Nash Ensemble – German Romantics II: Brahms, Mendelssohn & Schumann

Nash Ensemble: Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), Lawrence Power, Timothy Ridout (violas), Adrian Brendel (cello), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford, Marie Lloyd (clarinets), Ursula Leveaux (bassoon), Richard Watkins (horn) / Martyn Brabbins (conductor, Brahms Serenade)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2018 7.30pm

Schumann Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (1853)
Brahms String Quintet no.2 in G major Op.111 (1890)
Mendelssohn Song Without Words in D major Op.109 (1845)
Brahms, reconstructed Alan Boustead Serenade no.1 in D major Op.11 (1857/58)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The second of the day’s concerts in the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall presented some of the finest 19th century chamber music to come from the country, picking up where the earlier concert of music by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn left off.

We began with late Robert Schumann, his Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (Fairy Tales), written for the appealing combination of clarinet, viola and piano that Mozart had pioneered in his own Kegelstatt trio of 1786. Schumann’s approach was formally less rigid, preferring to give his trio a quartet of character pieces, unlabelled in meaning but clear in tempo. Richard Hosford, Lawrence Power and Ian Brown were the perfect foil for these pieces, where the second especially stood out for its questioning harmony. The first and third pieces were songlike and romantic, while the fourth felt like one of Schumann’s celebrations of life itself. It is difficult to imagine a better performance than this one, the beauty of tone from clarinet and viola in particular a joy.

BrahmsString Quintet no.2, his last of seven chamber works for strings, is if anything even more positive and life affirming. While writing the piece in 1890 Brahms thought it would be his last work altogether, before going on to enjoy an unexpected Indian summer thanks to the inspiration of clarinettist Richard Mühlfield. The opening bars of the quintet are some of the very best in chamber music, and the tricky theme here was tackled heroically by cellist Adrian Brendel, the melody rising through the heady accompaniment of the others. The second theme of this movement was beautifully and soulfully rendered, setting the tone in the process for the second movement, an Adagio of heartfelt and profound utterance. The third movement, a silvery Intermezzo, was light on its feet while the finale recaptured the positive spirits of the first movement and pressed forward with impressive urgency. The Nash played brilliantly, communicating Brahms’ congested textures with apparent ease and enjoying the exchanges of ideas right to the end.

The second half of the concert, given to a packed Wigmore Hall, began with one of Mendelssohn’s most enjoyable trifles. His last work for cello and piano, the Song Without Words has at its heart a wonderful tune, which Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown clearly enjoyed. Brendel’s tone and forcefulness in the contrasting middle section were ideal.

This made an ideal prelude for early Brahms, the Serenade no.1. This wonderfully positive piece is usually heard in orchestral form, but here we heard Alan Boustead’s recreation of the original instrumentation of the piece, for nine solo instruments. With the combination of flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, we were taken into the sound world of Beethoven’s Septet, written for a similar combination. Musically we were not far off either, and Martyn Brabbins joined the Nash Ensemble to conduct a highly spirited performance. Richard Watkins’ horn was the star of the show, projecting Brahms’s outdoorsy tunes with rustic charm, but in reality all nine players were superb, enjoying the relative lightness of texture and abundance of melody. The slow movement was placed second – not third, as the program said it would be – but this was an effective placement with some gorgeous textures. While this music was more thoughtful the Minuets and Scherzo returned us to the open air, while the Finale positively threw open the shutters for another winsome horn tune. This was Brahms at his most carefree, and Brabbins ensured the Nash Ensemble were too.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall visit their website

Further listening

The below Spotify playlist compiles the music used in both of the evening’s German Romantics series from the Nash Ensemble, using their recordings where possible:

In concert – Alberto Portugheis: My Favourite Schumann

Alberto Portugheis (piano)

Schumann
Papillons Op.2 (1831)
Toccata in C major Op.7 (1836)
Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1839)

St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London
Friday 11 January 2019

Review by Ben Hogwood

What do you want to be doing at the age of 78? A strange question with which to begin a concert review, you might think, but have a think about your answer before reading on. If you are blessed with the faculties of Argentinian pianist Alberto Portugheis, you will be able to give a recital of Schumann in a central London church, a free concert with which you can illustrate your clear love of music.

There is a steady twinkle in the eyes of this particular pianist, which was clear as he modestly took the applause for three of his favourite pieces by one of the piano’s very best 19th century composers. He began with the early Papillons Op.2, a collection of postcard-sized illustrations full of melody and character completed in Schumann’s twentieth year. Its main theme is a Chopinesque waltz, which Portugheis played with clear affection, before the music goes on to pay clearer homage to Schubert. The ear took a while to adjust to the relatively reverberant acoustic of the church, but the phrasing was clear. Perhaps inevitably there were some technical issues with the most congested and loudest writing, the pianist occasionally missing his octaves and higher notes, but the level of expression invested in the playing more than compensated for this. The final moments, the Grandfathers’ Dance – where Schumann combines the end of the dance with the chimes of six o’clock in the morning – were magical, Portugheis fading the dynamic with beautiful control.

The Toccata in C major Op.7 was next, a very busy piece whose relentless, motoric figuration stayed throughout – and eventually provided great inspiration to a young Prokofiev for his own Toccata of 1912. Some of the detail of Portugheis’s figuration was lost in the bigger acoustic of St James’s but the energy and drive were beyond doubt, with a lovely articulation of the softer second idea.

Finally there was a relatively rare chance to enjoy Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (Carnival Scenes from Vienna), begun by the composer in the Austrian capital in 1839. In formal terms it is a lopsided work, with a first piece that lasts almost the same length of time as the next four combined, but its characterisation of the busy festival season is vivid and fulsome. The refrain of the first piece (simply marked Allegro) becomes something of an earworm, and Portugheis clearly enjoyed its reappearances, but he was careful to characterise each slight diversion and also stressed the dissonances towards the end.

The sombre Romance followed, then a playful Scherzino, where you could almost feel the nudge in the ribs, before a deeply felt Intermezzo. The Finale has a torrent of notes which presented a much greater challenge, but while he may have struggled a little more obviously Portugheis met these head on, the twinkle in the eye visible once again. Such an approach is ideal for Schumann’s character pieces, and these carnival pranks were very much enjoyed as a result. Happy birthday Alberto…if we’re half as lively as you at the age of 78 we will have done well indeed!

For more information on the St James’s Church lunchtime recital series, visit their website

Further listening

Alberto Portugheis has not committed any Schumann to record, but you can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Wigmore Mondays – Alexander Gavrylyuk plays Prokofiev, Mozart & Rachmaninov

Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano)

Mozart Piano Sonata in C major K330 (c1783) (1:56-20:20 on the broadcast link below)
Rachmaninov Preludes: in G flat major Op.23/10 (1903), in G minor Op.23/5 (1903), in G sharp minor Op.32/12 (1910) (22:04-32:25)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1942) (34:12-51:06)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 7 January 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

On his website, Ukrainian-Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk makes the profound statement that ‘not many things in this world can unite people – no form of diplomacy could ever do that. I think that music comes the furthest in revealing that perhaps on a deeper level we are all quite similar’.

The quote is especially instructive given the work with which Gavrylyuk ended this concert, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7. Yet in these uncertain times his words are appropriate to any musical experience. Few have the purity of his Mozart, an account of the Piano Sonata in C major K330, the composer’s tenth published work in the form which was written just after he moved to Vienna. Published in his late twenties, it is very much a ‘white’ work – as in, written in the key whose scale uses all the white notes on the keyboard.

Yet, as a listen to this performance (from 1:56 on the broadcast link) will show, Mozart enjoys a good deal of chromatic movement, using the black notes to add considerable spice and intrigue to what initially seems like an extremely polite piece. Gavrylyuk plays with poise and elegance, enjoying the composer’s good manners but equally thriving on the diversions as they get more pronounced.

The slow movement (from 8:59) reveals much more of these tendencies, especially in its central minor key episode, a deeply personal piece of writing with tragic overtones (from 11:28). It casts a shadow from which the whole movement takes a while to recover, even when moving back into the safer intimacy of the major key (13:38). With a cutesy flourish the finale (15:22) returns us to happier music making, and seems to take on the influence of Scarlatti while looking forward to early Beethoven. Again Mozart enjoys more exotic melodies than the key suggests, keeping wit and positivity to the fore.

Rachmaninov’s big early success as a composer came through the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, its declamation a big hit with audiences. From this he was inspired to write 24 Preludes, one in each key, published in two subsequent books of 13 and 10 works respectively. The three heard here are fine pieces in their own right, beginning with the relatively confidential Prelude in G flat major Op.23/10 (22:04). This leads to the raw power of the Prelude in G minor Op.23/5 (25:24), one of Rachmaninov’s best-loved piano pieces, which builds into a march of real substance in Gavrylyuk’s performance. The Prelude In G sharp minor Op.32/12 (29:40) is an intriguing work, its bell-like sonorities hinting at the influence of the East and leaving quite an impression in this performance.

The reason Gavrylyuk’s statement is so pertinent to Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7 is because the piece was written – as with so many Soviet pieces of its era – on two levels. Its crowd-facing elements were to please Stalin, to ensure Prokofiev stayed in his favour with works that left his audience in an ultimately positive frame of mind. How could they be otherwise, given the ferocity of the final movement? And yet the private elements are there for all who listen closely, for this is the central of Prokofiev’s three ‘War Sonatas’, completed in 1939. The first movement may be loud and brash (from 34:12) but it also has music of barely concealed turmoil, revealed clearly in the second theme two minutes later, where the virtuosity is completely absent.

Prokofiev is one of the most percussive of earlier 20th century composers for the piano, alongside Bartók and Stravinsky, and as the first movement proceeds there is an impressive rhythmic drive. All that is removed for the profound slow movement, however (42:11), where he quotes from Wehmut (Sadness), part of Schumann‘s Op.39 cycle Liederkreis, another private clue to his predicament.

In this performance Gavrylyuk has the sonata’s measure to a tee, investing a lot of feeling in the slower music while seemingly using the louder moments to banish evil from his sight. The last movement (47:57) is thrill-a-second, the repeated three note motif in the left hand taking over and driving to a hugely impressive finish, by which time the pianist was so far back he was almost horizontal!

Appropriately we had calming Schumann for an encore, providing a consoling link to the slow movement of the Prokofiev. This was Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) from his 1838 collection Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) Op.15 (52:28).

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Alexander Gavrylyuk’s own recording of the Prokofiev:

The recording of the Prokofiev is part of an intriguing recital disc released in 2011, which includes works by fellow Russian composers Rachmaninov (his underrated Moments Musicaux Op.16) and Scriabin (his Piano Sonata no.5):

Meanwhile to further explore the Prokofiev piano sonatas, Denis Kozhukhin is an excellent guide. This album contains the other two sonatas in the so-called ‘war trilogy’ of works:

The Favourite Soundtrack – listen here

Happy New Year!

One of the most hotly anticipated film releases of this New Year 2019 is The Favourite. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, supported by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as part of a starry cast to tell a tragi-comic tale around the life of the 18th century English monarch.

The score of this colourful, moving and often hilarious film is full to the brim with classical music – so as the release of the official soundtrack is a few weeks away, here is a playlist of the musical numbers. From Purcell‘s incredibly moving Music For A While to Messiaen‘s thundering Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts suffering) by way of small-scale Schubert and Schumann, it contains some absolute gems!

On record: Vassilis Varvaresos – V for Valse (Aparté)

V for Valse

Vassilis Varvaresos (piano)

Liszt Allegro spiritoso in A major S427/7 (1852), Mephisto Waltz no.1 S514 (1862)
Ravel La Valse (1920)
Rosenthal Carnaval de Vienne (1889)
Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien Op.26 (1838)
Scriabin Waltz in A flat major Op.38 (1903)
Tchaikovsky Valse sentimentale Op.51/6 (1882)

Aparté AP172 [61’31”]

Producer / Engineer Pierre Fenouillat
Recorded 22 & 24 July 2017 by Little Tribeca at Hotel de l’Industrie, Paris

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The first recital disc from Greek pianist Vassilis Varvaresos, winner at the 2016 Enescu Competition, and already heard on Schubert’s Winterreise with Dimitris Tiliakos as well as works for violin and piano by Schumann and Richard Strauss with Noe Inui (both on Navis Classics).

What’s the music like?

In an interesting conceptual ploy, the Valse (Waltz) has been taken as basis for an overview of almost a century’s piano music – during the course of which, keyboard virtuosity veered away from uninhibited display to reinforcing the emotional complexity of the piece at hand.

Varvaresos starts his recital in media res with Liszt‘s First Mephisto Waltz – the touchstone for a virtuosity fused with psychological complexity, rendered here with a combination of technical brilliance and emotional understatement as extends right to the scintillating final bars. The seventh from his Soirées de Vienne, a set of Valses-Caprices after Schubert, finds Liszt in more equable if hardly less resourceful mood, not least in the way he channels his borrowed ideas into a study as subtle formally as it is poetic and affectionate expressively.

A further highlight is Faschingsschwank aus Wien, last of Schumann’s piano cycles from his first full decade of creativity and one which tends to be overlooked in the context of several more innovative predecessors. Its outer movements can run the risk of mindless display, but this is never an issue for Varvaresos, who leavens their boisterousness with almost Classical objectivity. This applies equally to the three central movements, not least a Romanza whose poise and inwardness uncannily anticipate the piano miniatures of its composer’s last years.

Tchaikovsky‘s piano output remains relatively neglected, so it was astute of Varvaresos to include his Valse sentimentale, last in a set of six pieces which point up his indebtedness in this medium to earlier models (notably Schumann), yet whose melodic eloquence is wholly characteristic. Scriabin‘s Waltz in A flat makes for a telling foil, its melody line diffused into a harmonic radiance which blurs the expected tonal focus with teasing playfulness. Here, as throughout this programme, the suppleness of Varvaresos’s pedalling is of the highest order.

Discretion is hardly to be expected of an archetypal virtuoso such as Maurice Rosenthal, yet his Carnaval de Vienne is a riotous humoresque on themes by Johann Strauss II that makes a fittingly uproarious encore (as Varvaresos demonstrated at last year’s Enescu Festival). The virtuosity of Ravel’s La Valse is of an altogether more speculative manner, but this account makes a virtue of such ambiguity as this plays out across a structure audacious in its formal design and unnerving in its emotional follow-through – not least those fateful closing pages.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Varvaresos is evidently among a younger generation of pianists for whom virtuosity is neither to be played up to nor fought shy of; but rather placed at the service of the music in question so its salient qualities can more fully be appreciated and savoured.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The sound is ideal in its realism and immediacy, with Jean-Yves Clement’s fanciful note complemented by a photo which looks rather like a still from an Alain Resnais film. An auspicious release by a pianist from whom much can be expected. V for Varvaresos indeed!

You can read more about this release on the Aparté website, or get more information on Vassilis at his website The full album can be heard on the Spotify playlist below: