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 – Pavel Kolesnikov & Samson Tsoy, Colin Currie & Sam Walton: Music for pianos and percussion

Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy (pianos), Colin Currie and Sam Walton (percussion) (pictured above in rehearsal, credit unknown)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 2 December 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

A truly memorable concert with many more instruments than performers! The Wigmore Hall stage was straining at the seams for this concert, with a daunting battery of percussion positioned behind two lidless Steinway pianos.

As BBC Radio 3 presenter Fiona Talkington confirmed, the two pianists and their percussion counterparts had only met the previous week. This is where music making can be so thrilling, for chemistry had been established and all four performers clearly enjoyed the concert experience.

That much was clear from the first, atmospheric notes of Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, given in an arrangement that seems to have been the composer’s own, retaining percussion parts from the orchestral original. The Prélude à la nuit (1:49 on the broadcast link below) immediately evokes the heady Mediterranean scene, laced with a background tension that was occasionally released in faster music, thrumming like an ensemble of guitars. Ravel’s orchestral concepts are easily discerned here, with the players very closely attuned. The Malagueña (6:02) is suitably enchanting, while the Habanera (8:05), with lovely detail on castanets and xylophone, wears its Carmen influences on its sleeve. Finally the dazzling Feria (10:52), brilliantly performed, wraps up our colourful Spanish sojourn with a flourish.

The percussionists then had a break while Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy gave us a rarity in the form of Britten’s Two Lullabies. Written for a concert with South African pianist Adolph Hallis, they are barely known – but carry a number of the 22-year old composer’s musical trademarks. The first lullaby is as you would expect, gently rocking like a boat as the listener’s head nods towards sleep (19:07) but the second, Lullaby for a retired colonel (23:20), is an ‘anti-lullaby’, seemingly written to annoy its subject into wakefulness with renditions of The British Grenadiers, Men of Harlech, the Marseillaise and the Last Post. This performance caught the gracefulness and cheek respectively.

The main act, if you like, was an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary piece. Even now, 82 years on from its Swiss premiere, there are few pieces as original as Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, one of the standout pieces of 20th century repertoire but one of the least performed in that class, due to its unusual scoring.

This performance gave us the chance to appreciate Bartók’s unique sound world, from unhinged Allegros to daringly slow night music where nobody dare move a sinew. It begins in the depths (28:10) with the ominous rumbling of timpani and cold piano octaves. This is the small cell from which the piece grows, angular lines on the piano complemented by strident timpani. As always in Bartók the music is incredibly atmospheric, and when it breaks out into the faster music (from 31:30) an almost primal energy is released. Terrific playing from all four, who had only started playing this music together the previous week – with a stunning ending in pure C major.

The second music (42:13) is a classic example of Bartók’s night music. The brushes on the snare drum bring the cooler evening air into sharp focus, with an even colder unison on piano in response. This performance brings out these incredibly descriptive aspects of the writing, each detail carefully observed and pointed until – as in many slow movements from the Hungarian composer – the ground suddenly falls away and the music tears off at a pace. Soon enough a peace of sorts is restored, though again there is an eye left open just in case.

The third and final movement is the sound of unbridled joy, heralded by a rapid shift to C major and a terrific burst of energy. The xylophone (Sam Walton in this performance) has terrific clarity in its theme, which has sardonic overtones Shostakovich would have enjoyed, while the interplay between the pianos is superbly balanced. The percussion includes a driving part for both bass drum and timpani, where Bartók uses glissando to create an evocative twang, often in quieter passages. These were superbly judged by Colin Currie. The piece ends in unexpected quiet, the purity of C major ensuring it has the ideal place to rest after considerable exertions.

A truly great performance, this, one borne of musical instinct and chemistry that found all four performers going hell for leather in the quick music but exercising the utmost restraint to bring Bartók’s vivid colours through when all was quiet. Make sure you listen to it!

Repertoire

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

Ravel Rapsodie espagnole (1907-8) (1:49)
Britten Two Lullabies (1936) (19:07)
Bartók Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1937)

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard in leading available versions on Spotify below:

Colin Currie and Sam Walton have recorded the Bartók previously, with pianists Cédric Tiberghien and François-Frédéric Guy. Details on that recording can be found together with soundbites at the Hyperion website:

Bartók wrote three pieces for Paul Sacher while in Switzerland – the Sonata as heard here, the remarkable Music for Strings Percussion and Celesta and the more rustic, folksy Divertimento for string orchestra. Both those pieces can be heard below as part of an album from Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, which also includes the ballet suite from The Wooden Prince:

Wigmore Mondays – Pavel Kolesnikov plays Debussy

pavel-kolesnikov

Pavel Kolesnikov (piano) plays Debussy’s first book of Préludes

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 11 January 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06tx85v

Available until 10 February

What’s the music?

Debussy (1862-1918): Préludes, Book 1 (1909-1910); L’isle joyeuse (1904)

Spotify

Pavel Kolesnikov has not yet recorded any of this repertoire, but a reproduction of his program using available versions can be accessed below, for listeners who cannot hear the BBC broadcast:

About the music

Debussy wrote 24 Préludes for piano, collected in two books but did not approach them in the same way as Chopin, who wrote one in each key. Instead he looked for character pieces, and the first book of Préludes are a fine example of what is often called the composer’s ‘impressionist’ style. By that we mean Debussy would often shade his music in a form that matches the paintings of artists such as Monet and Renoir, leaving them less defined.

impression-sunrise

Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet (1872)

Perhaps because he wanted the listener to form their own pictures in their mind’s eye, Debussy left the title of each Prélude until the end of the piece – and even then was not at all conclusive in his naming. La cathédrale engloutie (The submerged cathedral), Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind has seen), Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) – all are subject matters that need an active imagination to complete the picture.

L’isle joyeuse is a little more defined but not much, being a homage to Jersey, where Debussy holidayed with his new love in the summer of 1904.

These pieces make great technical demands on the pianist but also allow freedom of interpretation, both for player and listener.

Performance verdict

Having already established a reputation as a Debussy interpreter in his Wigmore Hall debut in 2014, BBC New Generation artist Pavel Kolesnikov returned to dazzle with more of the composer’s music.

Yet his approach was not obviously virtuosic, and he often took sensitive liberties with his tempo choices in the Préludes, drawing out the slow pieces especially effectively. These approaches were shown to be completely valid, setting an atmosphere of quiet intensity where I found myself subconsciously leaning forward on several occasions, literally hanging on Kolesnikov’s next note.

Les collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri) was especially convincing, as was a totally unhurried Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow). La danze de Puck was brilliantly done, an irresistible glint in the jester’s eye, while the stumbling rhythm of Minstrels was expertly controlled. Kolesnikov opened up the detail of Debussy’s inner part writing but never at the expense of his overall impression of each piece, and in L’isle joyeuse this led to painstakingly produced trills, part of an incredibly secure performance that still created a vivid picture of the island.

Full marks to the pianist, too, for overcoming the considerable distraction of latecomers arriving directly in his eye line after a poised account of Danseuses de Delphes. All that was required was a pertinent pause, and he was back in the zone.

What should I listen out for?

1:35 – Danseuses de Delphes (Dancers of Delphi) – immediately a sultry atmosphere is cast, the slow moving music rather mysterious but at the same time oddly enchanting. The block chords create an essence of calm.

There is then a pause while the latecomers are admitted…before…

5:41 – Voiles (Veils) – if anything the heady atmosphere is heightened by this deeply intimate impression, with suggestively chromatic lines in the right hand over a sustained held note in the left. The boundaries are blurred here, the ‘impressionism’ all too evident.

9:31 – Le vent dans la plaine (The Wind in the Plain) – a blustery outlook is set by the left hand oscillations, though this piece proves just as elusive as the wind. Debussy once again uses melodies in a ‘pentatonic’ form (if you played C-Eb-F-G-Bb ascending on the piano those are the notes of the pentatonic scale). Sudden gusts of wind threaten to knock the music off course but it stays true to form, just.

11:47 – Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (The sounds and fragrances swirl through the evening air) This is an enchanted piece, and indeed is heavily perfumed, as though at the end of a very hot summer’s day. The sustain on the piano means notes can blur together in the listeners’ mind, but there is still a distinct four note theme heard at the start. Kolesnikov really draws out the tension at the end of this piece.

16:20 – Les collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri) After a short, nervy start this piece bursts from its cover, with melodies exchanged between the top and bottom of the piano, with sustained but energetic chords in the middle. Then the music gradually ascends to a thrilling end which seems to be in mid-air, with a massive set of five notes high up on the piano at 19:09.

19:21 – Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps in the Snow) Debussy paints some incredibly vivid images on the piano, and the depiction of snow here is cold in the extreme! The quiet dynamic aids this, and the very slow tempo, though the melody does have a forlorn nature, as though in memorial or loss.

24:36 – Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind has seen) – again Debussy mobilises the piano to portray the unpredictable gusts of the West Wind, through suddenly loud figures in the right hand and rumblings in the bass. Soon we hear crashing octaves high in the right hand, then a rush of notes, leading to a snappy end at 28:21.

28:23 – La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) – one of Debussy’s best-loved pieces, this charming portrait uses the pentatonic scale as a basis for its melody (see above) – which sounds rather folk-like in nature. It is an affectionate picture.

30:38 – La sérénade interrompue (Interrupted Serenade) – from simplicity it’s back to a stop-start affair, as though Debussy were portraying the wind again. The whole piece seems to have a short attention span, moving through its thoughts very quickly as though on edge, but ends quietly.

33:13 – La cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral) – one of the most famous Préludes, and certainly one of the most mysterious, with blurred imagery in the sustained left hand notes of the piano and a clear melody in the right hand. It is based on an ancient Breton myth in which a cathedral, submerged underwater off the coast of the Island of Ys, rises up from the sea on clear mornings when the water is transparent. Debussy catches the shimmering water as well as the ghostly outlines of the building – and there are suggestions of plainchant too. Eventually a massive toll of bells is reached (35:38) There is some magical quiet playing when this music reappears at 38:26.

39:49 – La danse de Puck (Puck’s Dance) – pure impudence in this piece of music, darting about elusively and never sitting still anywhere. There are some cheeky melodies but also some brief and profound asides.

42:31 – Minstrels – another stop start piece, but one where the melody is very clearly defined. It is as though the performers are slightly drunk and moving from side to side! After several runs at getting a long-lasting theme, the piece ends crisply and emphatically at 44:52.

45:34 – L’isle joyeuse – this character piece starts with extended trills in the right hand, creating a watery atmosphere but also one with latent energy. By 47:26 the open-air mood has been set and we hear another distinctive melody at 47:32. From 49:44 the music takes on the character of a march, becoming faster and louder until a final joyous theme at 50:15. The piece ends on the lowest end of the piano at 50:56.

Encore

52:08 For an encore Pavel Kolesnikov goes back two centuries to give Debussy’s compatriot – and one of his greatest influences – Jean-Philippe Rameau. The piece in question is L’Egyptienne, from the Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin (New Suites of Harpsichord Pieces) Suite in G major.

Further listening

A natural next port of call for listening is the second book of the Préludes, for they follow on naturally from the first. On this album the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard plays both books:

Wigmore Mondays – Narek Hakhnazaryan and Pavel Kolesnikov

narek-hakhnazaryan

Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello), Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 23 November 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06pxdz7

on the iPlayer until 23 December

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of some the music in this concert. Narek Hakhnazaryan has not yet committed any of these works to disc, though the Khudoyan solo sonata is available to watch on YouTube below:

Alternative versions of the Schumann and Mendelssohn can be heard below:

What’s the music?

Schumann: Five Pieces in folk style, Op.102 (1849) (16 minutes)

Adam Khudoyan: Solo Cello Sonata no.1 (1961) (8 minutes)

Mendelssohn: Cello Sonata No.2 (1843) (27 minutes)

What about the music?

Schumann found in the cello an instrument with which he could express his music naturally, and his music for the instrument ranges from a late Cello Concerto to various ‘fantasy pieces’ for cello and piano. Five of these, the Funf Stücke im Volkston (Five Pieces in Folk Style) are vignettes for the combination where Schumann is clearly enjoying himself, music that ranges from the playful first and fourth pieces to the warm of the lyrical lullaby.

I have to confess this was my first encounter with the music of Adam Khudoyan (1921-2000), though, as the Wigmore Hall booklet writer Brian David discussed, he was one of Armenia’s most highly-regarded twentieth-century composers. He completed his Solo Cello Sonata no.1 in 1961, the first of a number of works for the instrument. It is a relatively short but intense work, David writing that ‘it has at its heart a deep, extended lament that moves between extremes of sorrow and anguish’.

Mendelssohn’s middle period of composition saw him writing with incredible spontaneity, and it is into this part of his career that both his major works for cello fall. Both of his cello sonatas are rich in expressive melodies and positive feeling, and the outpouring of good spirits at the start of the Second is difficult to shake off through the work. It does have a profound side too though, found in the slow movement where Mendelssohn works a prayerful chorale in a manner often interpreted as a contemplation of his dual Jewish/Christian heritage.

Performance verdict

From this evidence the partnership of Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan and Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov is most definitely one to keep an eye on. The duo clearly enjoy the music they make together, and while the perception is that Narek is the one to wear his heart on his sleeve more obviously, Pavel provides some wry humour as a counterpart.

That was most evident in the second movement of the Mendelssohn, where the piano phrases were beautifully shaped and strung out just a bit longer to enhance the witty theme. This performance was excellent, maybe a bit over-wrought in the first and last movements but reaching a degree of stillness in the slow movement that was very moving.

Their Schumann was also very enjoyable, played with a very fresh approach and again with a nice dash of humour. This music is rich in melody and the two clearly enjoyed each new tune and turn of phrase.

It was also very satisfying to hear the Khudoyan sonata for the first time, extending this Armenian’s credentials as an extremely proficient writer for cello. The use of folk melodies gets us close to the heart of Armenia quickly, and it was clear from his expression that Hakhnazaryan felt the same way. A technically superb and emotionally charged performance of music that has real concentrated expression.

What should I listen out for?

Schumann

1:32 – a bright and slightly mischievous first piece, marked ‘Vanitas vanitatum’, where the spiky cello and detached piano embark on a breezy march. The middle section from 2:50 is by contrast heavier and assertive.

4:49 – a rather gorgeous lullaby, led by the cello with dreamy accompaniment from the piano.

8:46 – a graceful dance that is a little within itself, the cello elusive and the piano quiet as though in thought. Perhaps a sign of shadow that suggests this to be a later composition – though the warmer middle passage, where the cello plays chords, is a much more positive complement.

12:49 – the exuberant fourth piece, led by the cello in breezy fashion – with a nice, more lyrical theme to boot from 13:15.

14:47 – the last piece is quite a frenetic affair that sounds almost as though it could have been written by Brahms. Here the cello and piano are in much more obvious dialogue with the syncopated rhythms.

Khudoyan

19:36 – the solo sonata starts with a bold statement, with chords on the cello. The forceful and heady mood. It brings to mind a little the rather bigger sonata by Kodály, especially at 20:45 when a slower tune is heard, one that seems to be inspired by folk music.

There are some quite jarring moments where Khudoyan puts two pitches very close together but overall the sonata is full of powerful and moving melodic lines, the composer using the cello chords as more of a rhythmic prompt.

25:45 – from here the cello has a brief but thoughtful section of ‘pizzicato’ (plucking) before the material from the beginning returns with even greater force. The piece ends with powerful chords.

Mendelssohn

29:33 – right from the beginning it is clear this is going to be a positive piece. Cello and piano open together with a sweeping melody, and the piano part is typically busy for Mendelssohn. The cello retains a song-like delivery to its melodies, and the music continues to surge forward strongly, suggesting the composer’s inspiration was very instinctive at this point in his life. The main theme returns at 34:00.

37:33 – this is a lovely example of Mendelssohn’s lightness of touch, a piece of music that has subtle humour and a memorable tune to go with it. This is introduced by the piano and repeated by the pizzicato (plucked) cello. A contrasting and flowing theme crops up at 39:22, before the main ‘scherzo’ material comes back at 40:49. A strong coda section begins at 41:58, with a more obviously romantic mood in the cello line.

44:04 – the slow movement begins with a set of chords from the piano that sound rather like a hymn (or ‘chorale’). The top note of each of these chords forms the melody which the cello eventually takes up, reaching an impressive intensity at 47:02. Then a meditative passage takes place over a long held note on the cello. The whole movement is almost certainly under the influence of Bach in the stepwise manner in which it moves and is beautifully simple.

49:44 – the finale returns us to the brisk manner of the first movement, cello and piano ducking and diving as they move towards the main theme at 50:09 on the cello. The music proceeds at a bustling pace, often with little opportunity for breath, as though Mendelssohn were writing music as fast as he possibly could!

Encore

57:54 – an encore in the form of an arrangement for piano of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. A lovely, romantic, slow moving piece of music where time slows down a little – for nearly seven minutes, in this case!

Further listening

If you enjoyed the Mendelssohn and Schumann in this concert then there is more to explore in the cello and piano repertory from both composers. A very attractive account of Mendelssohn’s complete music for the combination can be found here, played by Antonio Meneses and Gérard Wyss:

The same combination released an album of Schubert and Schumann works for cello and piano in 2006, on which the Schumann pieces all make a lasting impression – as does Schubert’s substantial Arpeggione Sonata: