Wigmore Mondays – Novus String Quartet play Respighi & Berg

Novus String Quartet [Jaeyoung Kim, Young-Uk Kim (violins), Kyuhyun Kim (viola), Woongwhee Moon (Violoncello)]

Respighi Quartetto dorico (1924) (2:00 – 23:53 on the broadcast link below)

Berg Lyric Suite (1926) (27:15 – 59:23)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 March 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Listening to the Quartetto dorico is like taking a big step back in time. The opening salvo of Ottorino Respighi’s quartet from the mid-1920s is certainly arresting for its volume and scoring – only four instruments but a massive sound! – and its musical language feels imported from another age.

The young Korean ensemble capture these qualities, establishing a dream state that is maintained throughout the performance. Respighi’s quartets are rarely performed, so the BBC and Wigmore Hall should be commended for bringing this one in from the cold, adding another dimension to the 20th century string quartet.

There is an otherworldly quality to the high violin writing later on in this single-movement span, lasting over 20 minutes – and the concentration of feeling provides an intense listening experience. From 4:30 on the broadcast link the music retreats to a quieter passage led by the viola, who essentially intones another chart to the soft, restful comments of the other three. A distinctive section starts at 9:27, with an irregular pulse but a strong rhythmic profile established by the plucked cello string, which gives a dance-like feel to the melody.

At 14:15 an important section starts, the Passacaglia – which has six beats in the bar. The music here is slow moving and deeply contemplative, the first violin taking the lead with a lot of the thoughts as the harmonies stay relatively still. Gradually the higher reaches of the instruments come into play, before a dramatic series of unison sweeps bring down the curtain.

If you’re able to read music I would highly recommend following the score with the performance, as it helps you appreciate Respighi’s unique approach to writing for string quartet. The link is here

From the sacred to the profane – and affter heady music to lift us away from earth, Alban Berg’s six-movement Lyric Suite brings us right back to earthly experiences. Though publically dedicated to the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, as it quotes from his Lyric Symphony, it is in fact a not-so-private account of his doomed affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, who he met on a visit to Prague in the 1920s.

The tempo markings of the six movements are descriptive and tell the story. The first provides a good introduction to Berg’s unique way of using serial (or ‘non tonal’) music in a way that is still highly melodic and richly layered with harmonies. Marked Allegretto gioviale (from 27:15 on the broadcast), it uses all four instruments for thick textures and intense dialogue, telling the story of the start of the couple’s affair.

The second movement, marked Andante amoroso (30:43), is lighter, with more of a spring in its step as Berg profiles Hanna and her two children, with distinct musical motifs for each. The third (Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico (37:24)) gives a musically vivid account of the affair’s consummation, with feather light textures, the instruments’ bows used near the bridge to create a feverish atmosphere.

Then, as the doomed nature of the relationship makes itself evident, the music turns sourer. The fourth movement is a slow one, Adagio appassionato (40:36) – and is passionate and pretty heavy, turning to depths of desolation at the end. The second violin (44:20) quotes from the Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony, but this is eerie and displaced, with the ending at 46:38 still more remote.

The last pair of movements is devastating for Berg. It starts with a febrile affair marked Presto delirando – Tenebroso (47:13) and has crisp, jagged phrases until, as the music slows, the thoughts become more remote and despair-laden, leading to the relatively sudden end at 51:45.

Finally the Largo desolato, which really is the end of everything () These are melodies that speak of despair and desolation, the end of the tether. A brief show of spirit and resolve is made at 56:56 but this is soon overcome by the viola and second violin, before some sweeping, downwards facing melodies on the cello. The music, fully spent, peters out at 59:23, as though Berg can no longer say any more.

Like the Respighi above, there is so much going on in Berg’s Lyric Suite that it may be an advantage to follow the music itself while listening. It can be found here

The Novus String Quartet gave incredibly impressive accounts of both works, taking the physical and mental demands in their stride and keeping a consistently high standard of ensemble. They have a refreshing approach to programming, and these elements should ensure they are a top level string quartet to keep an eye on.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, with the Novus Quartet’s recently released recording of the Berg Lyric Suite an added draw:

https://open.spotify.com/user/arcana.fm/playlist/0Oqnt2uLE6E7L09TVxPU4Q?si=hD6X6m3RTTS9_jXU_bav_w

The Quartetto dorico is one of two string quartets completed by Respighi, but he also wrote the celebrated Il tramonto (Sunset) for soprano and string quartet. All three works fit very nicely onto one album, recorded by the Brodsky Quartet and the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter:

Meanwhile Berg’s music for string quartet works extremely well in company with his colleague and fellow ‘serial’ composer Anton Webern. Berg’s rich romanticism and Webern’s incredibly concentrated approach complement each other on this Juilliard Quartet album:

One more playlist to end with – a selection of string quartets from the mid-1920s, illustrating the range of styles applied to the idiom at that time. There are some very different responses here from Janáček, Bartók, Martinů and Frank Bridge – very interesting to compare and contrast!

Live review – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: John Wilson’s Roman Festivals

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson (above)

City Halls, London
Thursday 29 November 2018

Donizetti Overture: Don Pasquale (1843)
Puccini Capriccio sinfonico (1883)
Respighi Feste romane (Roman Festivals) (1928); Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome) (1915-16); Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome) (1923-4)

Written by Ben Hogwood

If ever an antidote was needed for a blustery November evening, this was it. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and their Associate Guest Conductor John Wilson began with a sprightly overture – that written by Donizetti for his opera Don Pasquale, complete with romantic solo from cellist Rudi de Groote.

We then heard Puccini’s impressive student piece Capriccio sinfonico, where the orchestra dug in to its substantial outlines and memorable triple-time dance theme.

These two pieces served as effective preludes to the main action in this all-Italian concert – Respighi’s triptych of symphonic poems inspired by the centre of his life, Rome. All too often Respighi is held up as a brilliant orchestrator lacking in musical craft, but these performances under John Wilson utterly refuted those claims. This is music of wonderful colour and texture, certainly, but there are great melodies too, scored in such a way that future composers – among them surely John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith – would surely have fallen under the Italian’s spell.

Respighi himself knew how to use his influences for good. Stravinsky looms large, as do Debussy and Ravel – but nobody else could have written the gladiatorial opening to Roman Festivals, its fire and brimstone blowing the cobwebs away from all corners of City Halls.

The BBC Scottish brass were brilliant here, with Simon Johnson’s blowsy trombone solo in Epiphany and the off-stage trumpets in Circuses both highlights. Jubilee, the second movement of the four, painted vividly the downtrodden pilgrims on the highway, rising up as they glimpsed the Holy City in a shower of glistening colour.

The duet between lead violin and cello in The October Festival (Laura Samuel and de Groote again) was a beauty, while the finale built on its influences from Stravinsky’s Petrushka with music of athleticism and raw power, where pianists Lynda Cochrane and Julia Lynch also deserve a mention, their virtuosity underpinning the sound.

Fountains Of Rome was next, sensibly placed to provide a more restrained complement to the bombastic first poem. Here the wonder lay in four beautiful depictions of water, first heard undulating through The Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn. The Triton Fountain at mid-morning was a thrilling scherzo in this performance, while the organ (Michael Bawtree) added extra colour and splendour to The Trevi Fountain at midday. Finally the magical, twinkling image of The Fountain of the Villa Medici showed off the slightly smaller orchestra in all its glory, the strings on top form with the notably tricky figures.

Pines of Rome is the most celebrated of the triptych, and though well known its emotional impact here was considerable. The busy, blustery Pines of the Villa Borghese set a colourful scene, but Wilson paced the Pines near a catacomb to perfection, shaping the apex of the Gregorian chant to spine-tingling effect, helped once again by the brilliant BBC Scottish brass section.

Clarinetist Yann Ghiro provided a solo of exceptional control during The Pines of the Janiculum Hill, where we heard the nightingale from afar – an innovative and controversial role for the gramophone in 1924, and even now making unsuspecting audience members sit up in surprise. Yet the whole evening was still to reach its apex, The Pines of the Via Appia, with what was quite simply the loudest orchestral playing I have ever heard. This was Respighi turned up to eleven, and when it shouldn’t have been possible for the music to get any louder or bigger it just kept going.

John Wilson ensured this was always a controlled ascent and never vulgar, so as the hairs stood up on the neck once again his orchestra reached a tumultuous finish, capping a wonderful evening of music. Now that’s what I call a concert!

Further listening

This concert was recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3. John Wilson has not recorded any of the music in this concert, but you can hear a playlist of ‘Roman Festivals’:

London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski – An Autumn Symphony

Julia Fischer (violin, below), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday 29 November 2017

Chausson Poème, Op. 25 (1896)

Respighi Poema autunnale, P146 (1925)

Marx Eine Herbstsymphonie (1921) [UK premiere]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

Vladimir Jurowski continues to ring the changes in terms of repertoire, with this evening’s concert by the London Philharmonic Orchestra no exception in featuring the UK premiere of Eine Herbstsymphonie, the most ambitious undertaking from Austrian composer Joseph Marx.

Although best remembered for his substantial output of songs, Marx (1882-1964) spent the decade after the First World War essaying large-scale orchestral works – chief among them being this Autumn Symphony premiered (by Felix Weingartner) in Vienna during 1922 but which went unheard as a complete entity for eight decades after its 1925 revival. Marrying impressionistic harmonies to a Mahlerian formal expansiveness, this is an evocation of its season both in descriptive and philosophical terms – in music as opulent as it is engulfing.

What it lacks is any sense of a cumulative or even over-arching momentum. Sizable forces are deployed expertly if amorphously in terms of the dense yet unvarying texture – though this was hardly the fault of the LPO, which responded to Jurowski’s incisive direction with assurance. Not least in the radiant Autumn Song – less a movement then a prelude to what follows and segueing into Dance of the Noon Spirits, an extensive intermezzo that suffers from its overly uniform waltz-time measure and corresponding lack of rhythmic contrast.

This latter failing is hardly an issue in Autumn Thoughts, a slow movement where serenely unfolding paragraphs and taciturn solos for wind and strings effect a yearning regret such as draws in the listener whatever its lack of defined melodies. After which, An Autumn Poem provides a finale of Dionysian import – the full orchestra (nine percussionists in addition to timpani and keyboards) moving through a series of increasingly heady climaxes before the music subsides into a postlude suffused with eloquent resignation though tinged by regret.

A significant work historically, then, but hardly a neglected masterpiece that warrants regular revival. Jurowski can only be commended for instigating this performance, as for encouraging so committed an orchestral response as will hopefully find its way onto the LPO’s own label.

Even so, it was the first half that brought greater rewards. With its inspiration in a typically melodramatic story from Ivan Turgenev and breathing an aura of fatalistic dread, Chausson’s Poème has made a welcome return to the repertoire and has also found its ideal exponent in Julia Fischer – her warm and caressing though never over-wrought tone teasing out those expressive nuances which lurk beneath the surface of this emotionally all-enveloping score. Whatever else, its composer experienced the essential qualities of his music in graphic terms.

Latter-day revivals have tended to pair this piece with Ravel’s jarringly contrasted Tzigane, but Fischer choice was far more apposite. Even more overlooked, Respighi’s Autumn Poem itself pursues a full-circle trajectory such as takes in reflection and animation, though one whose overall conciseness proves its own justification. Fischer duly spun the deftest of solo lines through the diaphanous and modally-inflected orchestral texture, in which Jurowski’s accompaniment was astute and affecting in equal measure. Sometimes, less really is more.

The Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra and Stéphane Denève in Beethoven, Guillaume Connesson and Respighi

brussels-philharmonicBrussels Philharmonic Orchestra (above, picture courtesy of Samsung)

Richard Whitehouse on a visit from the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra and their chief conductor to the Cadogan Hall, offering a rare chance to hear the music of Guillaume Connesson.

Cadogan Hall, Thursday 29 September 2016

Beethoven Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

Connesson Flammenschrift (Letters of Fire) (2012); E chiaro nella valle il fiume appare (And clear in the valley the river appears) (2015)

Respighi Pini di Roma (1924)

Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra / Stéphane Denève

This evening’s concert brought a welcome visit from the Brussels Philharmonic and current music director Stéphane Denève, his advocacy of new music evident in the inclusion of two recent pieces by Guillaume Connesson which were performed on either side of the interval.

Now in his mid-40s, this French composer conjures a wide range of influences from François Couperin, via Wagner and Strauss, to Dutilleux and the film music of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams (a pity the programme book included no biography either of Connesson or the orchestra – while being dominated by an absorbing if, in context, overly detailed note on the Beethoven).

These pieces are the first two parts of a symphonic trilogy, with Flammenschrift both an evocation of Beethoven and a tribute to the ‘golden age’ of Germanic music. Strauss does indeed make a fleeting appearance during the more lyrical central episode; otherwise, it is the incisive neo-classicism of Honegger that comes most readily to mind, with the relentless rhythmic drive generating an impetus maintained right through to the effervescent final pages.

Taking its title from lines by the early nineteenth-century poet Giacomo Leopardi, E chiaro nelle valle il fiume appare is ostensibly the slow movement of this sequence – its alternately ethereal and passionate manner recalling the later music of Roussel (notably the Adagio from the Third Symphony), with Connesson proving hardly less adept in controlling the expressive momentum of music such as borders on without quite spilling over into overkill. Presumably the questioning tone on which it ends is answered by Maslenitsa, the final part of this trilogy.

Make no mistake, Connesson is a composer in which formal security is allied to an orchestral sense of considerable flamboyance. Interesting that, along with older contemporaries such as Nicolas Bacri, he should draw inspiration from an earlier era of French music – bypassing the serial complexity of Boulez or the harmonic intricacy of Grisey or Murail. Accessible without being facile, his music may yet gain regular hearings here, and there could be no doubting the conviction with which orchestra and conductor presented it to tonight’s appreciative audience.

Nor was the Brussels orchestra found wanting in the familiar works which opened and closed proceedings. A viable first half in itself, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony did not fit into its present context: Denève secured a fluent if rarely insightful reading, as its best in an animated take on the first movement and appealingly jaunty scherzo, but there was a lack of inwardness and repose elsewhere; while an almost complete absence of vibrato from the strings gave their playing an unyielding quality emphasized by the forward ambience of the Cadogan acoustic.

More successful overall was Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the second and most enduring part of a ‘Roman triptych’ by which he remains best known to posterity. Denève found humour amid the frenzy of the ‘Villa borghese’ then drama in the sombre musings ‘near a Catacomb’. The sensuousness of the ‘Janiculum’ saw an amusing cameo from the percussionist operating the gramophone record of a nightingale, whereas the crescendo of the ‘Appian Way’ brought a frisson of excitement abetted by offstage brass and organ that fairly brought the house down.

The Brussels Philharmonic performs the final part of Connesson’s trilogy on 9 April, 2017. Further details at the Cadogan Hall website

Meanwhile further information on the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra can be found from their website