Wigmore Mondays – Kungsbacka Trio play Schumann and Ravel

Kungsbacka Piano Trio [Malin Broman (violin), Jesper Svedberg (cello), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)

Schumann Piano Trio no.2 in F major Op.80 (1847)

Ravel Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 13 March, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Schumann seems to have approached his career in clumps of music. 1841 was the fabled ‘year of song’, the catalyst for years of exceptional achievements in the form. The next year he ventured into the world of the string quartet, publishing three works. It wasn’t until 1847 that he decided to publish a piano trio, and here he was apparently spurred on by the quality of his wife Clara’s trio the year before. 1847 yielded two works for the combination.

The Second Piano Trio, Op.80 in his catalogue, begins with an outpouring of fervent but very positive feelings (1:35 on the broadcast), though its casting in F major makes it a little less tempestuous than the First Piano Trio in D minor, Op.63. Yes, it was a prolific year for the composer!

By now Schumann’s style was more contrapuntal – that is to say he was applying more of the practices perfected by Bach, linking his melodies through eventful interplay. The Kungsbacka Trio were alive to this way of writing, and all the parts were clearly audible, though when they merged into one there was some beautiful unison playing.

The second movement, a slow romance (from 9:57), was notable for the sweet tone of Malin Broman’s violin, though there was sterling work from cellist Jesper Svedberg at the outset. Meanwhile the third movement, a ‘canon’ (from 18:11), is almost like one bird following another in a slightly irregular waltz, the ‘canon’ being an almost exact imitation of one instrument (piano) by the others (cello and then violin). This movement softened further into the major key at the end. The finale (from 23:10) continued in the same high spirits.

The only Piano Trio of Ravel made a nice contrast. He did not publish much chamber music, but what his output lacks in quantity is compensated by works that remain right at the top of the repertoire. The shadow of World War I hangs over this work, published in 1914, especially as Ravel finished it before signing up as a truck driver. Despite moments of great sorrow and introspection in the slow movement, it ends on an ultimately positive note.

There are beautiful colours to be savoured, both through Ravel’s writing and this performance. The trio begins in dappled sunshine (31:10), and was especially notable in this performance for a first movement containing a lovely transition from the puffed up statements of the faster music to the slower, daintier second theme (leading up to 36:51).

The second movement (40:27) was also colourful, surging forwards in unison but also really attractively phrased for the second theme given by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips at 42:23 and then a unison from the strings shortly after. Then the mood turned inwards at 45:09 for the solemn third movement passacaglia, a form where the same bassline is repeated again and again but the tune varies. The final movement (52:30) shimmered in the sunlight, making a timely appearance on the Wigmore Hall stage to accompany the beautifully rendered harmonics of violin and cello.

As an encore the trio gave Beethoven, a movement from his Piano Trio in E flat major, Op.70/2 – again beautifully played and consistent with 20 years of great artistry from this source.

Further listening

A very nice complement to both the Ravel and the Schumann can be found in the Kungsbacka’s recordings of Faure for Naxos. This album includes his late Piano Trio and the stormy – and thrilling! – Piano Quartet no.2

Wigmore Mondays – Van Kuijk Quartet: Schubert & Ravel

van-kuijk-quartetVan Kuijk Quartet [Nicolas Van Kuijk, Sylvain Favre-Bulle (violins), Emmanuel François (viola), François Robin (cello)]

Schubert String Quartet in E flat major D87 (1813)

Ravel String Quartet in F major (1902-3)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

There are a great many young string quartets on the concert circuit, but from this evidence the Van Kuijk Quartet, winners of the 2015 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition, are among the finest.

Formed in Paris, the quartet are members of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Scheme, which gives them a regular platform at some of the UK’s finest venues. For their Wigmore Hall lunchtime debut they brought Schubert and Ravel to life with playing of enthusiasm, wit and panache.

Starting with early Schubert was a good move. Even by his sixteenth birthday the composer had racked up nine string quartets, and for his tenth he drew heavily on the ability to write charming and humourous music.

The Van Kuijk Quartet brought into that fully, enjoying the abundance of good tunes from the outset (1:54 on the broadcast link) while also relishing the bursts of energy and snappy rhythms felt in the second movement scherzo (12:50). This they countered with a darker, contrasting theme. The Adagio (15:11) was affectionately played, while the finale, marked Allegro (from 21:45) threw back the curtains and drew parallels with the energy of Beethoven’s early string quartets, written twelve years before.

Ravel’s single published String Quartet has claims to be the most popular of all in the form. Even though it is heard a lot, the Van Kuijk Quartet gave it fresh impetus here, setting the springlike mood with the opening phrase (from 32:22). The second theme was not so successful, for despite the beauty of the tune itself from violin and viola the cello was very low in the mix. The second movement sprang forward though (41:49), with its distinctive, vigorous pizzicato (plucking).

By contrast the slow movement was a dreamy lullaby (49:03), especially enjoyable for the muted viola tone played so beautifully by Emmanuel François. And so to the finale (58:42), misunderstood by its dedicatee Fauré but full of energy here, each syncopation and complexity of harmony revealed by a quartet playing in complete unity.

To complete an excellent concert the Van Kuijk Quartet gave an arrangement of Les Chemins de l’amour, a song by Poulenc, as their encore.

Further listening

The Van Kuijk Quartet have recently released an album of Mozart String Quartets, which can be heard on Spotify and previewed on YouTube below:

For more Ravel, this superb album from Chantal Juillet, Truls Mørk and Pascal Rogé includes pieces for violin and piano alongside the vibrant Sonata for Violin and Cello:

Wigmore Mondays – Pekka Kuusisto & Nicolas Altstaedt: Music for violin and cello

kuusisto-altstaedt

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)

Wigmore Hall, London, 23 May 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07c3r1b

Available until 23 June

What’s the music?

J.S.Bach – Two part inventions (c1720-23) interspersed with Widmann – Duos for violin and cello (2008) (24 minutes)

Ravel – Sonata for violin and cello (1920-22) (23 minutes)

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, recordings of the music played can be found on the Spotify playlist below where available. Not all of the Widmann pieces have been recorded yet, but where possible good alternative versions have been used:

About the music

As the Wigmore Hall programme writer Gerald Larner notes, the combination of violin and cello is a surprisingly scarce one in classical music. There are hardly any recognised works for the pairing, the two most notable being duos by Ravel and Kodály, but just recently the German composer and clarinettist Jörg Widmann (b1973) has shown real creativity in his 24 duos.

They make an ideal contrast with the Bach Inventions, which transcribe seamlessly from keyboard to violin and cello, the violin taking the right hand part and the cello the left. In doing so they bring out the counterpoint behind the music. Widmann’s pieces are more about instrumental colour, but they have melody too – and he enjoys sending up particular dance forms and such, especially when he includes a James Bond theme in the final piece!

Even a composer as accomplished as Ravel did not find the combination of violin and cello an easy one. He began the Sonata in 1920 as a tribute to Debussy, but did not finish it for another year and a half, distracted by a house move and fuelled by the need to give his music a new austerity. Despite the use of only two lines the composer’s flair for harmonic movement still comes through, though the piece does still sound impressively modern.

Performance verdict

A wholly enjoyable concert, thanks to the chemistry between two performers who clearly enjoy their craft. Pekka Kuusisto has always been a charismatic violinist but Nicolas Altstaedt more than matched him here, and because they were in close proximity on the Wigmore Hall stage it was easy to see them as one instrument rather than two.

The interpolation of Bach and Widmann was a clever one, because the music of the former was notable for clean lines and impeccably worked out counterpoint, while the latter concentrated on colours, feelings and dance forms. Moving between the two extremes was a constant source of musical stimulation, and was brilliantly performed – especially in the final Widmann piece, a real tour de force.

The Ravel was superb, helped by the ability of these performers to project while playing incredibly quietly. Because of this the slow movement was the most searching of the four emotionally, potentially a tribute to the departed Debussy. The faster movements were thrilling, showing Ravel’s close relationship with differing dance forms but also the many and varied ways in which he extracts instrumental colour.

The encore, Sibelius’ first published piece, was inspired in its simplicity.

What should I listen out for?

Bach / Widmann

1:38 Bach Invention no.1 in C – there is a beautiful simplicity about Bach’s writing as the violin takes what would have been the right hand of the keyboard, and the cello the left. The counterpoint (i.e. the intertwining of melodies between the instruments) is immaculate.

3:19 Widmann Duo no. XIV Capriccio­ – Widmann’s coloristic effects include snapped pizzicato (plucking) and sudden, jarring phrases, as though the instruments are having a bit of a bout.

5:06 Bach Invention no.4 in D minor­ – after the outbursts of the Widmann it is almost a surprise to return to the clean tonality of the Bach, but it works well – and again the cello part finds itself in exact imitation of the violin

6:10 Widmann Duo no. XVI Petit ballet mécanique (Pas de deux) – a short and shady duo this, with short phrases and implied moods that never fully establish themselves.

7:10 Bach Invention no.6 in E – again Bach’s simplicity is all that matters here. The key of E major makes for a nice, open sound as the strings play with little vibrato.

11:17 Widmann Duo no. XXII Lamento – here Widmann is casting his mind back to the Baroque period, and the strings play close together with no vibrato – a stark sound

13:48 Bach Invention no.8 in F – a much quicker invention that works well in its string arrangement, the rapid movement of Bach’s figures passed between the instruments

14:41 Widmann Duo no. XXI Valse bavaroise – an exaggerated form of pastiche from Widmann here, with scratchy discords and long notes flying between the instruments, not to mention some pretty outrageous glissando passages from the cello!

16:46 Bach Invention no.14 in B flat – a quieter, more reverential piece.

18:38 Widmann Duo no. XIII Vier Strophen vom Heimweh – another slow Widmann piece, using a lot of double stopping so that it sounds more like a string quartet. Again the sound is cold, due to the use of mutes and the almost complete lack of vibrato.

20:48 Bach Invention no.15 in B minor – a solemn mood hangs over this invention, which again is played with very little vibrato – though the players do allow themselves a few liberties with variations of speed and volume.

22:31 Widmann Duo no. XXIV Toccatina all’inglese – a tour de force of virtuosity, this is the first of the Widmann pieces to be an obvious display vehicle for the two players, who rush up and down the fingerboard. There is an extended passage of plucking that briefly gives the music a Far Eastern feel, and there is a tune – where can you spot On her Majesty’s Secret Service?

Ravel

29:00 The first movement has shadowy beginnings, emerging as though from the mists – with the violin and cello very close together as they exchange musical thoughts. The clean timbres are a result of the players using harmonics – where the string is very lightly touched with the fingers on the left hand rather than pressed.

35:05 A faster movement that begins with both instruments plucking, and finds Ravel exploring a great many colours and combinations from this seemingly limited instrumental pairing. The sparse texture is a challenge for him, and sometimes he enhances it with scratched phrases and an almost complete lack of sustain, as in the passage from 36:10 onwards, with the cello’s furious chords.

39:08 The slow movement, a bleak utterance – and it is tempting to think it might owe its inspiration to the recently finished First World War. It takes a long time for the mood to rise above anything other than grim contemplation, but when it does there is a passionate piece of writing in the centre of the movement. Ravel, though is ultimately a positive composer, and this can be heard in the last phrases, which effectively shift the music from darkness to light.

46:04 The last movement reasserts a positive frame of mind with a vigorous jig, the two instruments playing with plenty of energy and rhythmic punch. The tune is catchy too! Ravel is the master of using instrumental effects for colour rather than for their own sake, and that is very much the case here, with harmonics, pizzicato, double stopping and different bowing techniques giving him a wide variety of shades. It is partly what makes this duo such compelling listening.

Encore

54:40 The fascinating encore is Water Droplets, the first published piece by the eight year old Jean Sibelius. It is incredibly simple – played entirely in pizzicato – but is all the more effective for that, as it paints such a vivid picture in its minute-long duration!

Further listening

Having mentioned the Kodály Duo for violin and cello it makes sense to include that as the extra listening here – on the same album as a substantial work for the combination by Erwin Schulhoff:

Meanwhile the video clip below gives an introduction to Jörg Widmann’s music for string quartet:

In concert – Dutilleux centenary concert at the Wigmore Hall

frank-braleyDutilleux 100th Anniversary Concert

Wigmore Hall, London, 24 January 2016

Dutilleux: Trois strophes sue le nom de Sacher; Trois preludes

Ravel: Piano Trio in A minor

Debussy: Violin Sonata in G minor

Dutilleux: Ainsi la nuit

Lisa Batiashvili, Valeriy Sokolov (violins), Gérard Caussé (viola), Gautier Capuçon (cello), Frank Braley (piano, above)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Having marked his 95th birthday with a concert centred on his music, it was good to see the Wigmore Hall commemorating Henri Dutilleux’s centenary – and, even though the composer has been gone almost three years, the influence of his modest output seems greater than ever.

Interesting that the three works chosen were all conceived during the 1970s – a decade which saw some of Dutilleux’s most exploratory writing. Hence Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher (1976/82), which grew from a 70th birthday tribute to the Swiss conductor and patron into a ‘sonatina’ of evident resource; one whose alternately combative and taciturn humour was not passed over by Gautier Capuçon in this focussed yet never too earnest account. Even longer in gestation, Trois préludes (1973/88) makes for a fluid distillation of pianistic practice and a culmination of Dutilleux’s involvement with the medium – but here the connection between pieces is more gestural than motivic; the music’s gliding between formal and technical puns obscured by the sheer allure of its pianism, as Frank Braley’s questing performance attested.

Ending the first half then opening the second were pieces by Ravel and Debussy, composer whose influences on Dutilleux were enduring if hardly straightforward. The expansiveness of Ravel’s Piano Trio (1914) betrays an emotional commitment only just held in check during the restive opening movement and quixotic scherzo – its rhythmic subtleties ably negotiated by Lisa Batiashvili, Capuçon and Braley, who pursued a seamless course across the searching passacaglia then drew the finale’s formal poise and expressive rhetoric into seamless accord.

Despite its proximity in time, Debussy’s Violin Sonata (1917) is far removed in its emphasis on a sardonic humour which, dominating the brusquely truncated opening Allegro, yields a measure of finesse in the central intermezzo such as Batiashvili and Braley conveyed in full. Not so much the sum of its preceding movements as the reconciling of its antagonisms, the finale achieves that far-reaching amalgam of lucidity and abandon which its ailing composer no doubt saw as inherently French, and which these performers captured in no small measure.

dutilleux-2Henri Dutilleux, who died aged 97 in 2013

The programme concluded with Ainsi la nuit (1973-6) – Dutilleux’s sole contribution to the genre of the string quartet, though one whose well-nigh seamless succession of movements and parenthetical interludes acknowledges Boulez as well as Carter through that imaginative freedom which is this composer’s alone. Whether or not Batiashvili, together with Valeriy Sokolov, Gérard Caussé and Braley, perform often as an ensemble, there was no mistaking the conviction and insight that lay behind this passionate yet always considered reading. The only proviso might be the several over-extended pauses (this being a single movement of 12 sections rather than one in six pairs of movements), though this did very little to undermine momentum over the heady accumulation towards that wickedly disintegrative final gesture.

A fitting tribute, then, to its featured composer. No place for the Piano Sonata, Figures de résonances or Les citations (to name his other main chamber or instrumental works), but if these were to feature in another Dutilleux-centred recital later this year, so much the better.

An appreciation of the music of Henri Dutilleux will follow soon on Arcana.

In concert – London Symphony Orchestra & Sir Simon Rattle: Dutilleux centenary

sibelius-5Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Julia Bullock (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle, live from The Barbican Hall, Wednesday 13 January 2016

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the music?

Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) (18 minutes)

Dutilleux – Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams) (1983-85) (25 minutes)

Delage – Quatre poèmes hindous (1912) (11 minutes)

Dutilleux – Métaboles (1965)

Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé, Suite no.2 (1912) (17 minutes)

Broadcast link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06v2663

About the music

henri-dutilleux

If you are in any way intimated by newer classical music, Henri Dutilleux (above) is an excellent place to start. ‘One of the most aurally sensual programmes you could ever go through’ is how Sir Simon Rattle describes this concert of orchestral works. Doubtless that statement was made with Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé in mind, and also the music of Henri Dutilleux, the centenary of whose birth falls on 22 January 2016.

Dutilleux continues in a line of French orchestral masters whose music is every bit about the overall sound as it is about the melodies and harmonies within. His mastery of orchestral colour owes a lot to Ravel’s influence, and that of Debussy too – as you will hear in the Violin Concerto L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams) and the virtuoso piece for orchestra Métaboles.

The ‘sensual’ description does not apply so readily to Le tombeau de Couperin. The opening Ravel piece is an elegiac suite paying tribute both to his friends who died in World War I and the past generation of French ‘Baroque’ composers, who – Couperin among them – lived and excelled in the 18th century.

Also included are the Quatre poems hindous of Maurice Delage, written just a year after the French composer travelled to India. Delage writes for a much reduced ensemble of just ten instruments to accompany a soprano in four brief but exquisitely realised text responses.

What should I listen out for?

Ravel Le Tombeau de Couperin

3:23 – an attractive and slightly reflective Prélude where not a note is wasted. Ravel’s writing for the wind instruments is particularly beautiful, the oboe taking much of the lilting tune.

6:54 – the Forlane­, a dance where Ravel sounds like he’s written the wrong notes – but in fact has written tunes spiced with harmonies that are surprisingly catchy. Again the orchestration is exquisite, whether in the held string chords behind the woodwind tune or the little points of percussion and harp that provide punctuation. There are four more sections that include equally likeable tunes, with the main tune coming back between each one – structured carefully as a French Baroque composer would.

13:01 – the softly scored Menuet, a dance that has its bright colourings but is sorrowful at its heart. It turns darker in its quiet, minor key Trio (14:57), where a shiver of cold where the spectre of the War can clearly be felt. This builds to an anguished climax before the Menuet, now a brighter and more relaxed presence, returns.

18:14 – there is a sense of purpose about the Rigaudon, a brisk dance where Ravel is getting on with things again, in the face of the Menuet’s sorrow. It is a fun quickstep, pausing briefly for a slower middle section with oboe (19:31) before the main material returns, broken off quickly and emphatically at the end.

Dutilleux – Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes (The tree of dreams)

28:28 – the violin begins this work on its lowest note, and after a thoughtful beginning becomes animated. The orchestral backdrop is beautifully crafted and carefully shaded. The colours are strongly suggestive of a forest, as is the humid atmosphere.

At 30:59 we hear the cimbalom for the first time as part of the orchestral texture. From 33:00 the tempo is faster, and then from 34:44 there is an upward surge to two bell strokes, which bring in the first interlude – and some agitated thoughts from the violin around 36:30. Now the music is energetic, the violin trading musical thoughts with the woodwind, and often using multiple stopping (playing more than one string at once).

Then, with the mute on, the violin disappears into the distance after 39:00. The cimbalom can be heard again – the second interlude – and then the music becomes nocturnal, and it feels as though we are at the heart of both the forest and the work.

From 41:21 we hear the oboe d’amore, part of an important duet, the two instruments close together while the strings and percussion observe from a distance. The colours here, particularly when strings join around 44:00, are especially beautiful. After a bigger passage with full orchestra, the high strings dazzle at 46:05.

Then at 46:37 the violin can be heard tuning – but this is part of the third interlude, Dutilleux not wanting to relax the intensity of the piece. Sure enough the transition to the final section is seamless, the bells prominent again – and an energetic last movement gets into full swing. Then, as the violins hold a high note, a solemn section of chords is heard, bringing in a coda.

At 52:14 a scratchy sound from the violin and cimbalom, then a big, percussive statement from the orchestra brings the piece to an emphatic end.

Delage – Quatre poems Hindous

Texts https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quatre_po%C3%A8mes_hindous

1:21:33 – Madras – a sultry flute sets the forest scene before the soprano comes in half a minute later. The music has sensual twists and turns, aided by the flute and cor anglais.

1:24:08 – Lahore – the keen ear of the composer for new sounds can be clearly felt here, the cello pizzicato and accompaniment seemingly from another world as they depict the ‘lone tree in the north’. This song – the most substantial of the four – ends with an exotic vocalise from the singer (music but no words).

1:29:03 – Bénarès – the cor anglais is prominent in the accompaniment here, and light percussive effects from the harp and strings vividly set the scene. The coming of Buddha on earth is announced by the excited singer.

1:30:39 – Jeypur – the flute is prominent in setting the scene, before the questioning vocal takes over. The instrumentation is relatively rich but again the flute has the final say.

DutilleuxMétaboles

Rattle describes this as the most perfect ‘bonzai’ concerto for orchestra. There are four movements, and each shows the different parts of the orchestra one by one, bringing them together at the end.

1:40:08 – sometimes with a contemporary composer you can tell just from the first chord what they are about. Métaboles is one such example, with a chord of extraordinary colours starting the first section, a fluid tour de force for the wind players. At around 1:43:30 the strings are much more in evidence, a velvety texture used. A high cello solo emerges from the mist.

1:46:38 – a lower clarinet starts off a new section where the music is quicker and lighter, aided by string plucking and carefully placed percussion.

Then with the full orchestra Dutilleux builds up a huge wall of sound to the finish. The audience reaction suggests this piece is well on the way to becoming one of the most popular in recent times.

RavelDaphnis et Chloé, Suite no.2

This is a shorter suite from the ballet, which lasts around an hour.

1:59:28 – surely one of the most wonderful evocations of dawn in all music. Ravel’s wonderfully mysterious tableau starts by murmuring in the lower reaches of the sky until, with calls from flute and oboe, the sun reveals its glorious light at 2:00:26. The rest of the movement continues with a sense of wonder at the new day until a massive climax at 2:04:06, the metallic glint at the very top of the sound courtesy of the triangle.