Online concert – Steven Isserlis & Connie Shih mark the centenary of Saint-Saëns @ Wigmore Hall

steven-isserlis

Saint-Saëns Cello Sonata no.1 in C minor Op.32 (1872)
Liszt Romance oubliée S132 (1880)
Fauré Romance Op.69 (1894)
Saint-Saëns Romance in F major Op.36 (1874)
Bizet arr. Hollman Carmen fantaisie (not known)
Willaume La noce bretonne Op.14 (pub. 1924)
Holmès arr. Isserlis Noël d’Irlande (1897)
Hahn 2 improvisations sur des airs irlandais (1894 rev. 1911)
Saint-Saëns Cello Sonata no.2 in F major Op.123 (1905)

Steven Isserlis (cello, above), Connie Shih (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, London
Thursday 16 December 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

This well-devised program to mark the centenary of the death of Saint-Saëns was put together by cellist Steven Isserlis and his regular partner, pianist Connie Shih. They presented the composer’s two cello sonatas, the first of which was recorded by Isserlis back in 1992, in an intriguing historical context.

There is no room for shrinking violets in the first movement of the Cello Sonata no.1 in C minor Op.32, a relatively early work, and both performers threw themselves headlong into the music. Saint-Saëns was a virtuoso pianist, and on occasion his writing for the instrument is as demanding if not more so than the instrument it is ‘accompanying’. Here however the two were on equal terms, with plenty of cut and thrust in a dramatic first movement. The C minor casting and stormy start draw parallels with Beethoven, and these were built upon in the players’ compelling dialogue. The improvisatory slow movement was ideally poised, with an air of mystery in its central section where the cello was in its lowest register, complemented by twinkling figures from the piano. The Allegro moderato third movement returned us to powerful, passionate music, Isserlis’ double stopping passages immaculately delivered and Shih finding the necessary definition and phrasing in a superbly played piano part.

A full 32 years elapsed between the first sonata and its sequel, the Cello Sonata no.2 in F major Op.123. By this time the 70 year-old composer’s style had developed considerably. It is a substantial piece, running over 35 minutes, and is perhaps less-performed on that basis, not to mention the demands made on the performers. Isserlis and Shih showed what a fine work it is, however, in a performance that was gripping from the off, full of passion but also finding the more elusive statements in the quieter music, where Saint-Saëns could be found writing subtle but far-reaching sleights of harmony.

A joyous opening paragraph surged forward with considerable energy, powering an impressive and flowing first movement, Shih harnessing the power of the piano but continuing to hold a sensitive balance. She led off a capricious scherzo, whose variations were brilliantly characterized, from a limpid third variation (marked Tranquille) to a rippling Molto allegro that followed.

The heart of the piece, however, lies in the substantial Romance, a dreamy slow movement with a beautiful melody and a profound middle section turning towards the minor key. Both played with poise and affection, finding the centre of music the audience could fully lose themselves in. The last movement, which the composer promised ‘will wake anyone who’s slept through the rest of the piece’, was terrific, working from its deceptively innocuous opening phrase to throw off the shackles and end in celebratory mood. Isserlis was typically generous with his expression, with Shih deserving credit for her technical command and shapely melodic phrasing. The octaves towards the end were especially well-handled.

While the two sonatas were the main works of the concert, the complementary pieces were no less involving, providing an ideal foil. Firstly we heard from Saint-Saëns’ close friend Liszt, one of his few works for cello and piano. The Romance oubliée began with a recitative, with beautiful tone in the held notes from the cello, setting the (intense) mood. Then another great friend (and pupil), Fauré – whose Romance uses the whole range of the cello, starting in the mysterious depths and ending in the rarefied upper register. Saint-Saens’ own warm-hearted Romance in F major Op.36 was affectionately recounted, before the showstopping Carmen fantasie from Saint-Saëns’ friend and regular recital partner, Joseph Hollman. This was a showstopper, with quickfire dances and a pizzicato Habanera, stylishly done by Isserlis.

Shorter pieces followed from Gabriel Willaume, Reynaldo Hahn and Augusta Holmès, each with fascinating connections to the composer. Willaume’s La noce bretonne (The Breton wedding) was rather moving, its distant drone growing in feeling and power before passing by and disappearing again. Hahn’s 2 improvisations were songlike and affecting in their simplicity, a soulful Willow Tree especially, before an arrangement by Isserlis of Holmès song Noël d’Irlande, its pentatonic language easy to absorb.

This was a very fine concert, with playing of an exceptionally high standard by both artists, but crucially with the involvement that told us how Saint-Saëns, in particular, could combine virtuosity with deep feeling, contrary to some opinion. It is hard to imagine how his centenary could have been better observed – and it ended with a perfectly weighted account of The Swan, one of his most famous shorter pieces – taken as it is from Carnival of the Animals. Isserlis needed only to introduce it with a wave of the hand.

You can watch this concert on the Wigmore Hall website for the next 28 days – and you can hear most of the music played by Isserlis and Shih on the Spotify playlist below, with some of the recordings drawn from their recent album Music from Proust’s Salons. That disc can be heard (and purchased) from the BIS website

Wigmore Mondays: Karina Gauvin & Maciej Pikulski – French song

Karina Gauvin (soprano, above) and Maciej Pikulski (piano, below)

Hahn Quand je fus pris au pavillon (1899) (1:26-2:41); Si mes vers avaient des ailes (1888) (2:45-5:23; A Chloris (1916) (5:26-8:40)
Debussy Nuit d’étoiles (c1880) (9:59-13:04), Mandoline (1882) (13:09-15:06), Beau soir (1891) (15:10-18:00), L’Enfant prodigue – Récitatif et air de Lia (1884) (18:38-23:44)
Poulenc Trois poèmes de Louise Lalanne (1931) (25:21-26:12, 26:15-27:03, 27:07; Métamorphoses (1943) (29:31-; Deux poèmes de Louis Aragon – C (1943) (34:46-38:18)
Bizet Guitare (1866) (39:57-42:20), La coccinelle (1868) (42:27-47:36), Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (1867) (47:51-52:55), Ouvre ton Coeur (1859-60) (53:05-55:47)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22 October 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

An enjoyable tour around the French ‘mélodie’ from Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin and pianist Maciej Pikulski began with the music of Hahn. A celebrated song composer, his melodic gifts were fully evident in this selection of three, although the wide vibrato Gauvin employed did sometimes lessen its impact. A bright account of Quand je fus pris au pavillon (from 1:26 on the broadcast) showed off the breezy, outdoor approach, but the vibrato was too wide in an otherwise gentle Si mes vers avaient des ailes (2:45). The wonderful A Chloris, with its homage to Bach in the serene piano part, found ideal phrasing from Pikulski and rapturous delivery from Gauvin, if again a little too wobbly.

She was on much more secure ground in a selection of early Debussy. The composer’s first published work, Nuit d’étoiles was especially effective in its evocation of the lyre, where Pikulski was superb and Gauvin had a lovely, floated delivery. Mandoline was also a treat in the unison towards the end of the song, while Beau Soir savoured the heady atmosphere of the sunset. There followed an aria from L’Enfant prodigue (18:38), a dramatic tour de force where Gauvin took complete control, singing powerfully of a mother’s loss.

Poulenc’s songs are never less than entertaining in concert, though you have to be quick to appreciate some as they are gone in mere moments! There was a nonsensical air to two of the three poèmes, whose text are attributed to the fictitious Louise Lalanne. The first two sped by in a blur, nicely pointed and characterised, before the slower Hier went much deeper in its emotional impact.

The first of the Métamorphoses was similarly brief (29:31) but the flowing second (30:43) was a slow and thoughtful utterance, beautifully paced. The third (33:29) raced away from sight, but then as a complete contrast we had the down at heel dfgd (34:46), contemplating Paris in the wake of the Second World War.

Gauvin and Pikulski finished with a very varied quartet of Bizet songs, beginning with the bracing Guitare (39:57), with words by Victor Hugo. The piano imitated the strummed chords of the instrument and turning to sunnier climbs as C major replaced C minor (41:32) Gauvin relished the vocal demands here and in La coccinelle, another Hugo text of curious form which she characterised richly. In Adieux de l’hôtesse arabe (47:51) we had the highlight of the whole recital, and surely one of Bizet’s best songs – a profound departure with a deep sense of longing that Gauvin wholly inhabited, right up to the floated final notes. Then Ouvre ton Coeur (53:05) brought flashes of exoticism with the added notes of Pikulski’s thrummed accompaniment and Gauvin’s vibrato, on this occasion perfectly judged, to the sudden cry of the final note.

Gauvin gave us one of Poulenc’s most popular songs, Les Chemins de l’amour, as an encore (57:44-1:02:24) – and though a slow version it found the bittersweet heart of the song.

Further listening

You can track the repertoire used in this concert via the following Spotify playlist:

(Veronique Gens)

Oxford Lieder Festival – Alessandro Fisher & Gary Matthewman: An Italian Songbook

Alessandro Fisher (tenor, above), Gary Matthewman (piano, below)

Bellini Malinconia, ninfa gentile, Per pietà bell’idol mio, Ma rendi pur contento (all 1829)
Donizetti Me voglio fa’ ‘na casa (1837), Lu trademiento (1842)
Verdi Il poveretto (1847), Il tramonto (1845), Brindisi (1845)
Tosti ‘A vucchella (1907), Sogno (1886)
Hahn Venezia (1901)

Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The spectacular round of the Sheldonian Theatre proved the ideal setting for tenor Alessandro Fisher and pianist Gary Matthewman, with an attractive Italian recital continuing the Grand Tour theme of the Oxford Lieder Festival.

Fisher proved a consummate storyteller, and his asides to the audience between songs were ideally judged and set the music of the concert in context. There was deep, romantic love, humour and much merrymaking to be had over the course of the hour!

Photo (c) Johan Persson

Fisher and the ever-attentive pianist Matthewman filled the first half of their recital with songs from Italian composers known primarily for their opera – and indeed it did feel as though the tenor was singing excerpts from bigger, stage-bound works. The Bellini songs were straight and to the point – melodic and responsive to their text. Donizetti showed off the voice in Me voglio fa’ ‘na casa (I want to build a house) but cut straight to the heart in Lu trademiento (The treachery).

Three songs by Verdi were of rich variety – the downtrodden Il poveretto (The poor man) led to the rather moving Il tramonto (Twilight) before Fisher and Matthewman cast all cares aside for Brindisi (A toast). Sporting a different musical response to the famous aria of the same name from La Traviata, this was a riotous celebration of wine.

The songs of Tosti are highly respected but still quite rare in concert hall recitals, so it was good to hear a consummate master of the form at work in ‘A vucchella (A sweet mouth) and Sogno (Dream), passionately sung.

The concert’s second part told the story of Hahn’s Venezia, where Matthewman painted the watery settings of the opening song Sopra l’acqua indormenzada (Upon the sleeping waters), the undulations of La barcheta (The little boat) and the heady atmosphere of La biondina in gondoleta (The fair maiden in a gondoleta). Fisher was a very entertaining guide to the ups and downs of love in Venice for the subject, no more so than in Che peca! (What a shame!) where he had all the requisite mannerisms to cast off his ‘only thought’ Nina, to the amusement of the audience – but perhaps the best was left for last, a celebration of La primavera (The springtime) to round off the cycle in some style.

Fisher’s bright tenor sound was also ideally suited to the encore, Leoncavallo’s Mattinata, which provided further evidence of the strength of his partnership with Matthewman. With such colourful song set under the equally bright roof of the Sheldonian, it was a match to remember.

Further listening

You can hear the repertoire from this concert on the Spotify playlist below. Alessandro Fisher has yet to record any of the Italian songs, so leading alternative versions have been used:

Meanwhile Fisher himself appears in a new recording from Classical Opera and Ian Page of Mozart’s Grabmusik and Bastien Und Bastienne:

Wigmore Mondays – Clara Mouriz & Joseph Middleton: Songs of the Antique

Clara Mouriz (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Purcell/Britten Alleluia (pre-1702, realised by Britten 1960)

Alessandro Scarlatti Son tutta duolo (c1699)

Anchieta arr. Dorumsgaard Con amores, la mia madre (unknown)

Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets (1842-6)

Duparc La vie antérieure (1884)

Hahn Tyndaris (1900)

Ravel Kaddisch (1914)

Falla 7 Spanish Popular Songs (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 June, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert that confirmed the versatility of Clara Mouriz and Joseph Middleton. Their performance, titled ‘Songs of the Antique’, concentrated on songs whose music or text looks a long way to the past for inspiration.

The mezzo-soprano has a rich and powerful voice in the middle register especially, which came to the fore in passionate accounts of the Liszt 3 Petrarch Sonnets, but also in the solo writing of Ravel and the quasi-orchestral scope of Duparc.

First we went right back to the Eighteenth century for an Alleluia – a song originally attributed to Purcell but found to be by John Weldon. Britten, as part of his Purcell revival, provided a complementary piano part, one that shadows the spun out vocal. This vocal won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Mouriz mastered it brilliantly here (from 1:49 on the broadcast link provided).

The Scarlatti, an excerpt from the opera La donna ancora è fedele, made a nice contrast (3:52). Unlike his brother, who wrote copious amounts of keyboard music, Alessandro wrote many operas – and the excerpt here shows how fluid his vocal writing could be. Meanwhile the arrangement of Anchieta’s folksong, thought to be from the fifteenth century, had a primal quality in this interpretation – with elegantly shaped piano from Middleton (7:01).

The Liszt was a highpoint of the recital, not just for Mouriz’s fire and passion but for Middleton’s word painting with the piano part. Liszt was borderline-obsessed with the sonnets, complementing his two vocal settings of the trio with powerfully descriptive pieces for the piano. The vocal line is highly charged in all three songs, and strongly Italian in musical flavour as well as language. Sonetto 104, Pace non trovo (I find no peace) surged forward turbulently in the piano part, a restlessness matched by Mouriz’s outpouring (from 10:31).

The Sonetto 47, Benedetto sia ‘I giorno (Blessed be the day) was notable for ‘the sighs and tears, the longing’ found by Mouriz at 20:07, while the final Sonetto 123 I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi (I beheld on earth angelic grace) was beautifully sung (from 23:10), Mouriz mastering the wide ranges and dynamics Liszt asks for. Middleton’s decorative piano part was brilliantly done too.

After this we had the relatively rare chance to appreciate the songwriting guile of Henri Duparc, a French composer whose life was tragically cut short due to neurasthenia. He left just thirteen published songs, of which La vie antérieure is an expansive example. It began optimistically (30:13) but turned rather sour towards the end, this performance carefully paced and given impressive detail by Middleton.

Hahn’s Tyndaris offered more optimism after the Duparc (from 34:35) while Ravel’s Kaddisch, from his Deux melodies hebraïques, had a powerful declamation that Mouriz used to take over the hall (36:15).

Finally the Spanish mezzo-soprano was completely on home turf for Falla’s brilliantly written songs, a whole wealth of different characters and emotions coming out in this performance (from 42:22).

We had the famous Seguidilla murciana (43:00) where ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’, the mournful Asturiana (45:10), a brisk Jota (47:58), a soft Nana (Lullaby) (51:03), a brighter Cancion (52:48) with darker lining and finally the dramatic Polo (53:42), where the piano’s repeated notes appear to describe the stabbing pain in the singer’s heart.

As a richly deserved encore the pair gave a soulful performance of a Spanish funeral song, Let my soul mourn (57:08).

Further listening

The works in today’s concert are on Spotify and can be heard below:

As a contrast, why not try an album of orchestral music by the Spanish composer Turina, featuring at its centre the collection of Poema en forma de canciones:

Meanwhile, you can watch Clara and guitarist Sean Shibe perform Asturiana, from the Falla songs, below:

Wigmore Mondays – Véronique Gens & Susan Manoff in French song

Véronique Gens (soprano, above, © Franck Juery) & Susan Manoff (piano, below)

Hahn Néère; Trois jours de vendange

Duparc Chanson triste; Romance de Mignon

Chausson Le Charme; Les Papillons; Hébé

Hahn Quand je fus pris au pavillon; Le Rossignol des lilas; A Chloris

Chausson Le Chanson bien douce; Le Temps des lilas

Hahn Études latines – Lydé; Tyndaris; Pholoé; Phyllis; Le Printemps

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 May, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This Wigmore Hall concert proved an ideal opportunity for listeners to venture off the beaten track in the richly rewarding world of French art song. It also seemed doubly appropriate in the wake of the presidential election the previous day that Véronique Gens should be on hand, for she is one of the best French singers around. In Susan Manoff she had a more than able partner to match her every move, and the two based their program on a recent Gramophone award-winning recital disc.

The concert was bookended by songs from Reynaldo Hahn, including excerpts from his Études latines. The serious Néère (from 4:02 on the broadcast) searched for a lost love, Gens a yearning presence, but Trois jours de vendange (Three days of vintaging) was a bigger celebration.

Attention turned to Henri Duparc, whose incredibly small musical output is led by his fine songs. Few are better than Chanson triste (11:01), which was powerfully delivered by Gens, set in the moonlight portrayed so vividly by Manoff’s piano. Romance de Mignon (14:00) offered a little more daylight, another passionate utterance in thrall to his hero Wagner.

It was a short stylistic shift to the songs of Ernest Chausson, Gens choosing a really wonderful selection that should be far better known. The partnership with Manoff was at its best here, the piano fluttering relentlessly in Les papillons (21:35) without settling, while Gens’ playful lines danced above. Le charme (20:00) and Hébé (23:05), two other songs from the same early set, were equally winsome. These were balanced by three more Hahn songs, and while the perky Quand je fus pris au pavillon (25:52) and melodious nightingale (Le rossignol des lilas, 27:15) were nicely done they were always going to be in the shadow of Á Chloris (29:17), its imitation of a Bach aria absolutely on the money in this performance.

Two more Chausson songs followed – the urgent Le Chanson bien douce (32:30) and softly majestic Le Temps des lilas (35:14) – and then we moved on to a quintet of Hahn works to finish. Four of these were from the Études latines (from 41:02), while Le Printemps (The Spring) literally flung wide the doors of the hall at (49:41). The quartet of studies were lyrically quite amusing while musically thoughtful, often finding the singer in a rather dishevelled state – especially the thoughtful Pholoé (45:19) and Phyllis (46:46). The closing Le Printemps celebrated the season which until now seems rather reluctant to arrive in the UK!

A generous selection of encores completed a memorable recital. We were treated to Les roses d’Ispahan, a lovely song by Gabriel Fauré (52:20), then an Offenbach song Le Corbeau et le Renard (56:20), and finally PoulencLes Chemins de l’amour (The pathways of love) (59:28)

Further listening

You can hear the album Gens and Manoff made with much of this material on Spotify:

For further French song listening, bringing in the worlds of Debussy and Fauré, try this wonderful selection with pianist Roger Vignoles: