In concert – Borodin Quartet: Tchaikovsky & Arensky at the Wigmore Hall

Borodin Quartet [(Ruben Aharonian and Sergei Lomovsky (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Vladimir Balshin (cello)]

Wigmore Hall
Wednesday 9 October

Tchaikovsky String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 (1871)
Arensky String Quartet no.2 in A minor Op.35 (1894)
Tchaikovsky arr. Dubinsky Album for the Young Op.39 (1878)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit Simon van Boxtel

The Borodin String Quartet have an unparalleled history in performing Russian string quartets, and the first of their three date mini-residency at the Wigmore Hall found them sitting firmly on home ground.

It could be said that the history of the Russian string quartet begins with Tchaikovsky, whose String Quartet no.1 in D major Op.11 began the programme. This contains his first ‘hit’, the second movement Andante cantabile which even now is a firm favourite in its string orchestra arrangement. Heard in proper context here, the understated emotion of Tchaikovsky’s solemn notes made an even stronger impact, especially when performed with due reverence.

The Borodin Quartet belong firmly to the old school of quartet playing, sitting still and straight-faced as they play, but as the evening unwound so too did their apparently stern countenance. The straight approach worked with this piece however, as an elegant first movement introduction gained weight and resolve, and the Scherzo third movement showed a rustic, outdoor quality. The final movement, capping a piece that doffs its cap to Mozart and Mendelssohn, was aware of the influence of both composers but showed off the uniquely Russian edge.

Anton Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 in A minor was written in homage to the recently departed Tchaikovsky in 1894. Replacing one of the violins with a second cello, the still underappreciated Arensky darkened the colours of the quartet, which has a distinctive if rather lopsided three movement structure. The outer movements take time for religious contemplation, while the inner and most substantial movement of the three spends time with developing a theme written by Tchaikovsky.

This Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky is itself more popular in a string orchestra arrangement, but as with the older composer’s Andante cantabile it is more effective in context, a great example of how to keep the potentially stale variations format fresh and inventive. This was a superb performance, the Borodin Quartet – through necessity reverting to two violins rather than two cellos – gravely intoning the main subject of the outer movements where time seemed to stand still. The Variations were brilliantly characterised and flew off the page, the ensemble speaking as one – and the final pages emphatically threw off the sadness of the chant-influenced passages, looking forward to more optimistic times ahead.

For the second half the Borodin Quartet turned to their one-time leader Rostislav Dubinsky, and his arrangement for them of Tchaikovsky’s piano cycle Album for the Young. Comprising 24 short pieces for children, it is packed full of dances, character pieces and portraits. Initially the thought was that this would be overindulgent and too whimsical, but as the set unfolded so did Tchaikovsky’s charm and Dubinsky’s invention.

Here was the composer who would eventually write so skilfully for younger ears in The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, channelled through the medium of an arranger who was able to send up some of the pieces with clever pizzicato or harmonics. This was where the Borodin Quartet let themselves go more, sending up The Toy Soldiers’ March beautifully, then indulging in colourful accounts of the French, German, Italian and Neapolitan Songs. The scurrying Baba Yaga was a treat, while the last two numbers, The Organ-Grinder’s Song and At Church were curiously ghostly, sending the young audience to what might have been a troubled sleep.

No such troubles here though, as we finished with an encore from Borodin himself, the Serenata alla Spagnola. It was led off decisively by the pizzicato of cellist Vladimir Balshin before its main tune, given affectionately by viola player Igor Naidin. It was a fitting way to end a charming and moving concert.

Further listening

You can hear recorded versions of the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including the Borodin Quartet‘s recording of the Tchaikovsky String Quartet no.1 and Rostislav Dubinsky‘s own Borodin Trio in the Album for the Young:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 25: Sol Gabetta, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska – Tchaikovsky, Weinberg & Sibelius

Prom 25: Sol Gabetta (cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Dalia Stasevska (above)

Sibelius Karelia Suite Op.11 (1893)
Weinberg Cello Concerto in D minor Op.43 (1948, rev 1956) [Proms premiere]
Tchaikovsky Symphony no.6 in B minor, Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893)

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 6 August 2019

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credits Chris Christodoulou

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

This Prom was notable for its being the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s first public concert with principal guest conductor Dalia Stasevska and the first appearance in this (or any previous) season of music by Polish-born Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg, whose centenary is later this year.

Conceived as a Concertino then expanded eight year later, the Cello Concerto is not untypical of Weinberg’s earlier works in its discrepancy between completion and premiere (by Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow during 1957). Even more striking is its absence from the repertoire, given its formal clarity and direct melodic appeal. Myaskovsky’s own concerto is an indirect model, notably in the ruminative opening Adagio with a folk-tinged main theme that returns to heightened effect at the close, but Weinberg’s approach is more oblique and eventful. The first movement leads to a wistful intermezzo with Jewish and even Spanish inflections, then an animated scherzo capped by an extensive cadenza. This segues into a finale whose lively main theme is revealed as a variant of the initial melody during an increasingly inward coda.

The piece clearly has a devoted advocate in Sol Gabetta, whose perceptive account can only enhance its popularity. The BBCSO evinced passing technical fallibilities, likely caused by a slightly amorphous balance between soloist and orchestra in this acoustic; though that did not affect Gabetta as she drew evident soulfulness and intensity from the music. No-one hearing this concerto for the first time was likely to have been left unmoved – nor by Pablo Casals’s arrangement of the Catalan folk-song Song of the Birds, which made for a winsome encore.

Framing the Weinberg were two repertoire items composed during the same year. Sibelius’s Karelia Suite was never less then enjoyable, though Stasevska slightly misjudged the balance between reflection and animation in the Intermezzo, while the speculative modal contrasts of the inward Ballade might have been more firmly integrated. Best was the closing Alla marcia’ – its bracingly populist overtones allowed free rein without ever becoming blatant, though quite what determined that cymbal clash on the very final note is anybody’s guess.

After the interval came Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony – tonight receiving its 124th hearing at these concerts (so equating to one performance per season), and a reading which gained in stature as it unfolded. Stasevska had the measure of the opening movement, though a certain impassiveness was only banished in the development’s driving fugato as it carried over into the fateful denouement. The ensuing Intermezzo was deftly paced with no hint of stolidity in its trio, then the Scherzo had a propulsion as fairly erupted in its latter stages – the premature applause for once sounding spontaneous. There was no undue emoting in the finale as this conductor heard it, with the music’s fraught eloquence maintained through two impassioned climaxes and on to a coda whose enveloping darkness did not preclude fatalistic acceptance.

If not an overly memorable performance, this was certainly an assured one that suggested the rapport between conductor and orchestra is already taking shape. Stasevska has two concerts with the BBCSO in the coming season which, on tonight’s evidence, will be worth attending.

Wigmore Mondays – Ilya Gringolts & Peter Laul: Stravinsky for violin and piano

Ilya Gringolts (violin), Peter Laul (piano)

Stravinsky
Suite italienne (1925) (1:17-16:57 on the broadcast link below)
Three movements from The Firebird (1926-32) (19:18-29:58)
Ballade from The Fairy’s Kiss (1947) (31:58-35:15)
Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss (1934) (35:22-55:21)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 3 June 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Stravinsky had a chequered relationship with stringed instruments, once describing them as ‘much too evocative’ in tone, but ultimately writing for them with the same level of skill he applied to the rest of the orchestra. Most of his writing for the violin in a solo capacity had Samuel Dushkin in mind.

Dushkin was introduced to Stravinsky by his German publisher in 1930, and Stravinsky wrote a concerto for him, before turning to smaller scale works for the pair to tour together. Many of these are smaller pieces taking stage works as their inspiration – and this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert from the Wigmore Hall programmed music from three such works.

The Suite italienne actually predates the Dushkin collaborations. To give it its full title, the Suite d’apres des themes, fragments et morceaux de Giambatista Pergolesi, brings together an Introduction and four dance movements from the Pulcinella ballet, retaining their lyricism but adding a certain spikiness in the new format.

Ilya Gringolts and Peter Laul play them with great character here, from the breezy and catchy Introduzione (1:17), through the Serenata (3:26), to a Tarantella in a hurry (6:16). While the Introduzione sees Gringolts still finding his feet, the Gavotte con due variazioni (8:22) is really nicely done, as are the Scherzino () and Minetto e finale (12:28), where Stravinsky can’t resist the odd sardonic touch.

The three movements from The Firebird are more substantial, beginning with a Prélude et ronde des princesses (19:18) which has a cold shiver in tale. The Berceuse () has a thick, heady atmosphere, while the Scherzo (27:32) feels like it has to be somewhere in a hurry and is a thrilling chase between the two instruments, brilliantly played.

The Divertimento known as The Fairy’s Kiss was Stravinsky’s homage to his biggest Russian inspiration, Tchaikovsky. It is an exciting and winsome orchestral ballet, one of his more romantic creations based as it is on a selection of the senior composer’s songs and piano pieces. The arrangements here work well in the more intimate confines, and again Gringolts and Laul have their measure. The Ballade (31:58) is at times languid but then quite restless, while the Sinfonia (35:22) employs typical Stravinsky textures of bare octaves occasionally audible.

Otherwise the violin writing is perhaps surprisingly ardent, then we progress to a busy section of brusque statements before returning to the slower music. The Danse suisses have some fun figures and exchanges, Stravinsky unable to resist a toe-tapping march with a rustic feel (41:20) before the lively Scherzo (46:01). The searching melodies of the Pas de deux (48:57) lead to a feathery scherzo (52:08) then a brisk Coda, the rustic mood returning (53:19)

BBC Radio 3 went off air before there was a chance for listeners to hear the bracing encore from Gringolts and Laul. Their Danse russe, arranged from Petrushka, was a fitting end to a very well executed recital.

Further reading and listening

Ilya Gringolts and Peter Laul have completed two discs of the complete Stravinsky works for violin and piano. The selection making up this concert and its encore can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Meanwhile the below collection brings together Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and also the three ballets from which the music for this concert derives, The Firebird, Pulcinella and The Fairy’s Kiss:

Live review – Patricia Kopatchinskaja, CBSO / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla: Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto; Stravinsky: The Firebird

Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Gražinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 2 May 2019

Weinberg Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes Op.47/1 (1949)
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major Op.35 (1878)
Stravinsky The Firebird – complete ballet (1910)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

With a European tour imminent and details of next season just out, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was evidently on a high when tackling this afternoon’s programme of contrasted works by Russian and Soviet composers.

His centenary may not fall until December, but Mieczysław Weinberg has been a mainstay of the CBSO’s current season (with the Third Symphony to follow at this year’s Proms), and the Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes was a welcome addition. At a time when Soviet composers were under intense pressure to write music of an inherently populist nature, its deployment of melodies from the territory of Bessarabia (from where his parents hailed, but not the Warsaw-born composer) draws unashamedly on a lineage from Liszt to Bartók – Weinberg’s handling of these, in what is a subtle take on the slow-fast archetype, being a stylish and personal one. Gražinytė-Tyla duly had its measure, whether in the ruminative opening with its plangent solo woodwind or the boisterous later stages when brass comes vividly and irresistibly to the fore.

An evergreen such as Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto should have presented no surprises, but that was to bargain without Patricia Kopatchinskaja (above) as soloist. Incapable of giving a routine performance, her sometimes reckless while always compulsive account of the first movement left little doubt as to her ringing of the changes – above all, in a spontaneous rendering of the cadenza such as convincingly brought out its improvisatory nature. Not was there any lack of inwardness in the Canzonetta, its chamber-like textures delectably drawn, and though tempi in the finale were almost self-consciously extreme, the frisson as generated by its ever-faster refrain seemed all but tangible. Gražinytė-Tyla drew an alert and attentive response from the CBSO, consistently making the most of Tchaikovsky’s delicate yet also incisive orchestration.

Only Kopatchinskaja could have come up with an encore where she, the conductor, violinist Kate Suthers and cellist Eduardo Vassallo engaged in something between a Ligeti madrigal and a Cathy Berberian improv. Something about the planet being round? It hardly mattered.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird is a piece of which all recent CBSO chief conductors have made a virtue, with Gražinytė-Tyla no exception. Perhaps surprisingly, this was an interpretation that emphasized the score’s formal unity and motivic ingenuity rather than any overly illustrative aspect; not least in the lengthy sequence between the Khorovod and Infernal Dance as can often seem to mark time judged purely as music.

Conversely, there was on occasion a lack of theatrical immediacy or evocative poise needed if the full ballet is to convince away from the stage. Highlights were a Supplication with the Firebird’s entreaties were alternately soulful and alluring, then a Berceuse whose rapt response from muted strings held the periodically restive audience in its thrall prior to an energetic while slightly matter-of-fact Apotheosis.

Any imprecisions will doubtless be ironed-out during the repeat performance on Saturday. A reminder, too, that Gražinytė-Tyla’s memorable reading of Weinberg’s 21st Symphony with the CBSO has just been released as the first fruit of her contract with Deutsche Grammophon.

Further information on this concert can be found at the CBSO website, and on the Weinberg release over at Deutsche Grammophon

Further listening

You can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below, including Patricia Kopatchinskaja’s recording of the Tchaikovsky and the CBSO in The Firebird under Sir Simon Rattle:

Wigmore Mondays: Aleksey Semenenko & Inna Firsova – Grieg, Ysaÿe, Debussy, Tchaikovsky & Paganini

Aleksey Semenenko (violin), Inna Firsova (piano)

Grieg Violin Sonata no.3 in C minor Op.45 (1886-7) (1:40-23:34)
Ysaÿe Violin Sonata in D minor Op.27/3 ‘George Enescu’ (1923) (25:34-32:13)
Debussy La plus que lente (1910) (34:17-38:16)
Tchaikovsky Valse-scherzo in C major Op. 34 (1877) (38:55-45:06)
Paganini, arr.Kreisler La Campanella (1826) (46:30-54:16)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 5 November 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

There were fireworks at the Wigmore Hall rather earlier than planned on this particular November 5th. The reason for this was the inflammatory partnership of violinist Aleksey Semenenko and pianist Inna Firsova, whose high voltage program of Grieg, Ysaÿe, Tchaikovsky and Paganini really got the heart rates fluttering.

The duo began with one of Grieg’s finest chamber works, the Violin Sonata no.3. While his first two works in the violin sonata are dressed in relatively sunny clothing, this third one has a lot more grit and determination in the notes. This was evident right from the start (1:40 on the broadcast, marked Allegro molto ed appassionato), a memorable theme given authoritative treatment by Semenenko and Firsova. The music drew back for some more intimate thoughts, but soon, as the main theme gets developed, a deeply passionate dialogue between violin and piano played out.

The second movement, a Romance (10:13), began with a clear and delicate melody from Firsova, a beautifully poised response to the first movement. Soon however a more agitated section started (12:18), led by the violin, but soon the glassy, soft-hearted music returned. The third movement Allegro moderato (16:06) began with a melody that feels like a folk tune, especially with the rustic piano accompaniment, and we were back into the urgent mood of the first movement. At 18:53 a rich second theme could heard, played by Sememenko with a very full, gorgeous sound, if just occasionally over-reaching on his tuning.

The Ysaÿe Sonata is for solo violin, directly inspired by the music for violin of J.S. Bach – but with considerably more display factored in. It is third of a set of six he completed in a short space of time and published as Op.27 in 1923. That said, the Belgian composer still writes with a keen sense of form, and this compact sonata, dedicated to fellow violinist / composer George Enescu, packs a lot into its six and a half minutes. So too did Semenenko, whose dazzling virtuosity (from 25:34) added to a beautiful tone gave it the best possible platform. Some of his bowing was razor sharp, especially in the fast music, but the attack was always impressively clean.

Semenenko and Firsova followed these fireworks with a pair of waltzes. Debussy’s example (34:17), originally for solo piano, is a sugar-sweet but elusive piece of work, beautifully harmonized by Firsova in this version. Tchaikovsky’s (38:55) is another story, a swaggering dance piece that both performers relished, swaying in and out of time with the familiarity of seasoned partners. It was all instinctive and brilliantly done, with Semenenko’s bow acting like a pond skater over the strings at times! An earlier performance of this work from the pair can be seen below:

One of the ultimate violin showpieces is La Campanella, written by Paganini in 1826 as the third and final movement for his Violin Concerto no.2, but arranged here for violin and piano by Fritz Kreisler – like Paganini a virtuoso of incredibly high standing.

Gravity is surely defied in this version, right from the main theme (46:30) to a series of contrasting sections, each of eye-watering difficulty – try from 52:00 on the broadcast to get some incredible dexterity between plucking (pizzicato) and bowing.

Great credit should go to Irina Firsova, too, for her mastery of what is effectively an orchestral score compressed for piano. The lightness of touch meant this was never a heavy account, despite the number of notes, and Semenenko’s agility fair won the day.

A spectacular recital indeed, which I would urge you to hear from the start. The pair weren’t quite finished, though, and complemented their fireworks with a little sparkler, Tchaikovsky’s Valse sentimentale in F minor Op.51/6 (56:12-58:21)

Further listening

As a good companion to this playlist, Aleksey Semenenko and Inna Firsova have recorded a disc of similar themes, taking a Grieg sonata and virtuoso showpieces from Tchaikovsky, Paganini and Castelnuovo-Tedesco, ending with an intense account of Schubert’s Fantasy in C major:

If that isn’t enough, and to whet the appetite for more French music for violin and piano from the Wigmore Hall in a couple of weeks’ time, here is another Semenenko and Firsova double act in music by Poulenc, Chausson, Debussy and Saint-Saëns: