, and applying his own stamp to them. The early string trios, piano trios and this quintet for piano and wind are all examples. Typically he does things his way in all of them, and in the quintet the piano really does take the lead, perhaps betraying the fact that Beethoven was about to publish his first two piano concertos.

It is an ambitious work, with a particularly sizeable first movement, and in the second Beethoven allows each of the wind instruments a chance to shine in a solo capacity.

Performance verdict

There is something about the sonic combination of piano and wind that is enormously comforting, either as late night / early morning listening or in a concert experience. To say it was invented by Mozart may be stretching things a little far, but it is seemingly the earliest work to put the combined forces together, followed by Beethoven in his early ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mode.

The two make a good concert coupling, especially when the performances are as good as these. Kristian Bezuidenhout is a musician who easily dispels the fears among some concert goers that the fortepiano is a tinny instrument of little sound quality. He gets his phrases to really sing, especially in quiet moments, and throughout the more graceful parts of both pieces he played several melting passages of music.

The wind players were every bit as good, led more obviously in the Mozart by oboist dfgd or in the Beethoven by the bright timbre of clarinettist Nicola Loud. Alec Frank-Gemmill wrestled manfully with the difficulties of natural horn to produce a lovely sound, while on occasion the bassoon of Peter Whelan had a timbre resembling a baritone saxophone. When all four played together it was a beautiful sound, sometimes rough around the edges in a most appealing way, reminding us that there is such a thing as over-polished performance!

One of the most enjoyable Wigmore concerts of the 2015-16 season, closing the series with a flourish and well worth hearing. As a postscript, it is worth noting Ensemble Marsyas were formed as a result of relationships formed in the European Union Baroque Orchestra. Would such a thing be possible after the UK leaves the union? Very unlikely!

What should I listen out for?


2:02 – a slow introduction, where the tonality of E flat is established – but where the sonorities of the wind instruments are also made clear, as though Mozart were introducing the new idea to his audience. Then at 4:08 we hear the start of the allegro, introduced by the piano then passed over to the winds. This is a genial piece of music, like listening to a conversation between musical friends, and Mozart develops his ideas comprehensively, a good example occurring at 8:44.

12:05 the slow movement, a beautifully restrained introduction followed by solos for clarinet, oboe and then horn, Mozart giving each of the treble instruments their chance to shine. The fortepiano – reclaiming melody at 13:28 – is very much part of the ensemble. The horn gets a bigger solo at 16:08, part of a central section deeper on feeling.

19:37 – the fortepiano begins the finale with a detached and relatively simple theme that gains more colour when the woodwind repeat it. This tune becomes more of an earworm as the piece progresses.


28:15 – a subdued fanfare signals the beginning of the quintet from the wind, answered by a profound statement on the piano. This is a slow introduction, and a grand one at that, before the fast movement proper gets underway at 30:51, with some lively exchanges between the instruments and a number of tricky runs on the piano.

41:02 – a gentle start to the first movement, the fortepiano playing a figure that sounds like a lullaby. The sonorous tones of the wind instruments are soon in play with the same material, before solos from all four. The piano returns to the lullaby material at 45:12.

47:17 – the finale starts with a tune on the piano that you know is going to be whistled by the end of the concert! It is a perky and optimistic melody, often assigned to the bright clarinet timbre. When piecked up by the wind its dance character comes through, and for the rest of the movement it is developed and repeated.

Further listening

Not too long after the pieces in this concert were composed and performed, Rossini wrote six sonatas for string ensemble, published in 1804. Around twenty years later, Frédéric Berr thought these would be suitable when arranged for wind quartet – and so it proved. They make a very enjoyable hour’s music, making absolutely no demands on the listener!

On record: Oberon Symphony Orchestra – Beethoven, Dvořák, Grieg & Langgaard


Beethoven: Symphony No.6 ‘Pastoral’; Dvořák: Cello Concerto in B minor (Rohan de Saram (cello), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 19th October, 2013

Grieg: Peer Gynt – Suites Nos. 1 & 2; Langgaard: Symphony No. 4 ‘Løvfald’ (UK premiere); Sibelius: Symphony No.5 (Oberon Symphony Orchestra/Samuel Draper)
Recorded live at St James’s Church, Sussex Gardens, London on 27th September, 2014

Now nearing the end of its fourth season, the Oberon Symphony has already established itself as an orchestra equally at home in the standard repertoire and relatively unfamiliar music; its conductor, Samuel Draper, as attentive to the letter of the score in question as to the spirit that informs it. These discs, comprising two out of its 13 concerts to date, typify the questing spirit of its performances: these are presented unedited, with no attempt to disguise passing flaws in ensemble or intonation – not that this lessens appreciation of some committed music-making.

What’s the music like?

The first disc juxtaposes two seminal pieces from either end of the 19th century. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony has been described as the last of his works where beauty of sound and richness of texture predominate, and Draper acknowledges this in his unforced approach to the opening Allegro then his leisurely though never sluggish handling of its Andante. Some felicitous woodwind playing here (not least with the interplay of bird-calls towards its close) is further evident in the scherzo, even if the earnest characterization arguably pre-empts the ‘Storm’ movement which emerges as sombre rather than elemental. The highlight is a finale that rightly carries the expressive weight of the whole, its progress underpinned by an elusive if tangible onward motion which holds good through to a radiant climax and searching close.

The performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto features Rohan de Saram, for many years the cellist of the Arditti Quartet and a soloist whose perspective on arguably the finest work in its genre is distinctive and refreshing. Thus the initial Allegro is rendered with the necessary emotional breadth, its expansive though never unduly protracted formal design confidently unfolded despite passing technical fallibilities, while the central Adagio is even finer in its mingling of wistfulness with those passionate outbursts as open-out the music’s expression accordingly. De Saram’s inward eloquence comes into its own both here and in the extended coda to the finale, an inspired afterthought (prompted by the death of the composer’s sister-in-law) whose intense retrospection makes the concluding bars more affirmative in context.

The second disc has the Oberon SO venturing into more esoteric realms with the UK premiere of the Fourth Symphony by the Danish composer Rued Langgaard. Langgaard (1893-1952) is among the more prominent instances of a creative figure who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, yet between his heady early success and the neglect prevalent from the mid-1920s onwards is a series of works that ought to have established him among the leading European composers of his generation. Not least the Fourth Symphony (1916): its subtitle, ‘Fall of the Leaf’, is often rendered as ‘Autumn’ though the seasonal process of change and decay surely has a metaphysical and even apocalyptic resonance. Its single movement, in eight continuous sections, is best heard as an expanded sonata-form design overlaid by continuous variation.

Certainly the plunging gesture with which it opens sets the tone for what follows and Draper amply brings out this fatalistic defiance, then ensures a seamless transition into the plaintive second main theme whose opulent expansion on strings at the end of the exposition is among the work’s highpoints. Nor does the central span risk diffusiveness, Draper as attentive to the geyser-like eruptions on strings and woodwind at its apex as to the mesmeric transition when oboe unfolds a plangent melodic line over a string cluster of inward intensity. Exposed string writing is for the most part securely managed, and while Draper cannot quite prevent the final stages from hanging fire, he secures the necessary momentum heading into the coda with its startling bell-like ostinatos, then a final build-up in which dread and decisiveness are as one.

This concert commences with three pieces from Grieg’s music for Peer Gynt. ‘Morning’ is rapturously expressive, while ‘The Death of Åse’ avoids undue vehemence, its inward final bars preparing for a ‘Solveig’s Song’ whose indelible main melody never becomes cloying.
Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony is given a sympathetic if not always ideally focussed reading. The first movement is finely launched, Draper ensuring the altered exposition repeat has the right cumulative intensity, with the majestic central climax moving convincingly into its ‘scherzo’ continuation where progress can be fitful, yet the coda lacks little in velocity. More debatable is a second movement which emerges as a slow intermezzo, its progress having insufficient lightness of touch as the music takes on a greater ambivalence prior to its winsome close. In the finale, Draper elides ideally between the surging impetus and airborne rapture of its main themes; if Sibelius’ ingenious design feels at times uncertain, neither the glowing affirmation of its coda nor the decisiveness of those six closing chords (taken ‘in tempo’) can be gainsaid.

Does it all work?

On both discs, the warm while occasionally diffuse sound is in keeping with the acoustic of St. James’s Sussex Gardens, with the booklets including full personnel for each concert and some excellent booklet notes (notably from Hannah Nepil on Dvořák and Andrew Mellor on Langgaard) – though Draper’s name might reasonably have featured on both the front covers.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The discs are obtainable either at the Oberon SO’s concerts (the next of these is on September 17th), or directly via the orchestra’s website

Julia Fischer & Igor Levit – Beethoven at Wigmore Hall


Richard Whitehouse on a complete cycle of Beethoven’s Sonatas for piano and violin given at the Wigmore Hall over three nights, from Monday 4 – Wednesday 6 July

Monday 4th – Sonatas Op.12 nos.1-3 (1797-8); A minor, Op.24 (1800)

Tuesday 5th – Sonatas in F, Op. 25, ‘Spring’ (1800-1); Op.30 nos.1-3 (1801-2)

Wednesday 6th – Sonatas in A, Op. 47, ‘Kreutzer’ (1802-3); in G, Op. 96 (1812)

Julia Fischer (violin), Igor Levit (piano)

Unlike his symphonies, string quartets or piano sonatas, Beethoven’s violin sonatas cannot be taken as representative of his output as a whole. The first nine were written in barely six years up to the threshold of the composer’s second period, whose ending is duly marked by his final such work. The cycle nevertheless makes for an ideal mini-series as is frequently encountered, with the present one – spread plausibly yet unequally over three recitals – from Julian Fischer and Igor Levit having already been heard in Munich, Berlin, Zurich and Paris.

A violinist who has few equals for consistency of line, with a pianist of abundant insight over a broad repertoire, promised much for this traversal and so it proved – whether in the robust expressive contrasts of the Op. 12 trilogy, the more pronounced differences between those of Opp. 24 and 25, the almost perfect balance that prevails between the widely varied threesome of Op. 30, then the virtuosity and high-flown rhetoric of Op. 47; with the formal subtlety and emotional restraint of Op. 96 at far more of a remove than its temporal distance might suggest.

One of the chief attractions of such a cycle is hearing pieces that rarely surface independently in recital. Hence the Sonata in A which forms an unobtrusive centrepiece to the Op. 12 set, its elegant intermezzo-like Andante preceded by an Allegro whose waltz-like insouciance amply complemented the drily humorous finale. Arguably a little too knowing here, Fischer sounded more at ease with the Sonata in D – not least its questing initial Allegro and tonally deceptive finale, though the central variations felt a little over-calculated for their poise fully to register.

The Sonata in E flat brought out the best in this partnership, Levit pointing up the emotional breadth of the opening Allegro as surely as Fischer maintained the unbroken melodic span of its Adagio, before the duo laid on the rhetoric of the combative finale. Hardly less impressive was the Sonata in A minor – its coursing initial Presto unfolded with propulsive energy, then its successor duly emerging as a quixotic amalgam of slow movement and scherzo such as is offset by a finale whose restless modulations anticipate Schumann, Brahms and even Reger.

Opening the second recital, the ‘Spring’ Sonata presented less of an expressive contrast than expected – not least as Fischer downplayed the Schubertian elegance of its initial Allegro as surely as the Mendelssohnian sentiment of its Adagio. The brief Scherzo was wittiness itself, even if the finale’s easefulness felt a little matter of fact. Not so the Sonata in A that launches the Op. 30 set, the airy lyricism of its Allegro a deft foil to the searching Adagio that may be Beethoven’s most elusive such movement, with the final variations having minx-like charm.

The Sonata in C minor inevitably dominated this sequence, its initial Allegro of an expressive vehemence comparable to its formal ingenuity then the Adagio with a simmering tension that burst forth in the stark coda. Levit made play with the Scherzo’s fractious piano part, while it was Fischer who took the lead in a final Allegro of an energy purposefully held in check until its coruscating coda. Not that the Sonata in G was unduly anti-climactic: the knowingness of its minuet manqué a telling foil to those respectively tensile and deadpan Allegro’s either side.

The final recital comprised the last two sonatas in a short measure yet ideally complementary programme. Too often an exercise in rhetorical overkill, the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata was notable for an unusually close-knit integration of the first movement’s Presto with its Adagio introduction – opening-out without dissipating its driving impetus, then the Andante’s eloquent variations building to a searching coda. The final Presto capped the whole with fine style, its underlying tarantella replete with a teasing archness and sufficient pathos to make it a fitting conclusion.

Nine years on and the Sonata in G closes Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ second period with a poise at times verging on the ethereal. Fischer and Levit amply evoked such a quality in the unhurried opening Allegro, its trills and arpeggios as whimsical as they were profound, then the Adagio plumbed depths as were deftly offset on seguing into the Scherzo with its terse rhythmic gait and winsome trio. If the final Allegro felt at all uneventful, the inwardness and decisiveness of its closing two variations were tellingly conveyed as the work (and the cycle) neared its end.

And that was it – with, as in the previous two recitals, no room for encores or for Beethoven’s relatively minor sundry pieces for violin and piano. No matter, this was an impressive as well as an absorbing traversal – not least for its underlining those collaborative strengths as makes the Fischer/Levit duo a potent one. Hopefully it will be taking this music into the studio at the earliest opportunity, so leaving a permanent record of three evenings as amply reinforced the strengths of what remains the most significant contribution to its genre over two centuries on.

You can read Arcana’s interview with Tasmin Little about the Beethoven sonatas here

Wigmore Mondays – Till Fellner plays fantasies by Beethoven and Schumann


Till Fellner (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 30 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

Available until 27 June

What’s the music?

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E flat major Op.27/1 Quasi una fantasia (1800-1801) (16 minutes)

Schumann – Fantasy in C major, Op.17 (1836-1839) (32 minutes)


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below. Till Fellner has not yet recorded either of the works, so recommended alternative versions have been used:

About the music

The subtitle for Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no.13 gives him permission to stray from the norm. By this time he had twelve piano sonatas already published, and so it would seem to be a reasonable time for experimentation. This is the first of two works bearing the subtitle Quasi una fantasia, the second of which is one of Beethoven’s most famous compositions, the Moonlight sonata. That should not overshadow this piece though, which is – as with all of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas – a very fine work.

Schumann’s Fantasy in C was meant to be dedicated to Beethoven as part of a memorial to the composer in Bonn, but as it turns out is an outpouring of love for his wife to be Clara. It is a kind of reverse of Beethoven’s ‘sonata like a fantasy’, being a ‘fantasy with the form of a sonata’. Despite the outpouring for Clara it is officially dedicated to Liszt, who was tasked with organising the memorial.

Performance verdict

Arcana was not present in the Wigmore Hall for this concert. However even on the radio it is clear that Till Fellner has great empathy with this music. While he is not massively demonstrative he plays with great clarity and a really impressive sense of melodic line, so that even in the most crowded of textures that Beethoven and Schumann employ, the tunes can still clearly be heard.

The link between the two pieces is a fascinating one and makes for a thoroughly rewarding program, whether in Beethoven trying to escape his formal constraints, or Schumann applying them to a loose-limbed fantasy.

What should I listen out for?


1:46 The first movement begins softly, with an Andante tempo marking (at a walking pace). Gradually the intensity grows, but the sudden jump to Allegro in C major at 4:26 still comes as a big surprise. The music returns to the mood of the beginning.

6:37 The second movement is in C minor, a kind of modified Scherzo that actually sounds quite stern.

8:42 A slow third movement in A flat major, which brings back a few memories of Beethoven’s earlier Pathetique sonata, which had a slow movement in the same key. This one is expressive and thoughtful but with more forward movement than in that piece.

11:52 – a transition from the slow movement takes place without a break, moving into a positive and much quicker finale. Beethoven writes this in a ‘rondo’ form – which means we hear the main theme (‘A’) a lot – but we also hear the theme from the slow movement again (‘C’). The form is A-B-A-C-A-B.


19:55 – few pieces for piano start with quite the immediate flow of the Schumann, which has a torrent of notes to begin with, a sea of romantic thought. Gradually the ardour cools a little, but around 25:40 it returns, and the continuous, unbroken stream of Schumann’s inspiration is clear. The movement ends softly, seemingly lost in thought.

33:03 – a triumphant march for the second movement, one of Schumann’s most positive musical thoughts – and set in the key of E flat major, home of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and, later on, Schumann’s own Rhenish symphony – which this movement seems to anticipate. It is a proud, noble piece of music.

41:19 – the third and last movement starts with cool arpeggios, back in the key of C major, before an ardent tune heard from 41:46 in the right hand, one of the staples of the movement. There follows a long and slow build towards 46:15, where Schumann makes a grand statement, before retreating to more reflective music again. The same happens at 49:57, by which time Schumann has worked his way back to C major. Here the music stays in peace and harmony, one of the composer’s most settled states of mind.


53:24 More Schumann, this time a brief excerpt (1:40) from Carnaval, his short series of postcard portraits of masked revellers for the piano. This one is the fifth of 21, Eusebius – reflecting the composer’s ‘calm, deliberate side’ according to Wikipedia.

Further listening

The obvious next port of call from the Beethoven is his next piano sonata, also with the title Quasi una fantasia – which is of course the Moonlight. Here it is on Spotify played by Emil Gilels, the last three tracks of a superbly played trio of Beethoven sonatas:

From Schumann’s Fantasy there are two hugely enjoyable next steps – the first a set of eight Fantasiestücke published as Op.12, and another set of eight pieces called Kreisleriana, which end on a haunting note. They can both be heard as part of an Alfred Brendel Schumann collection below: