Wigmore Mondays – Behzod Abduraimov: Chopin Ballades and Brahms Variations

behzod-abduraimov

Behzod Abduraimov (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 15 February 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07032zw

Available until 17 March

What’s the music?

Chopin (1810-1849) – Ballades:

No.1 in G minor Op.23 (c1835) (9 minutes)

No.2 in F major Op.38 (1839) (7 minutes)

No.3 in A flat major Op.47 (1841) (7 minutes)

No.4 in F minor Op.52 (1842-43) (10 minutes)

Brahms – Variations on a theme of Paganini, Book 1 Op.35 (1862-63) (12 minutes)

Spotify

Behzod Abduraimov has not recorded this repertoire as yet, so in case you are unable to hear the radio broadcast the below playlist contains recordings of the Ballades by the legendary Artur Rubinstein – and an equally thrilling recording of the Brahms from pianist Julius Katchen:

About the music

As the name implies, the Ballade is a form that has a literary origin. Chopin seemingly opted to use this name in response to the writings of Adam Mickiewicz – and using such a name gave him freedom of expression and form. So it is that the four ballades for piano each tell their own story, sometimes deciding to apply rigorous structure but on other occasions letting their ideas run free.

More recently it has become a popular concert trend for the four to be performed together, as they span a good range of Chopin’s composing career (12 years) and because their key centres and emotional impressions are complementary. The first and fourth are the most substantial pieces and arguably the most difficult to bring off, while the second is rigorously structured and the third described as more of a ‘salon’ piece – which should not demean it in any way.

Brahms wrote two books of Paganini Variations, taking as his inspiration the composer’s very last Caprice for solo violin, which you can view below:

It was the composer’s last large scale work for solo piano, and was perhaps a surprise to those who had gotten to know him as a serious composer. Here he lets himself off the leash, writing music that seems to be for display purposes as it becomes ever more difficult – despite him referring to his writing as modest ‘finger exercises’. Brahms being Brahms, though, there is still that customary attention to detail throughout the fourteen variations.

Performance verdict

An ambitious program for a lunchtime concert, but one the Uzbek pianist Behzod Abduraimov pulled off with aplomb. He clearly knows the Chopin Ballades very well, for the melodic phrases were invested with a natural instinct that gave him a deceptive amount of room. There were some passages of play that took the breath away, such as the end of the fourth ballade, while in contrast the quieter moments, such as the very private beginning to the third ballade, were equally involving.

The first ballade flowed beautifully, a stream of consciousness that felt instinctive and gained a lot of momentum in its tempestuous central pages.

On occasion the Paganini Variations were too loud, the really fast and firm bits given out with just a bit too much force. Yet that is perhaps the best criticism, for it shows the extent to which Abduraimov was really going for his shots, as it were – nailing most of the really tricky runs and dazzling especially in the right hand of the thirteenth variation.

What should I listen out for?

Chopin

2:54 – the first Ballade begins with a call to arms that soon dims down – where we hear the main theme at 3:25. For much of the first section the pianist appears deep in thought, but soon these thoughts come to the surface, and from 5:00 onwards we hear music of great feeling, rising to a tempestuous climax and a thoroughly convincing finish.

11:45 – the second Ballade has none of the brooding expression of its predecessor, and could almost be mistaken for a Christmas piece at the start, with its blend of grace and nostalgia. Things change dramatically at 13:41 with an outburst from the right hand, a sudden whirlwind of notes that will almost certainly make you jump on headphones! The two contrasting moods alternate through to the end.

18:46 – the third Ballade starts with a beautiful theme and then turns into a graceful, almost balletic triple time dance. A second section at 20:27 is also in the mood for a dance, turning gracefully but then becoming deeper and much firmer. This starts to dominate the ballade as Chopin moves it through increasingly distant key centres, before the main theme returns joyously at 24:40.

25:47 – the fourth and final Ballade does not begin in its ‘home’ key, approaching it by way of an introduction – before arriving at 26:19 with a new theme. The final flurry to the end begins at 34:49 and is brilliantly played.

Brahms

38:16 – Paganini’s theme is heard in some distinctive voicing – and it is not long until the first variation at 38:43, with what sounds like an incredibly difficult piece of writing to play! Other notable variations are the flighty third (39:37), a much quieter and sombre fifth (40:58), and a sixth (41:48) where Brahms’ characteristic rhythms of two against three take hold. There are then some inward looking, quieter moments where the music takes time for thought.

Then at 47:58 we hear the thirteenth variation, and there are some frankly outrageous showboating with glissandi (very fast runs) in the right hand. Who said Brahms isn’t fun?! The end is pretty explosive stuff, and if you listen closely you might be able to hear Abduraimov stamping towards the finish.

Encore

51:49 – very much the calm after the storm, the encore is the pianist Alfred Cortot’s arrangement of the Sicilienne – originally composed by Vivaldi and arranged by Bach (3 minutes)

Further listening

The last Paganini caprice has sparked the imagination of a number of composers, each of whom have written variations on its melody – so at the bottom of the concert playlist you will find the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini from Rachmaninov, along with Variations from Lutoslawski and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Which one is best?

Meanwhile you can compare Chopin’s approach to the Ballade with that of Brahms, who published his set of four in 1854. The items are on the bottom of the playlist containing the music used in the concert:

Wigmore Mondays – Barnabás Kelemen

barnabas-kelemen
Photo (c) Laszlo Emmer

Barnabás Kelemen (violin) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 9 November 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06nrj16

on the iPlayer until 9 December

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify:

https://open.spotify.com/user/arcana.fm/playlist/7hpQWH2e75lnrwx3ibS4LU

What’s the music?

J.S. Bach: Partita No. 2 in D minor (1720) (30 minutes)

Ysaÿe: Violin Sonata No.3, ‘Ballade’ (1923) (6 minutes)

Paganini: 4 Caprices (from the 24 Caprices Op.1) (1802-17) (12 minutes)

Piazzolla: Tango Étude no.1 (1987) (3 minutes)

What about the music?

It’s quite possible to think of the violin as an ancestor of the guitar when you listen to this music. Some of it appears to be purely for show-off, especially when you get to the incredibly testing works by Ysaÿe, Paganini and Piazzolla, but when you look closer they are actually found to be musically proficient as well as technically demanding.

If Paganini was alive today I would imagine him behaving a bit like the guitarist Steve Vai, performing superhuman feats on his instrument but making sure at all times that not a note was wasted. That much is true in each of the famous Caprices, written for solo violin in a way that taxes all kinds of techniques with the performance of the instrument. The four here test the violinist’s ability with rapid string crossing, with playing three or four notes at the same time, and with rapid fingerwork.

Ysaÿe was also a virtuoso violinist, one who enjoyed dedications from Franck (his Violin Sonata) and Debussy (the String Quartet). Not much of his music is heard today, and when it is the Solo Violin Sonatas such as the one in this recital tend to be picked. Ysaÿe also taxes the violin but again ensures it is not just for display purposes. Piazzolla, meanwhile, was not known primarily as a violin composer, and his Tango Studies were originally written for the flute, but they transcribe naturally for the instrument, which can supply the rhythmic ‘snap’, as well as the other nuances that make the tango such an intense method of musical expression.

J.S. Bach’s Partitas for the solo violin come from a very different viewpoint. As in much solo Bach there are moments in these pieces where the listener feels as though they have entered a different time dimension, Bach’s treatment of his musical material so inevitable and so effortlessly calculated that it feels like the passing of time. The Solo Violin Partita no.2 is one of his most famous examples for a solo instrument, partly for the massive Chaconne with which it ends – a series of 64 variations on a small but ever-present loop.

Performance verdict

I wonder how many notes Barnábas Kelemen played in the course of this hour of music? Certainly Paganini ensured there were as many as possible in the selection of Caprices that he played, while Ysaÿe too packed a load into his brief but strikingly intense Solo Sonata.

Brilliantly played though this recital was, it could have done with a little more light and shade in the programming. The shade was to be found in the Bach, which was a really convincing account and was clearly a work close to Kelemen’s heart. He was relatively slow in the Allemande dance, which was an effective tactic as it meant the Gigue carried greater impact – though of course everyone was really waiting to see what he did with the Chaconne. Here Kelemen demonstrated a very firm grasp of the form, making a natural build through the 64 different variations, Bach’s vision growing in power and impact until it carried all before it.

Staying in the same key for the Ysaÿe was a brave but effective move, and this brief piece carried a Romantic intensity. It was good to be reminded of the Belgian composer’s genius, for his is not a voice often heard. Following this with Paganini was perhaps a step too far, like a mixed grill with no vegetables if you’ll pardon the parallel! That said, the Devil’s Laughter was brilliantly evoked in the last of the four caprices. Finally the Piazzolla, while harnessing the rhythms of the tango, was a bit too short to fully appreciate.

Kelemen is clearly a player of great ability – and although this recital might be better experienced in two takes, it demonstrates his technical prowess and keen musicality.

What should I listen out for?

J.S. Bach

1:42 – the Partita begins with a relatively slow dance, the Allemande. Kelemen does not use much vibrato to begin with, and his violin has a penetrating tone. As with much of the best Bach the music appears to unfold in a single, natural phrase.

7:08 – the Courante is much more purposeful, the notes quicker and the tone fuller. Bach drives the music on with a persuasive triple-time rhythm that Kelemen takes quickly. The tone of the instrument is also a bit brighter, the notes in a slightly higher register.

9:49 – the slow dance, the Sarabande­ – where the minor key really comes into its own. Here the violin is asked to do a lot of ‘multiple stopping’, which is playing more than one note at once, effectively making its own chords.

12:28 – the Gigue, another triple time dance that Kelemen takes at quite a lick, but which still has plenty of contrast with the repeats being used in each of the two sections. Bach gathers a lot of energy here, and as often uses the Gigue as the last dance form in his suites, but there is no feeling of finality here because we still have one movement to go…

17:47 – and that final movement is a massive one, the Chaconne, famously performed separately or reinterpreted for other instruments. The violin begins with a grand statement of a chord sequence which it then proceeds to spin out over 64 variations, mostly in the minor key but moving to the major at 24:44. Bach gives an enormous variety of colour, speed, attack, repose and musicality, starting relatively slowly but moving to passages of increasing difficulty and intensity, notably the string-crossing passage from 22:45, but this is also one of his most profound pieces of music when interpreted well. The music turns back to the minor key with impressive dramatic effect at 28:14.

Ysaÿe

33:08 – a slow beginning, acting as an introduction, before the sonata itself begins at 33:27 with a theme that sounds quite oriental. Although set in D minor the music rotates around that centre at quite a distance, and there is a lot of multiple stopping here. Despite the considerable virtuosity required there is a powerful musicality at the heart of this piece, which never uses display for the sake of it.

Paganini

40:37 – the Caprice no.1, almost laughably, is marked Andante (at a walking pace!) It certainly doesn’t begin that way, with a fiendish set of arpeggios facing the violinist. As the bow bounces across the string it is clear however that each of these notes is important, despite the obvious display tactics!

42:07 – the Caprice no.7 is much slower, and presents its theme in octaves – which any string player will know is an invitation for cramp! There is an eerie feel to the presentation of the notes, though soon Paganini can’t resist taking off at a great speed again. At 44:58 the music really goes out the blocks!

45:44 – the Devil’s Laughter of the Caprice no.13 is surely one of the most descriptive things Paganini wrote for the violin, and it crops up at disarming intervals in this piece, in and around the fiendish technical demands of the central section, set in a tempestuous minor key.

48:07 – the famous Caprice no. 24 was the basis of variations written by Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski (not to mention the South Bank Show theme!) but here it is in its original form, for solo violin. This Caprice is in itself a set of variations, and has a wonderful effect of tumbling pizzicato (plucking) at 50:34.

Piazzolla

53:31 – immediately the snappy tango rhythms are evident in the first tango etude, which sounds as though it was written for violin all along. The technical demands are not as extreme as some of the other music on the program, with a grasp of the tango rhythm the most essential part of the performance.

Further listening

https://open.spotify.com/user/arcana.fm/playlist/7hpQWH2e75lnrwx3ibS4LU

Taking Paganini’s Caprice no.24 as a starting point, the Spotify playlist above includes Rachmaninov’s famous Variations on a theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, as well as Lutoslawski’s Variaions on the same theme for two pianos. Finally, it is a good chance to air one of six substantial concertos that Paganini wrote for violin and orchestra, works that are hardly ever heard in the concert hall these days. The second is one of the best, known as La Campanella because of the tune used in the last movement.