In concert – Aris Quartet play Schulhoff, Kurtág & Mendelssohn @ Wigmore Hall

Aris 5

Schulhoff 5 Pieces for String Quartet (1924)
Kurtág Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky Op.28 (1988-9)
Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 3 in D major Op.44/1 (1838)

Aris Quartet (above, photograph (c) Sophie Walter) [Anna Katharina Wildermuth, Noémi Zipperling (violins), Caspar Vinzens (viola), Lukas Sieber (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 October 2021, 1pm

Written by Ben Hogwood (reviewed live from online stream below)

The Aris Quartet are part of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, and this was their first appearance at the Wigmore Hall. They presented themselves as a lively ensemble who clearly enjoy their music, and they played with sensitivity and panache

Also revealed was a strong instinct for programming. Schulhoff’s 5 Pieces for String Quartet are beginning to make themselves known more in the concert hall, presenting as they do a number of sides of this unique musical personality. The Czech composer was arrested in Prague before he could be issued with a visa to emigrate to Moscow in the Second World War, and died at the Wülzburg concentration camp at the age of 48. His music is still relatively young in its exposure because of this, only really coming through in the 1990s. Initial criticism from those sceptical at his integration of jazz and dance forms is giving way to more outright respect, and – as could be seen here – the 5 Pieces make a great start to a concert.

The Aris Quartet gave a vibrant account of the first movement, marked Alla Valse viennese, but soon a chill was forming as the Alla Serenata progressed, its ghostly presence reminiscent of early Shostakovich. The muted instruments danced over a distracted drone from the cello before biting hard in a sequence that was almost anti-lyrical. There was an impressive cut and thrust to the Alla Czeca, bringing out the composer’s heritage, then an attractive sway to the Alla Tango milonga, beautifully played but with an unexpectedly ominous finish. Finally the buzz of the lively Alla Tarantella set a strong unison violin melody against brisk viola and cello.

Officium breve by György Kurtág was next, a requiem to fellow Hungarian composer Andreae Szervánszky. By his standards it is a lengthy piece indeed, but with 15 sections in barely 12 minutes it was packed with compressed melodies of great intensity. Kurtág is a master in obtaining deep expression from the shortest of phrases, achieving this through carefully pointed melodies and highly imaginative quartet textures. Such a thorough knowledge of string quartet capabilities informs the many sides of grief felt here, and the Aris Quartet reveled in the nuances of the piece. The gripping account took hold from the distracted opening, where cellist Lukas Sieber effectively set out the pitches of the open strings of hit instrument, to savage chords wrought with pure anger later on. The composer’s use of microtones was deeply expressive, as were the ‘double stopping’ passages, the quartet playing as one instrument with eight or more voices. It was a moving and mind-expanding performance.

A wholesale change of mood took us to Mendelssohn, and the joyous outpouring of the first in his trio of quartets published as Op.44. Anna Katharina Wildermuth’s songful first violin was key here, but so were the quartet textures, with lots going on but impressive clarity to reveal the dialogue between the instruments. This was a lovely, fluid performance, with a sunny first movement giving way to a less excitable but equally persuasive Menuetto, showing off its rhythms and soft-hearted theme. Feelings ran deep in the slow movement, especially in the minor key episode, where Wildermuth probed deeper with her phrasing. The finale recaptured the mood of the first movement, good spirits bubbling over to cap an affectionate and energetic performance.

It was great to see an ensemble playing as one with such obvious enthusiasm and commitment for the music, and based on this evidence the Aris Quartet have a bright future indeed. Watch the concert stream and see for yourself!

You can also listen to the repertoire from the Aris Quartet’s concert on this Spotify playlist:

For more information on the Aris Quartet visit their website

Playlist – World Mental Health Day: Music To Grow To

Today – Sunday 10 October – is World Mental Health Day.

Rather than post the latest concert review on Arcana, I decided to take some time out to come up with a simple playlist of music I have found helpful to listen to in busy or fraught times.

I have called it Music To Grow To, as it begins with one player (Ravel‘s Menuet antique for piano) and grows to music for two people (Messiaen‘s timeless Louange à l’Éternité de Jesus from his Quatuor pour le fin du temps), then three (Mozart‘s sublime Divertimento for string trio).

Philip Glass‘s restful Company is next, for string quartet, then we switch to wind instruments for the 12-player Serenade by Dvořák, a lovely piece.

Finally a long, contemplative piece that should be experienced live whenever you get the chance! John Luther AdamsBecome Ocean performs the function of being incredibly immersive, ambient music and it uses the whole orchestra from small beginnings to slow, steady growth.

Give the playlist a try on Spotify below:

In concert – Boris Giltburg plays Ravel, Schumann & Prokofiev @ Wigmore Hall

boris-giltburg

Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.6 in A major Op.82 (1939-40)
Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911)
Schumann Carnaval Op.9 (1834-5)
Ravel La valse (1920)

Boris Giltburg (piano, above)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 4 October 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

This review marks your correspondent’s first visit to the Wigmore Hall for 18 months – after weekly coverage of the hall’s wonderful Monday lunchtime series. It was so good to be back! In that time it seems the core audience has changed, dropping by a couple of decades at least. This could be due to understandable caution on the part of the older members of the audience to get back to the post-Coronavirus version of concert life, but it is more likely to be the regular streaming of concerts that has lured in a much younger generation. This concert was streamed (you can watch below) and, for the record, the audience were enthusiastic and immaculately behaved – in fact there was a celebratory atmosphere.

Boris Giltburg fully inhabited the positivity. The pianist was beginning a new, two-year look at the piano music of Ravel, and if this first instalment was anything to go by, we are in for a treat. Giltburg’s first selection concentrated on the waltz in its many forms – with two very different approaches to triple time from Ravel, complemented by Schumann and Prokofiev.

It was with the coruscating tones of the latter’s Piano Sonata no.6 in A major that Giltburg began, something of a shock to unaccustomed ears with its discordant language. This underrated work is first in a trilogy of sonatas written during World War Two. The impact was immediate and confrontational, delivered with impressive force but also control. The serrated edges of the first movement were complemented by a poetic second theme, and the tension relaxed a little further for the second movement’s witty march. The right hand of the piano drew parallels with the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, as the left hand ascended with a probing melody. The slow movement had a softer, yearning heart, though the dissonant harmonies lingered around the edges, before the runaway theme of the finale took hold. This could easily be a silent film soundtrack, but its cat and mouse nature was challenged and ultimately caught by the reappearance of the first movement’s angular melody. Giltburg staged a profound drama between these elements before bringing the sonata to a shattering conclusion.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales was next, providing a relatively controlled contrast to the Prokofiev’s unwieldly ways. Giltburg enjoyed the music greatly, swaying to the rhythms as he played. His control was immaculate but the rhythmic profile of the waltzes was instinctive, holding back or pressing forward as appropriate. A tender, intimate second waltz (marked Assez lent – avec une expression intense) brought the audience in closer, while the fourth waltz (Assez animé) twinkled in the night air. Giltburg could be forceful when needed, as in the first (Modéré) and seventh (Moins vif) waltzes, and his Épilogue was exquisitely voiced.

The second half began with Schumann’s Carnaval, a tableau of portraits and personal insights completed in the composer’s mid-twenties. Schumann’s ability to paint vivid pictures at the piano is rightly celebrated, and the sketches here were rich in colour and implied detail. Giltburg relished the extravert Florestan as much as he did the reserved poetry of Eusebius, both sections portraying the personality of Schumann himself. The nagging ‘answer’ motif of Pierrot left its mark, as did the repeated notes of Reconaissance. Meanwhile Papillons quoted from one of Schumann’s first piano pieces with a slightly shy countenance. Schumann’s portraits of Chopin and Paganini were once again fascinating in their insights, while finally the triumphant Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins carried all before it in a triumphant account.

As did Ravel’s La valse, which followed, though here there was a very different outcome. La valse describes the destruction wrought by the First World War, its closing bars collapsing in vivid imagery, but it could just as easily describe elements of our civilization over the last few years. Giltburg seemed to inhabit that possibility, the warm-hearted dance dropping in temperature as his account progressed, until the end when it was rumbling throughout the piano in a self-destructive whirlpool. This is a fiendishly difficult transcription, but Giltburg made it seem effortless as he inhabited each and every twist and turn, hurling out the final pages with formidable power.

After this alarming turn of events we returned to the solace of Giltburg’s first encore, a limpid Intermezzo in A major Op.118/2 by Brahms, then marvelled at the passion in his second choice, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G# minor Op.32/12. A memorable recital, and an auspicious start to what promises to be a great series. Best experienced in person rather than online though!

You can listen to the repertoire from Boris Giltburg’s concert on this Spotify playlist, which includes the pianist’s recordings of the Prokofiev, Schumann and Rachmaninov:

For more information on Boris Giltburg you can visit his website

BBC Proms – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin : Knussen, Ravel & Benjamin

george-benjaminPierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Sir George Benjamin

Knussen The Way to Castle Yonder Op.21a (1988-90)
Purcell
(transc. Benjamin) Three Consorts (1680) [World premiere]
Ravel
Piano Concerto in G major (1929-31)
Benjamin
Concerto for Orchestra (2021) [BBC co-commission: World premiere]

Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday 30 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse; pictures BBC / Chris Christodoulou

The cancellation of last year’s Proms meant the loss of several pieces by George Benjamin in recognition of his 60th birthday. Tonight’s concert, featuring the Mahler Chamber Orchestra with whom this composer-conductor has often collaborated, provided something of a redress.

The programme (its hour-long duration not unreasonably given without interval) began with The Way to Castle Yonder, a brief yet potent ‘potpourri’ from Oliver Knussen’s second opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! as amply conveys the aura of winsome yet ominous playfulness that suffuses the larger work. While they enjoyed a 40-year friendship, Benjamin’s own aesthetic is appreciably removed from that of the older composer so that a detachment, even aloofness was evident – without, however, detracting from this music’s always deceptive whimsicality.

Transcriptions of Renaissance and Baroque sources have been a mainstay of post-war British music, Three Consorts following an established pattern with Benjamin’s take on these Purcell miniatures underlining their intricate textures and piquant harmonies. The (to quote Benjamin) ‘‘visionary moment of harmonic stasis near the middle’’ of In nomine 1 went for little, with the ‘‘mesmerising intersection of line and harmony’ in Fantasia 7 effecting a Stravinskian objectivity, but the understated humour of Fantasia upon One Note was tellingly delineated.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard then joined Benjamin and the MCO in a performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major that, though it had precision and refinement in abundance, was almost entirely lacking in the qualities that define this music’s essential persona. The opening Allegramente evinced a desiccated manner with such as the blues-inflected coyness of its transitions or the heart-stopping stasis prior to the reprise of the second theme going for little, while the central Adagio took on an all-enveloping inertia as it unfolded – the inward rapture of its expressive apex then the pathos of its ensuing cor anglais dialogue all too enervated in their repose. The closing Presto drew an incisive response from pianist and orchestra alike, but here again any sense of this music’s more provocative demeanour was absent from the prevailing stolidity.

Aimard returned for an animated reading of Benjamin’s early Relativity Rag which provided an admirable entree into the world premiere of the latter’s Concerto for Orchestra. Unfolding as a continuous span (a pause just past its mid-point may be structurally meaningful) across a little over 15 minutes, this is typical of Benjamin’s recent music in its systematic – but rarely predictable – formal trajectory and alluring emotional reticence. The various instruments are highlighted singly or in groups in what becomes an intensifying progression, albeit without a tangible momentum, to a climax which brings first violins to the fore, before subsiding into a close of serene equivocation. Superbly realized by the MCO, for whom it was written, this is a thoughtful addition to a genre in which ‘display’ has all too readily become the watchword.

One final thought – at his untimely death, Oliver Knussen had several large-scale orchestral works in progress and maybe even nearing completion. Might it not still be feasible to bring at least one of the pieces to performance? The UK music scene would be all the richer for it.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage. Click on the composer’s names for more information on Sir George Benjamin, and on the performers’ names for more information on Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

On record – Early Stereo Recordings Vol.4: Albéniz, Bizet, Kodály & Ravel (First Hand)

early-stereo-recordings-4

Philharmonia Orchestra / Eugene Goossens (a), Guido Cantelli (d); Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Vittorio Gui (b) Paul Kletzki (c), Eugene Goossens (e)

Albéniz (orch. Arbós) Iberia – excerpts (1905-09, orch. c1928) (a)
Bizet Petite Suite (1871, orch. 1880) (b)
Kodály Dances of Galánta (1933) (c)
Ravel Daphnis et Chloé Suite no.2 (1909-12): Danse générale (d); Boléro (1928) (e)

First Hand Records FHR79 [78’21”]

Producers David Bicknell (a), Lawrance Collingwood (b,d,e), unknown (c)
Engineers Christopher Parker (a-d), Robert Gooch (e)

Recorded 12 July 1955 (b), 18 September 1957 (e) at Abbey Road Studios, London; 15 February (a), 24 March (c) and 28 May 1956 (d) at Kingsway Hall, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records continues its exploration of pioneering stereo recordings from the EMI archives with this collection of orchestral works, mainly from the earlier decades of the 20th century, as demonstrates the success of various HMV producers and engineers in harnessing the potential of stereophonic sound to the playing of what, in the 1950s, were the two finest London orchestras – the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic, working with conductors in music with which they were not necessarily associated over the greater part of their careers.

What are the performances like?

Starting with an incisive yet expressively deadpan take on Ravel’s Danse générale, all that survives in stereo of Guido Cantelli’s recording of the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé, the selection proceeds to excerpts from Albéniz’s piano cycle Iberia, orchestrated by Enrique Arbós. Seldom encountered in concert nowadays, these five pieces (all of the First, plus one each from the Second and Third Books) constitute a worthwhile suite in themselves. Eugene Goossens duly underlines his prowess in earlier 20th-century music with performances that bring out the evocative poise of Evacación, then alternate fervour and piety of El Corpus en Sevilla, before the capricious charm of Triana and capering energy of El Puerto; the cumulative emotional charge of El Albaicin closing this sequence with unfailing panache.

Goossens is hardly less persuasive in Ravel’s Boléro – at this time, not quite the ubiquitous showpiece it became – the inexorably accumulating momentum ideally served by his refusal to rush its devastatingly effective trajectory; the final stage largely taking care of itself when allowed to emerge inevitably. A further worthwhile revival is that of Bizet’s Petite Suite, five miniatures drawn from his earlier cycle for piano duet Jeux d’enfants and given with winning deftness by Vittorio Gui – demonstrably in his element when the sessions for his re-recording of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro finished ahead of schedule. Kodály’s Dances of Galánta has itself returned to favour in recent years, but few accounts are ever likely to match that of Paul Kletzki in his steering this ever more animated sequence through to its breathless conclusion.

Do they all work?

Pretty much, allowing for occasional lapses in ensemble that are notably few given the hectic schedule these London orchestras pursued at this time. Remastering has been deftly handled by Ian Jones – Albéniz and Bizet being transferred from HMV Stereosonic tapes, respectively by Giampaolo Zeccara and Ted Kendall (the latter’s 1997 set of Mahler ‘first recordings’ for Conifer is fondly remembered). There are extensive background notes from David Patmore, along with observations by Peter Bromley, whose tenacity has made possible this FHR series.

Are they recommended?

Indeed, not least given the interest of the actual music and the relative unfamiliarity of most of the recordings. The rapid standardization of the listening experience through the medium of streaming has made such releases as this more valuable by (hopefully) making potential listeners aware of just what became possible with the greater recourse to the stereophonic process, as of those numerous triumphs (among not a few failings) which resulted given the right combination of technology and musicality. Further instalments are keenly anticipated.

Listen & Buy

 

You can get more information on the disc at the First Hand website, where you can also find information on the first, second and third volumes in the series