In concert – Steven Isserlis & Mishka Rushdie Momen @ Wigmore Hall

It must have been extremely special for Steven Isserlis to be playing the music of three of his favourite composers at the Wigmore Hall on this day – even more so as the date fell on the birthday of one of them, Robert Schumann.

He is one of the cellist’s greatest musical loves, and the sense persists that Isserlis is still discovering more things that make it so. One of Schumann’s many strengths is the versatility of his music, meaning pieces such as the 3 Romances Op.94, originally written for oboe and piano and given to his wife Clara as a Christmas present in 1849, can easily be performed with violin or, indeed, the cello.

Schumann’s birthday was marked by a performance of unaffected romantic beauty from Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, very much on an equal footing playing the composer’s first instrument. The pair caught the doleful and slightly inquiring nature of the first romance beautifully, while the surge of feeling in the central music of the second was a strong cumulative wave. The third, its theme given in a darker shade, was briefly introspective in its unison phrases but then more overtly passionate.

Before Schumann came another ‘birthday’ composer. Beethoven’s 250th is not likely to receive quite so much live coverage as it would have done in a year without a pandemic, but what it lacks in quantity it will surely make up for in quality. The Sonata for piano and cello no.1 in F major, the first of a pair published as the composer’s Op.5, is the ideal concert opener. It begins in slight trepidation of what it is about to discover, but then, on establishing what is effectively a new form of writing for the cello and piano together, throws itself headlong into the rapids.

The Allegro that comes after that first sense of discovery was joyous indeed, with lovely dialogue in play between the two protagonists. Isserlis smiled frequently, as though revelling in the combination of favourite music and venue once again, while Momen’s clear phrasing dovetailed neatly with the cello’s, owning some of the really tricky right hand runs with fearless accuracy.

The second movement had a terrific burst of energy, the sun breaking through at every possible opportunity when its catchy theme made several reappearances. The pair also gave a nice air of mystery when Beethoven suddenly departed from ‘home’ and ended up in a number of seemingly unrelated tonal centres, before reassuring us with the warmth of the home key once again.

As he introduced his favourite 20th century cello sonata, there was a sense of Isserlis’ heart almost bursting with the chance to play music live again. He described his discovery of Fauré’s late music as ‘being outside a door but then passing through and wondering why on earth I had been outside’, before the pair played the Cello Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.108, the first of two such works from the Frenchman.

This was a very fine performance indeed, Isserlis and Momen watchful and urgent at the start, its music wracked with uncertainty but nonetheless pushing forward with great conviction. The Andante slow movement began lost in thought, the bell-like toll of the piano matched by Isserlis’ rich legato tone, before reaching heights of passion that the final movement also delivered, the performers now glorying in the major key and Fauré’s bursts of sunshine, the strong resolve of the first movement bringing its ultimate reward.

The pair finished with a profound account of Isserlis’ own transcription of a Bach chorale prelude, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, in which – as the cellist noted – Bach says it all.

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.

Sound of Mind 10 – Sounds of Spring

If you’ve been indoors for over a week now, the chances are you’ll be climbing the walls!

Happily there are reasons to be cheerful just around the corner – not least the imminent arrival of spring.

Classical music composers have always taken to spring in their music, from Vivaldi through to Stravinsky. This playlist celebrates their portrayals of the season, through works including Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Schumann‘s Spring Symphony, Beethoven, Sibelius and finally Britten.

Have a listen and harness the positive energy our composers can provide!

 

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Alessandro Fisher & Roger Vignoles: Nordic Tales

Alessandro Fischer (tenor, above), Roger Vignoles (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 March 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

With the Coronavirus pandemic now sadly in full swing, this was the last concert at the Wigmore Hall for some time, the venue now on an enforced break until mid-April at the earliest. It served as a reminder of just how lucky we are to be able to experience live music, and how good it is to have concerts such as this preserved on the radio.

This particular concert was a fascinating program of Nordic tales through the eyes of four composers of different nationality. BBC New Generation Artist Alessandro Fisher and the superb, ever-attentive Roger Vignoles cleverly constructed a program focusing on Scandinavia. Yet we saw it not just through the eyes of one of its favourite musical sons (Grieg) but through three others with strong connections – Robert Schumann (Germany), Frederick Delius (England) and Gunnar de Frumerie (Sweden).

Schumann’s 5 Lieder date from 1840, his famed year of song, and came about from his admiration of Hans Christian Andersen’s ability to blend the childlike and the grotesque in his stories. Each of the five songs behaves in a similar way musically. Märzveilchen (The March Violets) (2:32), are aptly timed here, with an appropriately breezy and outdoor air, Fisher’s clear voice adding to the sunny countenance. In Muttertraum (A mother’s dream) (4:10) a shadow falls over the music, drawing longer as the tenor describes the ominous appearance of a raven, all to the accompaniment of a beautifully shaped single line from Vignoles (below).

For Der Soldat (The soldier) (6:56) the muffled drum is vividly described by Schumann – and Vignoles – and Fisher’s voice takes on a declamatory form but reaches stunned silence at the end, when he realises he has killed his man. In Der Spielmann (The fiddler) (9:55), Fisher’s ringing voice tells of celebration but also an untimely death, before the final Verratene Liebe (Betrayed Love) (13:14) This brief song stays in genial mood despite its subject matter.

You can learn a lot about a composer’s output from their songs, and in the case of Grieg his songs reveal the work of a skilled tunesmith and an effortless ability to set a scene in next to no time. The songs here tell of those skills, and Fisher clearly loved performing them. He begins with two early works, the affectionate To brune Øjne (Two brown eyes) (15:50) and yearning Jeg elsker dig (I love you) (16:55).

Grieg’s depiction of En svane (The swan) is held in magical suspension by both Fisher and Vignoles (19:51), its serene progress leading to the flowing song Med en vandlilje (With a waterlily) (22:26). Prinsessen (24:55) has particularly special pleading from Fisher here, the prince’s entreaties to his beloved falling on deaf ears, while Fra Monte Pincio (28:02) has an urgent delivery, thinking of good times ahead.

To Delius, who visited Norway for a number of epic walks across the country, and whose relationship with the country remained close. He was good friends with Grieg, too, so it is perhaps inevitable they should both share common ground as excellent songwriters. The selection here begins with Twilight Fancies (34:40), Roger Vignoles shading the picture with distant horn fanfares and Fisher judging his vibrato ideally. The song sets a translation of the text used by Grieg in Prinsessen, and the different responses of the composers are fascinating in comparison.

Young Venevil (38:32) strains at the leash, impetuous but ultimately unlucky in love. The Nightingale (40:35) is airy and atmospheric, its chromatic movement nicely managed, while Longing (43:24) brings with it a surge of feeling through the flowing piano and Fisher’s ringing tone.

The music of Gunnar de Frumerie is seldom heard, but he is highly regarded among 20th century Swedish composers. The Songs of the Heart cycle features deeply intimate music, its subject matter woven into natural allegory. The six songs begin with the contemplative, almost rapturous When You Close My Eyes (47:58), then the pure You Make Everything Beautiful (50:10), which feels whiter than white. Blessed It Is To Wait (52:36) carries a feeling of impatience despite its title, before the profound From The Depths Of My Soul (54:16). You Are My Aphrodite (57:05) surges forward with great passion and intensity, Fisher’s effectively surfing the turbulent waves of the accompaniment. Finally Like A Wave (58:24) carries a Debussy-like humidity, sultry and ardent.

Repertoire

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

Schumann 5 Lieder Op.40 (1840)
Grieg To brune Øjne Op.5/1, Jeg elsker dig Op.5/3 (1864), En svane Op.25/2, Med en vandlilje Op.25/4 (1876), Prinsessen (1871), Fra Monte Pincio Op.39/1 (1869-84)
Delius From Seven Songs from the Norwegian (1889-90): Twilight Fancies (34:40); Young Venevil (38:32); From Five Songs from the Norwegian (1888): The Nightingale (40:35); Longing (43:24)
de Frumerie Hjärtats sånger (Songs of the Heart) Op.27 (1942, rev. 1976) (47:58)

As an encore, once the Radio 3 microphones had departed, Fisher and Vignoles gave a brilliantly rendered account of Ian VenablesFlying Crooked, a comical but rather accurate portrayal of the flight of a butterfly, in this case a Cabbage White.

Further listening & viewing

Alessandro Fisher has not yet recorded the music given in this concert, but each song is included on the playlist below, in leading versions that include Anne Sofie von Otter’s account of Songs of the Heart:

Grieg’s songs are particularly worthy of further exploration, and these recordings from soprano Claire Booth and pianist Christopher Glynn are a great introduction to his craft:

von Otter meanwhile has recorded a disc of Swedish songs which include the works by Gunnar de Frumerie:

Finally Delius and his Norwegian connection, brilliantly explored in this vocal and orchestral collection from Danacord:

In concert – Sol Gabetta, NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi: Takemitsu, Schumann & Rachmaninov

Sol Gabetta (cello), NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo / Paavo Järvi (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Monday 24 February 2020

Takemitsu How slow the wind (1991)
Schumann Cello Concerto in A minor Op.129 (1850)
Rachmaninov Symphony no.2 in E minor Op.27 (1906-07)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

This Royal Festival Hall concert offered the relatively rare chance to catch the NHK Symphony Orchestra, on a mini-tour from Tokyo in the company of their chief conductor, Paavo Järvi.

As he told Arcana in an interview the previous week, Järvi has been acquainting himself with the music of Toru Takemitsu in recent years, culminating in a recording of his orchestral works with the NHK. One of them, How slow the wind, was a descriptive and colourful way in which to open the concert, presenting a picture of relative calm.

One of Takemitsu’s best qualities is the descriptive power of his music, which is able to capture the elements in a subtle but meaningful way. Rain, earth and air are three you can expect to encounter with particularly vivid results, and the latter was to the fore in this intriguing symphonic poem. As the title suggests, it really was the slowed down movement of air, and was played with attention to detail and affection, painting a picture far away from the Southbank. The influence of Debussy, as outlined by Järvi, was clear, but so too were elements of Ravel and Messiaen, though the percussive colours in which Takemitsu dressed the piece were wholly his own.

Sol Gabetta then took charge of the Schumann Cello Concerto. Clearly this is a piece she loves, and it is gratifying in recent years to see the concerto come into the centre of the instrument’s repertoire. The first movement, dominated by a nagging theme that stays in your head for long after, was a dramatic affair, the cellist seizing the initiative but ensuring Järvi and the relatively small orchestral forces were with her every step of the way. Gabetta’s high register tone was probing, with unerring accuracy in her tuning.

When Schumann moves seamlessly into the slow movement it is like walking into a different, calmer room of the same house, but Gabetta ensured the links throughout were clearly signposted, and her duet with leader of the NHK cellos Ryoichi Fujimori was both sensitive and ideally balanced.

The finale found a bold approach from Gabetta capitalizing on Schumann’s innovative writing, with the written-out cadenza particularly strongly executed before a thoroughly affirmative end. Gabetta capped this with the inclusion of the first movement of VasksGramata cellam as an encore. Gabetta gave this at the first night of the BBC Proms in 2016 and it is no less startling heard once again with its vocalisation.

For the second half it was slow burning Rachmaninov, the NHK smoothly into their stride for the first movement of the Symphony no.2 in E minor. If the moody bass strings at the opening were slightly withdrawn, that gave Järvi plenty to work with as the music unfolded. With the faster tempo came an airy texture as though the sun was shining through outdoors. Once we had glimpsed the brightness it was hard not to let go of it, and the Scherzo, taken at a fastish tempo, glinted at the edges.

Järvi judged the famous Andante just right, indulging in the gorgeous textures but never overdoing it, so that Kei Ito’s clarinet was given the best possible platform to deliver a heartstopping solo. Yet it was in the excited whoops of the finale where this interpretation really delivered, the orchestra stepping up another gear as the music excitedly passed between the instrument groups, percussion adding a sheen to the wonderful wall of sound.

It being Estonian Independence Day, Järvi – while noting the amusement of celebrating the day in London with a Japanese orchestra – gave us a glimpse of summer through Heino Eller’s sunkissed Homeland Tune, from the 5 Pieces for Strings. It was a fitting end to a concert that helpfully reminded us of the approach of spring – and in the process told of classical music’s potential reach. A Japanese orchestra conducted by an Estonian with an Argentinian cellist. What’s not to like about that?!

Further listening

You can listen to a playlist of the programme performed by the NHK Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi. It includes Gabetta’s recording of the Schumann, and leading recordings of the other repertoire (including encores):

For a very fine disc of Heino Eller’s music for string orchestra, this collection from the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Tonu Kaljuste on ECM is just the ticket: