Wigmore Mondays – Joanna MacGregor: Birds, Grounds, Chaconnes

Joanna MacGregor (above)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 11 November 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Joanna MacGregor is a remarkably versatile pianist – and from this evidence at the Wigmore Hall, she is an artist who enjoys her music making as much as ever.

It would seem she was given free rein for this hour of music – and was certainly free as a bird in the opening selection of wing-themed pieces. Returning to earth for ‘Grounds’ – pieces of music with set, short structures in the bass – she was equally effusive, as well as ‘Chaconnes’, which are similar to ‘Grounds’ but based more on chord sequences than explicit basslines.

The 400 years or so of music started with a flourish. Rameau had a great ability to portray nature in music, and his Le rappel des oiseaux (The call of the birds) was a delight in its interaction between the hands. His contemporary, François Couperin, was represented by a strongly characterised Les fauvétes plaintives (The plaintive warblers), where MacGregor enjoyed the ornamentation of the right hand. That led to an arrangement of fellow countryman Messiaen’s Le merle noir (The black robin), originally for flute and piano but responding well here to its reduction, with quick fire block chords. Rameau’s portrait of La poule (The Hen) was brilliant, the clucking and strutting of the bird all too enjoyably evident.

Janáček’s piano music has an otherworldly quality of stark intimacy, and it does not get anywhere near the amount of recognition it deserves in the concert hall these days. Joanna MacGregor started her next segment of bird-themed pieces with the evocative piece The barn owl has not flown away. Taken from the first book of the Czech composer’s collection On an Overgrown Path, its haunting motifs fixed the listener in a gaze rather like the owl itself.

Birtwistle’s brief Oockooing Bird was next, a slightly mysterious creature in this performance, before a piano arrangement of Hossein Alizadeh’s Call of the Birds, normally heard in its original version for the duduk (an Armenian woodwind instrument) and the shurangiz (an Iranian member of the lute family). MacGregor is so good at inhabiting the authentic language of these pieces, and she did so here in concentrated fasion.

For the ‘Grounds’ section, who better to start with than Purcell? He was a natural with supposedly constricted forms like this, and the Ground in C minor teemed with activity in MacGregor’s hands, the right hand figures dancing attractively, The piece prepared the way nicely for Philip Glass’s repetitive but meditative Prophecies, arranged from his music to Koyaanisqatsi. This film soundtrack contains some of the composer’s finest music, and MacGregor showed how well it transcribes for piano, building to a bold and emphatic finish.

For the final section we moved onto ‘Chaconnes’, and looked back to the 16th century for the earliest piece in the program. Yet Byrd’s First Pavane still sounds modern in piano guise – Glenn Gould certainly thought so – and Joanna MacGregor gave an extremely spirited and buoyant account. Glass appeared once more – this time the interlude Knee Play no.4 from his opera Einstein on the Beach – before the substantial Chaconne in F minor from Pachelbel, heard here on the piano instead of its ‘home’ instrument, the organ.

How refreshing not to hear the composer’s Canon, much-loved as it is – for Pachelbel is much more than merely a composer of that particular piece. MacGregor found the profound emotional centre, darkly coloured in the minor key – and with that came an impressive inner resolve.

For an encore we were introduced to the eleventh composer of the day through a spirited account of the Passacaglia from Handel’s Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor. It contained all the enthusiasm and melodic definition that made this hour in the company of Joanna MacGregor such a joy.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rameau Le rappel des osieaux (pub. 1724) (2:21)
François Couperin Les fauvétes plaintives (pub. 1722) (5:27)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1951/1985) (9:05)
Rameau La poule (pub. 1729) (11:02)
Janáček The barn owl has not flown away (from On an Overgrown Path, Book 1) (1900-11) (15:36)
Birtwistle Oockooing Bird (2000) (19:39)
Hossein Alizadeh Call of the Birds (2003) (22:08)
Purcell (1659-1695) Ground in C minor Z221 (unknown) (27:31)
Glass Prophecies (from Koyaanisqatsi) (1982) (30:34)
Byrd First Pavane (from My Ladye Nevells Booke) (pub. 1591) (36:25)
Glass arr. Paul Barnes Knee Play No 4 (from Einstein on the Beach, from Trilogy Sonata) (1976) (40:44)
Pachelbel (1653-1706) Chaconne in F minor (unknown) (44:19)
Encore
Handel Passacaglia from Harpsichord Suite no.7 in G minor (52:33)

Further listening

Joanna MacGregor has yet to record most of the music in this concert, but the following playlist contains most of the music listed above:

Portrayals of birds in classical music are far reaching, but few managed them better than Haydn in the 18th century. His Symphony no.83 in G minor, La Poule (The Hen) begins this playlist containing 100 minutes of bird-themed music. It includes Respighi’s exotic suite The Birds, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and – perhaps inevitably – Vaughan Williams’ timeless The Lark Ascending:

For the most recommendable version of Janáček’s complete piano music, here is Rudolf Firkušný in both books of the evocative pieces On An Overgrown Path, ideal listening for this time of year:

For a good onward example of Joanna MacGregor’s art on the solo piano, her 2003 album Play is highly recommended, taking an open approach similar to this concert:

Britten Sinfonia at Lunch – Bach, Janáček, Messiaen, Martinů & Edmund Finnis @ Wigmore Hall

Britten Sinfonia soloists [Thomas Gould (violin), Caroline Dearnley (cello), Emer McDonough (flute), Huw Watkins (piano)]

J.S. Bach Violin Sonata no.1 in B minor BWV1014 (1720)
Janáček Pohádka (1910)
Messiaen Le merle noir (1952)
Finnis Five Trios (world premiere tour) (2019)
Martinů Trio for flute, violin and piano (1936)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 13 February 2019

Photo credit Harry Rankin (Britten Sinfonia)

Review by Ben Hogwood

For years now Britten Sinfonia’s At Lunch series has been a steady delight, a way to discover the new and rediscover the old in chamber music. Using interesting combinations of instruments and building consistently innovative programs around them, the group offer a very accessible way in to discovering classical music’s treasures of the small scale.

This latest series, given in Norwich, Cambridge and London, is no exception, exploring 300 years of chamber music for flute, violin, cello and piano. Pianist Huw Watkins was the one constant for the whole concert, which at London’s Wigmore Hall gave off the unmistakeable aroma of spring.

Watkins and Thomas Gould began proceedings with a very tasteful account of Bach’s Violin Sonata. It is always good to hear Bach with piano accompaniment, for the music is so versatile that it suits the colours available. In a work like this particular sonata, where the piano plays much more than the role of a traditional accompanist, the textures were ideal. The violin, too, had more notes than normal thanks to Bach’s ‘double stopping’ writing, and Gould played these passages beautifully.

Janáček’s Pohádka represented quite a step forward stylistically but the transition was natural, and the fierce lyricism so often associated with the Czech composer was brought to the fore. Caroline Dearnley enjoyed the song-like passages and Watkins gave great clarity to the busy accompaniments, neither musician stinting on the intensity of Janacek’s writing as the plot of the fairy tale took hold.

The same could be said of Le merle noir, Messiaen’s only published work for flute and piano. An important work that signals his intent to accurately reproduce birdsong on traditional instruments, it is a remarkable piece – and Emer McDonough brought to it a wide range of colour. Most importantly she made it sound natural, for while the notes are all written out the intention of the piece is to sound as instinctive as possible. Again Watkins was the catalyst with some carefully voiced and wholly complementary thoughts.

Each ‘At Lunch’ concert features a new work on its world premiere tour, and the springlike atmosphere was ideal for Edmund Finnis and his Five Trios, for the conventional piano trio grouping of violin, cello and piano. Finnis finds an unusual amount of space in his music, and here his blend of quick movement over slow, drone-like figures opened out the textures very attractively.

There was very little bass in the five trios, notable for their translucence and bright textures. The first introduced softly oscillating figures, while the second spread shafts of light from spread piano chords and string harmonics. The dappled sunlight streaming through the Wigmore Hall roof was the ideal companion for the rippling textures of the third piece, but then in the fourth we enjoyed a bolder statement from the cello, its fuller sound ringing through a haze of sustained piano and glassy violin. To finish, the prayerful fifth piece completed a meditative ten minutes from a composer whose rarefied textures are well worth further investigation.

The Britten Sinfonia members closed their generous concert with Martinů’s Trio for flute, violin and piano. So prolific was the Czech composer that it is easy to overlook his achievements, particularly in the chamber music field. While it can on occasion be tricky to recall some of his melodies after the first hearing of a piece, the overall feel of his writing is uniformly positive and, in this case, capable of making the audience smile and clap spontaneously.

The third of four movements was responsible for the clapping outburst, a wonderful piece of effervescent writing betraying his Parisian location when writing it. The outer movements were a little grittier but still charmed with their syncopation, colour combinations and piquant melodies. The tender second movement was heartfelt too.

The standard of musicianship in this concert was extremely high. Particularly memorable moments include Emer McDonough’s final movement cadenza in the Martinů, where Watkins held the performance together admirably despite the tricky rhythms, the graceful playing of Thomas Gould in the Bach and Caroline Dearnley’s rich cello tone in the fourth of Edmund Dinnis’s trios, not to mention the expressive Janáček.

Once more from this source, an enlightening hour of music in an imaginative context. If you live in London or the East of England you really should catch them live soon!

Further listening

You can listen below to an interview with Edmund Finnis, talking with Dr Kate Kennedy about Five Trios ahead of the Wigmore Hall concert://embeds.audioboom.com/posts/7174837-edmund-finnis-talks-about-his-new-work-five-trios/embed/v4?eid=AQAAACp5ZVy1em0A

You can also hear a new release of Finnis’s music for orchestra here:

Meanwhile the remainder of the program is grouped together on this Spotify playlist:

The Favourite Soundtrack – listen here

Happy New Year!

One of the most hotly anticipated film releases of this New Year 2019 is The Favourite. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, supported by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as part of a starry cast to tell a tragi-comic tale around the life of the 18th century English monarch.

The score of this colourful, moving and often hilarious film is full to the brim with classical music – so as the release of the official soundtrack is a few weeks away, here is a playlist of the musical numbers. From Purcell‘s incredibly moving Music For A While to Messiaen‘s thundering Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts suffering) by way of small-scale Schubert and Schumann, it contains some absolute gems!

Wigmore Mondays: Danny Driver plays Dreamscapes by Messiaen, Saariaho, Ligeti & Schumann

Danny Driver (piano, above – photo credit Richard Haughton)

Messiaen Prélude No 5 (Les sons impalpables du reve) (1928-9) (2:36-8:15 on the broadcast link below)

Saaraiaho Ballade (2005) (8:30-15:06)

Ligeti Étude No 6 (Automne à Varsovie) (1985) (15:29-20:37)

Schumann Kreisleriana Op.16 (1838) (23:17-59:32)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 March 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating program from Danny Driver on the theme of ‘Dreamscapes’, an hour away from reality in the company of composers intent on using the piano to express new harmonies and colours.

Few 20th century composers had a greater sense of colour than Olivier Messiaen, and the vivid shades of his Prélude No.5 began the recital. Titled Les sons impalpables du reve (The Impalpable Sounds of a Dream), it was described by its composer as ‘polymodal, consisting of a blue-orange mode with a chordal ostinato and cascades of chords, and a violet-purple mode having a copper timbre. Note the pianistic writing, composed of triple notes, rapid passages in chords, canon in contrary motion, hand crossing, various staccatos, brassy louré, gem effects’. All elements to enjoy in Driver’s richly textured performance, from 2:36 on the broadcast link above – with a questioning feel to some of the harmonic phrases.

Then a relative rarity, a piano work by Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer whose output until now has largely concentrated on the orchestra and works for the stage. This time the composer ‘wanted to write music with a melody that grows out of the texture before descending into it again; a work that constantly shifts from a complex, multi-layered texture to concentrated single lines and back again’. From 8:30 on the broadcast you will hear the Ballade under the assured control of Driver, in a performance of great intensity that plummets back to earth at the end.

For the third of this group Driver intriguingly chose Ligeti’s Étude no.6 (15:29) – with the immediately recognisable, rarefied sound world of the composer. The fingers of the right hand worked largely in octaves here, with richly layered music supporting the descending melodies – until absolutely everything descended at the end in Driver’s powerhouse performance.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana is a group of eight pieces inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantasy on the imaginary musician Johannes Kreisler. Each of the sections is in direct contrast to its neighbour, reflecting the character’s manic depression – with which Schumann may have felt an affinity given his own extremely variable state of mind. Certainly inspiration was at hand for this substantial work, which he completed in the space of just four days in 1838, before revisiting slightly in 1850.

Inevitably the muse of Clara Schumann, Robert’s soon-to-be-wife, is close at hand – and explains the outpouring of feeling in each of the works. The pieces vary between between dramatic, tempestuous fantasies such as the first, third and seventh numbers, and deeply personal thoughts expressed in beautiful surroundings, as in the second piece, the longest in the cycle by far.

Schumann sets up a tonal conflict, too – the fast pieces are in the minor key, and most rooted on G – nos. 3, 5, 7 & 8 fall into this category – while the slower, tender pieces (2, 4 & 6) are conceived around B flat major, G minor’s closest relative. The tension between the two, as well as an abundance of melodic material, lay at the heart of Danny Driver’s interpretation.

Driver clearly loves this music, and gave a passionate performance, enjoying the unbroken stream of inspiration in the first piece (23:17), then the repose and reflection in the second (26:14), the pianist allowing plenty of room for thought and contrast between the faster episodes in this much longer piece.

The third piece set up an excitable drama (36:36) with a commanding left hand, while the fourth responded once more with calm introspection (41:45). The fifth piece was detached in this performance, quite an edgy main idea (45:30) giving way to a more graceful centre. Appropriately the sun appeared during the sixth piece (49:18), giving a promise of the spring we are all hoping will arrive soon – and then Driver tore into the seventh piece with relish (53:32).

Any performance of Kreisleriana lives or dies by the last piece, a playful but rather haunting finale (55:56) that rises and falls like a bird on the wing. Driver caught its essence superbly here, with plenty of give and take in the tempo to give the melody its natural rise and fall. Schumann’s music is at its most exquisite here.

For an encore Driver turned full circle, bringing us back to Messiaen for another Prélude – his first, La colombe (The Dove) – a sign that birds would be his principal subject matter when writing music!

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below – which in the absence of a version from Driver includes Alfred Brendel’s recording of Kreisleriana:

Danny Driver’s discography includes a recent landmark recording of piano concertos by women composers for Hyperion, bringing the works of Dorothy Howell, Amy Beach and Cécile Chaminade:

YCAT at the Wigmore Hall: Savitri Grier & Richard Uttley play Poulenc, Messiaen & Beethoven

Savitri Grier (violin, above), Richard Uttley (piano, below – photo credit Cathy Pyle)

Poulenc Violin Sonata (1942-3)

Messiaen Theme and Variations (1932)

Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano in C minor Op.30/2 (1803)

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 6 March 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

I cannot recommend the YCAT Lunchtime Concert series at the Wigmore Hall highly enough. It gives us a chance to see the professional classical performers of tomorrow, and allows appreciation of just how much young talent there still is, waiting to be discovered. The YCAT (Young Classical Artists Trust) scheme gives an incredibly valuable service to classical music, giving young artists selected through a rigorous audition process the security of career guidance, a dedicated artist manager and a concert platform including appearances such as this at the Wigmore Hall.

This particular recital brought a current member of the scheme, violinist Savitri Grier, and an ‘alumni’, pianist Richard Uttley, who is building an impressive portfolio headed by contemporary music. This well chosen program showed the two have an extremely sound musical chemistry, and also showed Grier to be a formidable violinist of full tone and strong personality.

She immediately took command of the Poulenc Violin Sonata, so much so that even at the back of the hall it was easy to appreciate the depth and breadth of her phrasing. On occasion the artists were even a touch too loud, but that could hardly be considered a massive problem, especially with the virtuosity and crisp ensemble on display in the outer movements. The slightly resentful Adagio slow movement, written in the midst of the Second World War, showed the pair at their most sensitive, reigning in the volume to give some softly voiced thoughts that were truly touching.

Messiaen’s Theme and Variations occupy a rather singular place in the composer’s output, but show what he was to become – and convinced a young Pierre Boulez when he heard them that he had to study with the composer. The theme itself is mysterious, and both performers enjoyed this and the already expansive harmonic language adopted by the composer. Gradually the variations grew in intensity, reaching an impressive apex.

Mozart and Beethoven were the two composers to advance the Violin Sonata into the 19th century, writing as they were for the violin and piano as equal instruments. If anything Beethoven’s C minor example, the second of his game changing Op.30 trio of works, makes greater demands on the piano – but it is arguably the most ambitious work of its time for the combination.

The second Beethoven ‘C minor’ work in consecutive days at the Wigmore Hall (see Monday’s Leon McCawley recital for more), it exploded into life through an incredibly energetic and virtuosic performance. Both Grier and Uttley took a punchy approach to the first movement’s trade-offs, their ensemble particularly secure, but as the work progressed there was also room for humour (in the third movement Scherzo) and a greater elegance (the second movement Adagio cantabile, sensitively played).

Beethoven’s gruff exterior won out though, and in the finale, where Uttley rose to the demands of some fiendish scales demanded by the composer, there was a great tête-à-tête between the two players, an engaging game of cat and mouse where both were ultimately crowned the winners.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below: