In concert – A week locked into Wigmore Hall

At 1pm on Monday June 1st, live music-making returned to the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3.

While we have been incredibly fortunate to enjoy live streams of music from around the world since lockdown began, this felt like something extra special. A whole month of lunchtime concerts, served up by our finest chamber music venue in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, and streamed on the Wigmore Hall website. With a selection of top class artists, all of whom live close enough to journey in and play, all that was missing was the audience – but this added extra poignancy, offering us private moments with the musicians in our own home, a deluxe version of what BBC Radio 3 has been giving us for decades. A note should be made for presenter Andrew McGregor‘s broadcasting manner, expertly paced and perfectly weighted.

The musical riches in the first week have been many and varied. The first concert was ideally placed, Steven Hough giving us Busoni’s epic realisation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor and Schumann’s lovelorn Fantasie in C major. In some performances of the Bach-Busoni the virtuoso elements of the piece take over at the expense of feeling, but not here. Hough shaped the phrases with great care, bringing out the gusto when it was needed but giving an incredibly well-balanced account of a familiar showpiece.

With Schumann’s Fantasie he gave a flowing performance of a notoriously difficult work, made all the more poignant because of its circumstances, written in isolation by a composer pining for his wife Clara. There was joy, too – the march theme of the second movement ringing out with bell-like clarity, while the resolution at the end, softly voiced, left a lasting smile.

Tuesday’s song recital from soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook had the themes of Hope and Longing – appropriately in the awful context of world events, which saw the concert begin with a two-minute period of reflection on racial inequality and violence.

Crowe began on high, judging her vibrato beautifully for Thomas Arne’s aria O ravishing delight, before three Schumann songs found her vocal control matched by her communication with the audience, in spite of the empty hall. The sound world of Berg’s 7 frühe Lieder is very different, with challenges of tricky melodic intervals and words by seven different poets, but the soprano handled them effortlessly, helped by Tilbrook’s painterly application of light and shade for the corners of Berg’s nocturnal settings.

The pair moved on to a selection of poignant folk songs, none more so than the unaccompanied She moved through the fair, before English lyrics old and new from Thomas Dunhill, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams and Madeline Dring. It was a touching recital with both soprano and pianist clearly on the same page.

Few guitarists would expect to receive compliments on the quality of their quiet playing…but that was what stood out immediately from Sean Shibe’s solo recital on the Wednesday. With a collection of attractive Scottish dances the listener was drawn in from the start and borne to the beauty of the Highlands, the tunes carrying on the air in performances of extraordinary intimacy.

The same could be said for Shibe’s performance of Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor, carefully studied but delighting in the expressive interplay between the parts, bringing Bach’s notes clean off the page. Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint was even better, Shibe moving to a Fender to play the 12th part of this multilayered composition. The waves of sound echoing around the Wigmore as the guitarist, now barefoot, completely lost himself in the music.

Oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist Julius Drake, both Wigmore regulars and musical partners for 40+ years, crammed their Thursday lunchtime with music old and new, all of personal significance.

They included two short premieres, the wide open textures of Huw Watkins’ haunting Arietta and the uncertainties of Michael Berkeley’s A Dark Waltz, written in lockdown. There was a rarity,too, in the first broadcast performance of Liszt’s darkly coloured Élegie, originally written for cello and piano but here in a recently unearthed version with for cor anglais.

Howard Ferguson’s arrangement for oboe and piano of Finzi’s substantial Interlude was beautifully paced and deeply felt in that slightly elusive way in which the composer writes, Drake absorbing the extra parts with ease. Meanwhile Ferguson’s arrangements of three pieces for pedal piano by Schumann studies were also nicely done. Later we heard three attractive shorter pieces from Madeline Dring, and finally Nicholas Daniel showed off the oboe’s versatility in three rewarding arrangements of popular songs, including The Girl From Ipanema and capped by All The Things You Are. A note, too, for the pair’s deeply felt and beautifully observed Bach encore, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, prefaced by a sensitive introduction.

Last but not least, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy reminded us what an intimate form of communication the piano duet can be. As the pair live together they have experienced isolation in each other’s company, and that in itself brought an extra poignancy to their lovingly played selection of BrahmsLiebeslieder Waltzes, a profound Schubert Impromptu in A flat from Tsoy and a bittersweet clutch of six Waltzes, Ländler & German Dances from Kolesnikov.

Together the pair enjoyed the humour and lightness of touch in Beethoven’s 8 Variations on a theme of Count Waldstein, but the best was saved for last and a wonderful performance of Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor. Recognised as one of the finest works in the piano duet repertoire, it received a performance led by Tsoy that moved from almost painful introspection to passionate outbursts five minutes later. The scherzo section had plenty of cut and thrust, while the whole piece, ideally paced, built to an almost overwhelming strength of feeling, capped by an intensely dramatic pause before the softly voiced opening theme returned.

What a musical week it has been – and looking at the roll call it looks like we are in for another three weeks of equally fine and moving insights. You can catch up with all the concerts on the links above and are strongly advised to do so, for there are some incredibly fine performances waiting to be heard. Live concerts may not be with us for a while yet, but in the meantime these intimate hours with some of our best classical music artists are an ideal substitute.

You can see the schedule for forthcoming Wigmore Hall livestreams here, the series resuming courtesy of cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen on Monday 8 June.

Wigmore Mondays: Nicholas Daniel & Charles Owen – J.S. Bach, Pavel Haas, York Bowen & Julian Anderson

Nicholas Daniel (oboe, above), Charles Owen (piano, below)

J.S. Bach Sinfonia from Easter Oratorio Kommt, eilet und laufet, BWV249 (1725, rev.1938) (1:33-5:40)
Pavel Haas Oboe Suite Op.17 (1939) (5:42-22:12)
Julian Anderson The Bearded Lady (1994) (24:20-31:33)
Stravinsky Russian Maiden’s Song (arr. for oboe and piano) (32:49-36:24)
York Bowen Oboe Sonata Op.85 (37:02-54:22)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 October 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

The common link to the inventive programme for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Recital was the oboist Leon Goossens, whose instrument Nicholas Daniel still plays. Goossens, who died in 1988, was a legendary artist. Arguably the most influential exponent of the oboe in the 20th century, he helped secure a good deal of modern repertoire for the instrument. He also loved to play arrangements of existing works, such as the Bach movement with which Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen began this concert (from 1:33 on the broadcast link)

This was beautifully phrased and ornamented by Daniel, with exemplary control and beauty of tone, complemented by subtle prompting from Owen. It led without a break into the curious but deeply affecting three-movement Suite from Pavel Haas. The Czech composer’s music is slowly making itself better known after a revival in the 1990s. Prior to then, Haas – along with fellow Jewish composers Erwin Schulhoff, Hans Krása and Gideon Klein, had suffered considerable neglect, due partly to the tragic events of 1941-1942. All were taken to concentration camps during the Second World War, and tragically none returned.

This piece was unpredictable in places, and even confrontational between the instruments, but it left quite an emotional trail, writing directly to the soul in the manner of Haas’s teacher Janáček. Its music contained some of the blunt economy of expression for which his teacher was renowned, but also a slightly more whimsical quality. The first movement Furioso (5:42) began sternly but soon became more introspective, Owen’s considered interpretation bringing characterisation to the twists and turns of the piano part. The second movement, marked Con fuoco (10:08) began with an outburst from the piano, which was then calmed a little by the lyrical oboe line – and the two plotted very different paths during the course of the movement, which finished with another impassioned statement from the piano. The final movement Moderato (15:38) was calmer and found greater alignment between the two. A lovely, much more intimate moment from 19:57 led by the oboe but with an evocative loop from the piano, growing to an impressive climax.

For his comedic piece The Bearded Lady, commissioned by Daniel and based on a scene in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, Julian Anderson used the extremities of the range of both instruments, the oboe jumping and swooping between high and low pitches, before we heard a tumbling figure down the piano. Then both instruments descended together, and while the piano hammered away at the low register Daniel left the stage. This was all part of the theatre, for soon we heard in the distance the mournful tones of the cor anglais (30:31), The Bearded Lady lamenting her fate at the end of an entertaining piece.

Stravinsky himself followed, an arrangement of the Russian Maiden’s Song from the 1921 comic opera Mavra. This had the classic Stravinsky combination of spiky rhythms but more tender melodic asides, the affecting and slightly humorous melody complemented by spicy harmonies from the piano.

York Bowen is often viewed as an English equivalent to Saint-Saëns or Rachmaninov – which gives a good idea of where his strengths lie. A melodic composer, he also makes quite heavy virtuoso demands on the performer – demands that Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen met head on. They enjoyed the light hearted and sweet first movement, with its winsome melody, presenting it as part of a graceful dance.

The slow movement (44:15), marked Andantino espressivo by the composer, featured a long-breathed melody that Daniel played and phrased beautifully, lightly prompted by Owen. As the music got more intense we heard more of the lower range of Daniel’s oboe, a full-bodied sound, before the melancholy theme reappeared.

The shackles were confidently thrown off for the finale (50:23, marked Allegro giocoso) with a cheeky and memorable theme, which led to some fun sparring between the instruments and a bright signing-off.

As a bonus Daniel brought the recital full circle, returning to a Bach arrangement – on this occasion the Siciliano from the Flute Sonata in E flat major BWV1031. Unfortunately the radio broadcast cut away before this was played – a shame, as they would have had room for it. It certainly capped a very fine recital which showed a much greater depth to the oboe repertoire than one might expect!

Further listening

Nicholas Daniel has not recorded any of the material in this concert, but it can be tracked in this Spotify playlist:

Five years ago Daniel and a number of colleagues released this disc of chamber works by the Scottish Thea Musgrave, who turned 90 this year:

Vaughan Williams and Sir James MacMillan – Oboe Concertos

macmillan-vw-daniel

Nicholas Daniel teams up with the Britten Sinfonia and Harmonia Mundi to present the recorded premiere of the Oboe Concerto by the recently knighted Sir James MacMillan. He couples this with a much shorter piece by the composer, One, and another British oboe concerto, the well-loved Vaughan Williams. Completing a varied cross-section of styles is Britten’s Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was), his final completed orchestral work.

What’s the music like?

MacMillan has written a bold Oboe Concerto, a substantial work lasting nearly 25 minutes that makes great technical demands on its soloist. It is a rewrite of an earlier piece for oboe and orchestra, In Angustiis, which responded to the horrors of 9/11. While the piece is essentially optimistic in tone, these thoughts can be felt in the second movement, essentially a lament, where the strings sigh painfully, and in a moment of deep thought that occurs towards the end of the first movement – in complete contrast to the jaunty, angular main material.

Vaughan Williams’ concerto is a lovely piece, its dreamy first theme coloured with strings to evoke a picture of hazy sunshine. Completed in 1944, it is a largely positive work in the face of the Second World War, especially in the third movement, where a dance plays out between oboe and strings.

Britten’s suite, as with so many of his orchestral works, is a model of economy, saying in fifteen minutes what many lesser composers would do in 25. It is extremely resourceful in its use of ten folk tunes, but it is also tinged with pain, the composer aware that he is in his last days – and this is felt in Daniel’s cor anglais solo in the tune Lord Melbourne.

One, the second MacMillan piece here also shows his love for his home country, based on a single, arching tune based on the traditional song of Scotland and Ireland.

Does it all work?

Nicholas Daniel is one of our finest oboists, and although even he admits to difficulties in learning the part for the MacMillan his playing is absolutely superb. The energy of that work contrasts with the soulful Vaughan Williams, an affectionate performance where the slightly reduced forces of the Britten Sinfonia (in comparison to a full scale orchestra) mean more detail can be heard and enjoyed. Turning his hand to a conducting role, Daniel teases out Britten’s subtle affection for folk tunes through the relative darkness of illness.

Is it recommended?

Yes – and how satisfying to listen to such a substantial contemporary piece for oboe, which could hardly have a better advocate than it does here.

With contrasting styles of music this disc is an unrestricted pleasure, and is recommended for all fans of classical music from these shores.

Listen on Spotify

This disc can be heard here: