Playlist – Sound of Mind 7: Strings and things

Here is another playlist for your delectation, in the new age of ‘staying in’.

This one features works for strings of very different character, from the energetic works by John Adams and Tchaikovsky to a more reflective, serene approach from Philip Glass and Sir Edward Elgar. You get an idea here of the versatility of the string orchestra, which can be by turns sombre and bracing.

Enjoy the music!

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Louise Alder & Joseph Middleton: Lines written during a sleepless night

Louise Alder (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 6 January 2020 (lunchtime)

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

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

This was a concert with an especially personal link for soprano Louise Alder. The Russian Connection – subtitle of her first album for Chandos – goes much further than the repertoire chosen. It reflects Alder’s Russian ancestry, with generations of her family, up to and including her grandfather in 1914, born in the country.

In addition to that, Alder and regular recital partner Joseph Middleton have created a captivating program linking Grieg, Medtner, Tchaikovksy, Britten, Rachmaninov and Sibelius through their choice of poets and their use of a language outside of their own. Six composers, four languages (at last count!) and some richly descriptive writing all made for a particularly memorable concert, especially when performed with the passion and musicality on show here.

Alder and Middleton judged their program to perfection, bringing in the new year with a spring in its step as Grieg’s Heine setting Gruß (Greeting) tripped into view (2:33 on the broadcast link). This is the first song in a compact but deeply descriptive cycle of six from the composer, setting German poetry with his typical melodic freshness and flair. Alder shows lovely control on the final ‘Gruß’ word, before applying a slight husk to the deeply felt Dereinst, Gedanke mein (One day, my thoughts) (3:40), which made a striking impact here. Lauf der Welt (The Way of the World) (6:23) has heady urgency, singer and pianist working as one, while the evocative Die verschwiegene Nachtigall (The secretive nightingale) (8:01) is a sultry, sensual setting in these hands, the initial picture beautifully painted by Middleton. Zur Rosenzeit (Time of roses) (11:40) is filled with intense longing, while Alder’s tone in Ein traum (A dream) (14:55) is particularly beautiful, working through to a powerful finish.

Nikolai Medtner is a Russian composer known for his piano music rather than his songs, so it was gratifying to have Alder and Middleton (above) include two here. They are fine pieces of work, too, with an impressively fulsome piano part that Middleton tackled with deceptive ease and clarity. Mailied (May song) (18:15) holds an intense vocal line over its catchy piano part, while Meeresstille (Calm sea) (20:10) is really well controlled by Alder here.

Tchaikovsky’s numerous songs contain many treasures, and the two French language examples here were no exception. The Sérénade (23:22) dances in the bright light of dawn, with a slightly furtive piano, while Les Larmes (The tears) (25:02) provides much darker soul searching.

Britten’s Russian-language song cycle The Poet’s Echo is a relative rarity in the concert hall, but as Alder and Middleton showed here it contains music of typically fearsome and compressed intensity. The spirit of Musorgsky is evident not just in the choice of poet (Pushkin) but in the bare piano lines, rumbling in the deep for the first song Echo (29:22). Alder’s line is fearlessly delivered, with songs like My heart… (32:17) and Angel (33:48), with its quasi-orchestral piano part, making a powerful impression. The nightingale and the rose (36:20) take powerful flight, the piano gnawing at the heel of the vocal line, while the strange Epigram (40:13) has a striking reverberation achieved through the open piano lid. The final song, Lines written during a sleepless night (41:07) captures the supreme irritation of insomnia through the ‘monotonous tick of the clocks’, with a chilling piano postlude. This work remains a difficult nut to crack, listening-wise, but this is the sort of performance to do it.

We then heard two songs by Rachmaninov, both again setting Pushkin texts. Sing not to me, beautiful maiden (46:44), an early song from the composer’s late teens, receives a fulsome account here with Alder capturing the devastating beauty of the song. The later How fair this spot (51:56), taking the mood from darkness to relative light, is even better, Alder’s top ‘B’ a note of extraordinary clarity.

The generously packed concert concluded with three Sibelius songs, sung in Swedish. Once again these songs are found to be fiercely intense, often expressed through the bare minimum of means. The tempestuous Säv, säv, susa (Sigh, rushes, sigh) (54:02) is heady stuff, while the dynamic range achieved by both performers in Våren flyktar hastigt (Spring is swiftly flying) (56:27) is hugely impressive. Finally Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote (The girl came from her lover’s tryst) (57:49) has a huge, orchestral scope, a reminder that the Second Symphony is not far away in the composer’s output. The song chills to the bone when turning tragically into the minor key for its third verse and the lover’s treason.

This was a simply outstanding concert from Alder and Middleton, deeply intimate yet including the audience in all of their asides. These qualities extended to the wonderful encore, Rachmaninov’s A Dream, where the rippling piano part and exotic harmonies supported Alder’s heavenly soprano line.

If more of the Wigmore Hall Monday lunchtime concerts are as good as this in 2020, we are in for many treats indeed! It only remains for you to listen on BBC Sounds if you haven’t already…and to keep up with the series as it progresses.

Repertoire

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

Grieg 6 Songs Op.48 (1884-8) (2:33)
Medtner Mailied Op.6/2 (1901-5) (18:15), Meeresstille Op.15/7 (1905-7) (20:10)
Tchaikovsky Sérénade Op.69/1 (1888) (23:22), Les Larmes Op.69/5 (1888) (25:02)
Britten The Poet’s Echo Op.76 (1965) (29:22)
Rachmaninov Sing not to me, beautiful maiden Op.4/4 (publ.1893) (46:44), How fair this spot Op.21/7 (1902) (51:56)
Sibelius Säv, säv, susa Op.36/4 (1900) (54:02), Våren flyktar hastigt Op.13/4 (1891) (56:27), Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte Op.37/5 (1901) (57:49)
Encore – Rachmaninov A Dream Op.38/5 (not on the broadcast)

Further listening

Most of the music from this concert is part of Louise Alder and Joseph Middleton’s new disc for Chandos, Lines Written During A Sleepless Night: The Russian Connection, with the exception of the two Rachmaninov songs. The full playlist is here:

If you enjoyed Alder and Middleton in this concert – which I’m sure you did! – their previous outing together is a sumptuous collection of songs by Richard Strauss for Orchid Classics which is bound to appeal, and certainly plays to their strengths:

Meanwhile to enjoy the Rachmaninov song output in its entirety there are few better historical guides than soprano Elisabeth Söderström and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy:

All the trimmings – more musical releases of 2019 that are worth your time

Are you sitting comfortably? Ready to put your feet up for Christmas (or at least some of it?!) Arcana definitely is, but before we go we wanted to share with you some more musical discoveries that have happened across the year. These are the new releases we have not had time to cover properly until now, but which we think deserve a word or 100.

Think of it like the snacks you get out at Christmas once work has finished. So here, in one very varied block of music, are our extra recommendations from the musical year:

Our first classical port of call is Semyon Bychkov’s Tchaikovsky Project with the Czech Philharmonic. This is a cycle of Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies (counting Manfred) and the Piano Concertos, with Kirill Gerstein. It is a very attractive set, providing the timely reminder that the early symphonies, while different from the blood and thunder 4-6, carry plenty of musical substance and charm.

In the first, Winter Daydreams, Bychkov gets to the essence of the scherzo by performing it slightly slower than most, but it has a really attractive and graceful lilt. The Second, Little Russian, is a beauty, while the much underrated Polish Symphony (no.3) is a treat, the first movement with a spring in its step as it makes the most of Tchaikovsky’s catchy theme. While repeated a good deal, the freshness of Bychkov’s phrasing helps enormously.

The Fourth is not as high voltage as some performances in the catalogue, but the Fifth Symphony gets a really good performance, from the clarinet solo at the start to the soaring violins at the climax of the slow movement. The Pathétique is excellent too, superbly paced and phrased if perhaps lacking the ultimate tragedy of the final movement.

Manfred, however, is next level, strings as one in the swooning phrase of the first movement, setting up a highly dramatic reading. The closing climax of the first movement is feverish, with a string tone to die for – and this approach encapsulates the whole account of a symphony that now ranks among Tchaikovsky’s finest works.

On a very different plain is a box of Frans Brüggen’s complete recordings of Rameau Suites, made with the Orchestra of the 18th Century on Glossa. These are almost self-recommending, eight beautifully constructed bodies of work from the composer’s stage works that are full of incident and character – and not just local. Rameau, as well as being a keen melodist, was keen on expanding his horizons and the likes of Les Indes Galantes look far afield to Native America for their inspiration. Listen to Air pour les Sauvages towards the end of the suite for an idea of how Brüggen puts a spring in the step of this music, or any of the thrilling overtures, often littered with bracing percussion:

A couple of Khachaturian releases from the enterprising CPO label have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks. They are numbers two and three in a series cataloguing the Armenian composer’s works for solo instrument and orchestra. Last year Stepan Simonian fronted a recording of the Piano Concerto, but this year’s releases see Torleif Thedéen giving the Cello Concerto a terrific reading, and an expansive account of the Concerto Rhapsody.

The Staatsorchester Rheinische Philharmonie are conducted by Daniel Raiskin – as they are on a disc of the Violin Concerto and Concerto Rhapsody, where the soloist is the superb Antje Weithaas. The second movement of the concerto is particularly winsome, a gently rocking triple time movement that becomes the tender heart of the piece.

Another recording of Romantic music from the East comes from Ondine, with a really valuable second disc of the orchestral works of Hans Eller. Eller is one of the founding fathers of Estonian classical music, recognised for his huge influence by no less a composer than Arvo Pärt, who he taught. Pärt noted his ‘fine and masterful orchestration, and a highly-defined personal manner. These characteristics place him on the level with the great Nordic composers’. The quartet of symphonic poems on show here is led by strongly characterised portrayals of Twilight and Dawn from the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra under Olari Elts, with the substantial White Night Suite and Night Calls for company.

Finally Saint-Saëns, surely one of the most Christmassy of composers. This year the Utah Symphony and Thierry Fischer have been on a voyage through the French composer’s five symphonies for Hyperion, which means welcome airings for the Urbs Roma and excellent First and Second Symphonies, as well as the ubiquitous Organ Symphony. They also find space for the Carnival of the Animals and Danse macabre in superb performances that benefit from Hyperion’s customarily excellent recordings. If you have never heard it before, I highly recommend the disc with the first two symphonies, influenced by Mendelssohn but already showing the French composer’s mastery of melody – or the Carnival of the Animals, for a freshly-minted account:

A couple more electronic recommendations for you now, beginning with a remarkable trilogy of albums from Swedish producer Mr. Tophat. Dusk To Dawn Parts I-III, released on Twilight Enterprise, may be something of a sprawling epic, but within it you will find brilliant collaborations rooted in disco-house, featuring the likes of Robyn, Axel Boman and Kleerup. There is some extraordinary music here, none more so than the quarter-hour epic Tears Of Illuminations. This is the music we wanted Lindstrøm to come out with later in the year!

Meanwhile one of the albums of the year is surely Barker’s Utility, where producer Sam Barker has come up with something really special for Ostgut Ton. All too often electronic albums sound exactly the sum of their parts, processed within an inch of their lives and allowing very little room for the human in them to express itself. Barker is different, and from the opening pulses of this album it is clear something rather special is afoot. Paradise Engineering celebrates the processed nature of this music with warm sounds and syncopated rhythms, the mind actually forgetting the almost complete absence of a kick drum. There is enough movement here for the feet to be sorely tempted. Such treatment continues through to the expansive closing track Die-Hards Of The Darwinian Order.

To say Underworld are in a rich creative streak would be like saying that Manchester City score a lot of goals. We know that it happens, but explaining just how it’s done is not quite as easy.

DRIFT, released on their own Smith Hyde Productions via Universal, is the result of a year-long challenge, where Karl Hyde and Rick Smith vowed to write new music every week. Yet as you listen to each offering it is quite clear that rather than being a hindrance this task brought out the best in both of them. There is nigh on six hours’ music here, and having started off with relatively small units the duo find they are churning out half-hour electronic symphonies like Appleshine Continuum, a remarkable piece of work with The Necks that dips on and off the beat with warm improvisation.

The sheer variety on DRIFT is inspiring, and helps it work as a continuous listen for however you want it to last. Dune, at the start of the third disc, is one of the most relaxed tracks they’ve ever done, soft and ruminative, Hyde in a contented place. Custard Speedtalk feels like it takes place on the great plains, with taillights stretching out as far as the eye can see. Contrast that with Another Silent Way, which has a hammering kick drum over which it progresses to a euphoric piece of layered dance music.

Of the many highlights it is worth picking out Brilliant Yes That Would Be, a really good beatless interlude that has its shredded guitar calmed by cool chords, before switching to stationary piano. The triumvirate of Another Silent Way / Drift Poem / Better Than Diamonds is really strong, Hyde instinctively finding descriptive vignettes over another pounding beat and long, held chord combination that has served Underworld so well, shifting shapes in the way that Pearls Girl did so well.

Molehill is an attractive number that shows if proof were needed that Underworld don’t need beats to create an atmosphere. This is more like a Bibio offcut, drifting through the consciousness like a light meditation. Threat Of Rain gets back on the quick horse though, chugging along at a good pace.

The Underworld horse is one that rewards consistent backing, here more than ever. There is a huge amount of listening on DRIFT, but such is their form that pretty much everything here is a surefire winner.

With all that said, I hope there is something here for you to enjoy if you haven’t already encountered it. Here at Arcana we look forward to bringing you a lot more cross-genre musical talk next year, and hope you will take something from it. Happy Christmas, have a brilliant 2020 and see you for more discoveries!

Ben Hogwood

On record – Quatuor Danel: Tchaikovsky – Complete String Quartets & Souvenir de Florence (CPO)

Quatuor Danel [Marc Danel & Gilles Millet (violins), Vlad Bogdanas (viola), Yovan Markovitch (cello)], Vladimír Bukač (viola)*, Petr Prause (cello)*

Tchaikovsky
String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 (1871)
String Quartet no.2 in F major Op.22 (1873-4)
String Quartet movement in B flat major (1865)
String Quartet no.3 in E flat minor Op.30 (1876)
String Sextet in D minor Op.70, ‘Souvenir de Florence’ (1890)*

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is a very welcome release from the Quatuor Danel. Having already given us complete cycles of Weinberg and Shostakovich – a total of 32 string quartets – they extend their reach back to Tchaikovsky and the first major quartet cycle in Russian music. There are two discs which include the three published quartets, the quartet movement and Souvenir de Florence, the composer’s String Sextet.

What’s the music like?

Following these pieces is a very interesting way of charting Tchaikovksy’s development as a composer.

The String Quartet no.1 in D major gives evidence of his major early influences, with Mozart and Mendelssohn in evidence. It also contains as its second movement the Andante cantabile, removed and arranged for string orchestra and very popular as a standalone piece for reflection.

The String Quartet no.2 in F major is weightier, with a more overtly Romantic musical language as Tchaikovsky shows more obvious emotion in his writing. The String Quartet no.3 is unusually cast in E flat minor, not a key string players regard with great affection, but one which offers very effective, dark colouring in an elegiac work.

The cycle is nicely positioned at regular intervals in the composer’s career, predated by a Quartet Movement in B flat major from the mid-1860s and capped by the String Sextet, Souvenir de Florence, from 1890, written while the composer was working in the Italian city.

Does it all work?

Yes. These are excellent performances from a quartet clearly attuned to Russian chamber music. They enjoy the graceful music with which the String Quartet no.1 starts, gliding forward with poise and elegance. As the development of the ideas gathers pace and intensity, so the quartet become more animated, convincingly driving through to the final bars. The Andante Cantabile is fresh and free of indulgence, its central dance offsetting the thoughtful main material. The Scherzo has plenty of cut and thrust, plus an enjoyable, bubbly trio, while the finale is in a similar vein but sunnier, enjoying the major key and some glorious melodies from Marc Danel’s violin.

Once fully in to gear, the String Quartet no.2 has an exuberant first movement. It is a high voltage performance, occasionally brimming over with its high spirits, but with a nicely judged and serene close. The quartet enjoy the rustic sounds of this work, particularly evident when Tchaikovsky uses open fifths in the lower parts, and they get admirable clarity from the big textures in the middle of the Andante.

The String Quartet no.3 receives a telling performance, getting right to the heart of Tchaikovsky’s thoughts. Sombre and thoughtful in its introduction, the first movement soon has admirable depth, the transition to the faster music ideally judged. The quartet relish Tchaikovsky’s fulsome writing but also the deeply soulful character of the movement’s second theme. The Scherzo is light on its feet, enjoying the exchanges from the top of the first violin to the bottom of the cello and back again, while the muted start to the third movement is particularly intense, deeply telling in its sorrowful and respectful closing pages. The finale largely shakes off these shackles but for a brief reference to the mood of the third.

As a useful postscript the Quartet Movement has a quiet and mysterious beginning, and it is not initially obvious where the work is going but then it blooms into a full structured movement, using the influence of Schubert and Mendelssohn to strong effect.

Finally a spirited account of the Souvenir de Florence, busy and upfront from the start, with plenty of energy from the six players – but with time too to enjoy both the softer second theme of the first movement and the lovely slow movement, where the cello line blooms beautifully. The shimmering central section here has plenty of drama, then the sound becomes earthy as the cello line returns. Textures are occasionally stretched in the third movement but the finale has a dramatic sense of urgency as well as a lovingly dispatched, broadly phrased second theme bringing brief parallels to the composer’s fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet. After this the sextet secure a thoroughly emphatic and affirming finish.

The big challenge with these works is getting the melodies to sing through the full textures with which Tchaikovsky writes, but the Quatuor Danel achieve the right balance throughout these excellent versions.

The elegance of the first quartet is immediately appealing, as is the red blooded cut and thrust of the second and the deeply emotive third, the best performance here. Having the Quartet Movement and an excellent account of Souvenir de Florence is the icing on the cake.

Is it recommended?

Yes. There is formidable competition in these pieces from the Borodin String Quartet, in company with Genrikh Talalyan and Mstislav Rostropovich for the Souvenir de Florence, and also from the Gabrieli and Chilingirian Quartets.

Yet despite these the Quatuor Danel offer an excellent modern alternative, with excellent performances and recording all round. It’s time for Tchaikovsky’s string quartets to come in from the cold.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from the Quatuor Danel’s Tchaikovsky cycle and purchase a copy at the Presto website here

Wigmore Mondays – Barry Douglas & Borodin Quartet – Shostakovich: Piano Quintet

Barry Douglas (piano, above), Borodin Quartet [Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)] (below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 14 October 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

For the 2019-20 season many of the BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concerts at the Wigmore Hall have taken on a playlist appearance. This all-Russian programme was no exception, with Tchaikovsky miniatures acting as a prelude to Shostakovich’s most successful chamber work, the Piano Quintet.

Tchaikovsky‘s The Seasons are a lovely set of miniatures for piano, characterising each month of the year rather than the four seasons. Barry Douglas, who has recently recorded the cycle, clearly holds the collection dear, and his accounts of March (the Song of the Lark) and October’s Autumn song were haunting and thoughtful by turn.

The Borodin Quartet followed with Tchaikovsky’s famous Andante cantabile for strings. The previous week they had given it in context, the second movement of four in the composer’s String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11, where it is most effective. Here the silvery, muted textures were lovely, and the central section evoked a light dance, but the work’s placement felt constricted knowing the main act was still to come.

All that was emphatically put to bed by a storming performance of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet, as authentic an account as you could wish to hear. The first incarnation of the Borodin Quartet worked closely with the composer on many of his string quartets, and they performed the quintet with the composer on several occasions. The first-hand experience of their predecessors has not diluted the intensity of the experience in transition, and this was a searing account of one of 20th century chamber music’s most powerful utterances.

The Prelude (20:36) and Fugue (25:27) dovetailed beautifully, the former section imposing and powerfully wrought, the latter gathering a mood of grim resilience as the elements of its theme became ever more closely interwoven. This carried through to the outburst that is the Scherzo (35:28). Here Douglas came to the fore, striking the octaves in the upper right hand with shrill clarity, the quartet responding in kind as the textures veered towards the orchestral.

A graceful Intermezzo (39:12) was deeply poignant, the combination of bittersweet violin and simple plucked cello affecting from the outset. Emotions bubbled just under the surface throughout this movement, threatening to break loose at any moment. As the music slipped effortlessly into the finale (45:17) it shifted up a gear, with time for another big theme (46:35) before navigating to the calmer waters of the coda, where resolution was finally found in spite of the slightly ghostly string tone.

This was a tremendous performance, with every ounce of feeling communicated to the audience, occasionally at the expense of tuning in the upper violin area but with an unwavering intensity. The audience loved the repeat of the Scherzo as an encore.

Repertoire

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

Tchaikovsky The Seasons Op.37a: March (2:00), October (4:31) (Barry Douglas solo)
String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11, Second movement (Andante cantabile) (11:12) (Borodin Quartet)
Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57 (1940) (20:36) (Barry Douglas, Borodin Quartet)

Further listening

You can hear the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, containing recorded versions by the artists. The Borodin Quartet released Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet with pianist Alexei Volodin for Decca in 2018 – and here it is prefaced by one of the group’s several recorded versions of the Andante cantabile. Barry Douglas’s Tchaikovsky is part of an album of the complete cycle of The Seasons:

Another Russian chamber music powerhouse can be heard below. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio, written in memory of pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, is a deeply expressive piece full of pain and resilience. Here it is from Trio Wanderer:

Shostakovich was not done with his piano-based chamber music, adding a substantial Second Piano Trio four years later. You can hear it below with pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, violinist Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and cellist Mats Lidström – part of a very impressive all-Shostakovich disc: