In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: Beethoven & Schumann string quartets

Schumann String Quartet no.3 in A major, Op.41 No. 3 (1842)
Beethoven
String Quartet no.11 in F minor, Op.95 ‘Serioso’ (1810-11)

CBSO Soloists [Jonathan Martindale and Stefano Mengoli (violins), Christopher Yates (viola), Helen Edgar (cello)]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 6 May 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Centre Stage series, featuring members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, continued this afternoon with a coupling of string quartets which, written just three decades apart, could hardly be more contrasted in terms of their aesthetic stance or emotional impact.

It made sense to reverse the advertised playing order. Schumann’s Third Quartet may be the last of his trilogy, but the initial movement is an ideal means of ushering in any programme – its gentle introduction then ruminative Allegro segueing with an unforced eloquence amply conveyed by these players. Most impressive was the ensuing scherzo – its variations on an agitated theme maintaining impetus right through to the restive closing bars. In his opening remarks, Jonathan Martindale spoke of the anguish beneath this music’s seeming sanguinity as is confirmed by those stealthy episodes that twice disrupt the Adagio’s repose before its main ideas find uneasy accord. No such issue affects the final Allegro, its rhythmic dexterity faltering a little but its determined progress towards an affirmative outcome never in doubt.

Whereas Schumann’s quartet typifies the mid-Romantic zeitgeist, Beethoven’s Serioso finds the latter composer’s late-Classicism at its most provocative – not least in terms of a formal concentration that barely exceeds 20 minutes. The present account underlined this in a lithe take on the opening Allegro which exuded a volatility such as (rightly) carried over into the next movement – its Allegretto marking indicative of a restlessness made more poignant by the extended coda’s burgeoning lyricism. Yet, as the ambiguous final cadence attests, there can be no let-up with a scherzo whose ‘serioso’ marking reinforces this as music-making in earnest. Its tense angularity is hardly less evident in the lurching progress of a finale whose breezily nonchalant conclusion is as unexpected as it was vividly realized on this occasion.

An arresting and persuasive juxtaposition which will hopefully be evident (if a little less starkly) in the next Centre Stage concert just over a month from now, when several of this afternoon’s players reassemble for early chamber works by Vaughan Williams and Fauré.

You can find further information on CBSO Centre Stage concerts on the CBSO website

In concert – Sandrine Piau & David Kadouch @ Wigmore Hall – Journeys: Longing and Leaving

Sandrine Piau (soprano), David Kadouch (piano)

Schubert Mignon (Kennst du das Land) D321 (1815), Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister D877: Heiss mich nicht reden; Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (1826)
Clara Schumann Er ist gekommen Op. 12 No. 1 (1841); Sie liebten sich beide Op. 13 No. 2 (1842); Lorelei (1843)
Robert Schumann Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister Op. 98a: Kennst du das Land (1849)
Duparc La vie antérieure (1884); L’invitation au voyage (1870)
Lili Boulanger Clairières dans le ciel (1913-14): Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve; Je garde une médaille d’elle; Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme
Debussy Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917); 5 poèmes de Baudelaire (1890): Le jet d’eau; Recueillement; La mort des amants

Wigmore Hall, London, 17 January 2022

reviewed by Ben Hogwood from the online broadcast

It was heartening indeed to see the Wigmore Hall at capacity for the visit of soprano Sandrine Piau and pianist David Kadouch, bringing with them a new program with the theme of Journeys: Longing and Leaving.

They delivered the songs in two ‘halves’, one of German Lieder drawn  from the first half of the 19th century, the other of French song from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, giving us a smooth trajectory from Schubert to Debussy.

Refreshingly the journey took in substantial contributions from Clara Schumann and Lili Boulanger, three songs from each – as well as showing the increasing influence of Wagner on even the smallest forms of vocal music as the century turned.

Singing from a tablet, Sandrine Piau gave heartfelt performances and had the ideal foil in David Kadouch, whose brushstrokes on the piano were immediately telling. His chilly introduction to the third song in the Schubert group, Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, set the tone after a characterful first song and a sorrowful second, with a soaring vocal line from the soprano. Piau sang with arms outstretched, expressively capturing all the ornamentation and hitting the depths of the song’s turbulent middle section.

The Clara Schumann selection was fascinating, especially given the context of husband Robert’s well-known productivity in the years 1841-1843. The urgent Er ist gekommen was first, a heady song sitting high in the range, before a setting of Heine from just after Schumann’s celebrated year of song, a yearning and ultimately tragic number with a limpid commentary from the piano. The Loreley started in the same key, pushing restlessly forward. The only Schumann song in the program retained its intensity despite a noisy mobile phone introduction, a very different setting to the same text as tackled by Schubert at the start.

Turning to France, we heard two from the small output of Henri Duparc, whose entire output barely covers the length of a single concert. There is quality rather than quantity, however, and we heard the celebrated L’invitation au voyage, sumptuously performed with great poise. The two found the ideal pacing for La vie antérieure before it, solemn but quite open, and building to a powerful declamation.

Lili Boulanger wrote powerfully original music before her tragic death at the age of 24. Her orchestral tone poems have received greater exposure of late but the songs have remained relatively hidden. Piau and Kadouch put that to rights with three songs drawn from the wartime collection Clairières dans le ciel. They found an ominous tone in the lower vocal register from Piau, all the more so given the retrospective knowledge that Boulanger would only live for another three years from when the songs were written. The pained complexion at the end of Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve from Piau was profoundly affecting, then a slightly more optimistic Je garde une médaille d’elle led to the purity of Vous m’avez regardé avec toute votre âme.

Finally a selection from Debussy, prefaced by his final published piano piece Les soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon. This was a nice touch as an interlude, and was beautifully played. by Kadouch, We then heard three of the five Baudelaire poèmes, beginning with a babbling fountain shaded by Kadouch as Piau’s voice floated easily above. Recueillement (Meditation) found stillness initially but with the poet, distracted by darker thoughts, was mirrored by the music breaking from its reverie. Piau judged the awkward intervals perfectly, especially the final words with their harmonic transformation. The ultimate farewell was saved for last, La mort des amants quite a complex song. As with much early Debussy the harmonies travelled far but arrived at a strangely logical end point, both performers exhibiting exceptional control at journey’s end.

Piau spoke of the program giving ‘therapy after these two long years’, after which Beau Soir – one of Debussy’s celebrated songs – proved the ideal encore, though as the soprano warned, it was essentially saying, “Look at these beautiful things, because everybody goes in the same direction – death!”

Watch and listen

In concert – Aris Quartet play Schulhoff, Kurtág & Mendelssohn @ Wigmore Hall

Aris 5

Schulhoff 5 Pieces for String Quartet (1924)
Kurtág Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky Op.28 (1988-9)
Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 3 in D major Op.44/1 (1838)

Aris Quartet (above, photograph (c) Sophie Walter) [Anna Katharina Wildermuth, Noémi Zipperling (violins), Caspar Vinzens (viola), Lukas Sieber (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 October 2021, 1pm

Written by Ben Hogwood (reviewed live from online stream below)

The Aris Quartet are part of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, and this was their first appearance at the Wigmore Hall. They presented themselves as a lively ensemble who clearly enjoy their music, and they played with sensitivity and panache

Also revealed was a strong instinct for programming. Schulhoff’s 5 Pieces for String Quartet are beginning to make themselves known more in the concert hall, presenting as they do a number of sides of this unique musical personality. The Czech composer was arrested in Prague before he could be issued with a visa to emigrate to Moscow in the Second World War, and died at the Wülzburg concentration camp at the age of 48. His music is still relatively young in its exposure because of this, only really coming through in the 1990s. Initial criticism from those sceptical at his integration of jazz and dance forms is giving way to more outright respect, and – as could be seen here – the 5 Pieces make a great start to a concert.

The Aris Quartet gave a vibrant account of the first movement, marked Alla Valse viennese, but soon a chill was forming as the Alla Serenata progressed, its ghostly presence reminiscent of early Shostakovich. The muted instruments danced over a distracted drone from the cello before biting hard in a sequence that was almost anti-lyrical. There was an impressive cut and thrust to the Alla Czeca, bringing out the composer’s heritage, then an attractive sway to the Alla Tango milonga, beautifully played but with an unexpectedly ominous finish. Finally the buzz of the lively Alla Tarantella set a strong unison violin melody against brisk viola and cello.

Officium breve by György Kurtág was next, a requiem to fellow Hungarian composer Andreae Szervánszky. By his standards it is a lengthy piece indeed, but with 15 sections in barely 12 minutes it was packed with compressed melodies of great intensity. Kurtág is a master in obtaining deep expression from the shortest of phrases, achieving this through carefully pointed melodies and highly imaginative quartet textures. Such a thorough knowledge of string quartet capabilities informs the many sides of grief felt here, and the Aris Quartet reveled in the nuances of the piece. The gripping account took hold from the distracted opening, where cellist Lukas Sieber effectively set out the pitches of the open strings of hit instrument, to savage chords wrought with pure anger later on. The composer’s use of microtones was deeply expressive, as were the ‘double stopping’ passages, the quartet playing as one instrument with eight or more voices. It was a moving and mind-expanding performance.

A wholesale change of mood took us to Mendelssohn, and the joyous outpouring of the first in his trio of quartets published as Op.44. Anna Katharina Wildermuth’s songful first violin was key here, but so were the quartet textures, with lots going on but impressive clarity to reveal the dialogue between the instruments. This was a lovely, fluid performance, with a sunny first movement giving way to a less excitable but equally persuasive Menuetto, showing off its rhythms and soft-hearted theme. Feelings ran deep in the slow movement, especially in the minor key episode, where Wildermuth probed deeper with her phrasing. The finale recaptured the mood of the first movement, good spirits bubbling over to cap an affectionate and energetic performance.

It was great to see an ensemble playing as one with such obvious enthusiasm and commitment for the music, and based on this evidence the Aris Quartet have a bright future indeed. Watch the concert stream and see for yourself!

You can also listen to the repertoire from the Aris Quartet’s concert on this Spotify playlist:

For more information on the Aris Quartet visit their website

Talking Heads: Christian Gerhaher

christian-gerhaher-ABasta-for-Sony-BMG_5782_02

Interview with Ben Hogwood

Arcana is fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to talk with Christian Gerhaher. The German baritone has been singing in Salzburg with friends when we speak. It is the morning after, and in spite of a gruelling concert including major song cycles by Berlioz and Schoeck, he sounds invigorated on the other end of the telephone. “It was a very difficult program, but with some fantastic works”, he enthuses. “We did a new string sextet version of the Berlioz cycle Les nuits d’été, arranged by David Matthews, which was really wonderful. I was performing with the best musicians imaginable – Isabelle Faust, Anna Katharina Schreiber, Danusha Waskiewicz, Antoine Tamestit, Jean-Guihen Queyras and Christian Poltéra.

The composer bringing us together for this conversation, however, is Robert Schumann. Together with his long-term musical partner, pianist Gerold Huber, Gerhaher has completed a mammoth project recording the composer’s songs (or ‘Lieder’) for voice and piano. The result is an 11-CD set released this month by Sony Classical, the culmination of many years’ hard work and dedication. Christian receives my congratulations on the pair’s achievement with characteristic warmth. “Thank you very much. Yesterday I got the box, and it was touching because we have worked for such a long time, and so intensely, to achieve this!”

Gerhaher is an engaging interviewee, generous with his answers. We begin by casting his mind back to see if he can recall his very first encounter with the Lieder of Schumann? “Yes – it was a recital by the baritone Hermann Prey. He was performing Dichterliebe, and the Kerner songs. I was especially touched by Dichterliebe, which was a kind of upbeat for my work with Gerold in the Lieder repertoire.”

What was it about the composer’s music that drew him in? “Schumann is very well known now, with titles like Dichterliebe or the Eichendorff cycle, the Heine cycle Liederkreis Op.24, and the Kerner songs, maybe Myrthen, the Op.25”, he recounts, “but I discovered that there are so many songs, 299 in all! I got so completely involved in Schumann singing. I was always addicted to his piano music when I was young, but then I found out that every song, when Gerold and I did them for the first time, was amazing and so full of possible meaning. It would have been so sad to leave these songs undiscovered. We make our repertoire bigger and bigger, if possible, but then came this opportunity of recording, and we thought it was the perfect way to get to know Schumann as well as possible. I must say apart from one or two songs I love them all. I can’t say there is one weak song. In the first ‘Liederjahr’ (Schumann’s first ‘Year of Song’) in 1840, where he happened to deliver 140 masterworks from nothing, there is no song there that is boring, bad or strange. It’s just incredible what a pianist like him could deliver out of no development, from the beginning it was perfect. The 1850 songs are the same. It’s amazing.”

His wonder at Schumann is only enhanced by these lesser-known songs, and our conversation alights on the set of six Gesänge published as Op.107, an intimate and emotional set. “They are”, he agrees. “What I thought quite early on with Gerold is that there is a cyclic idea behind each of Schumann’s opus numbers. Altogether there are 45 separate lieder opuses. Two of them are complete opuses with one song only (Der Handschuh and Belsatzar) but the rest are cycles. We had a very interesting idea concerning these cycles, which is that the form of each is always different. You have so many different ways of completing a song cycle, in the narrative. You have the Kerner songs, and you have the fantastic wedding gift of Myrthen, which speaks for itself as a song cycle, but there are also cycles which are conceived just for one work. The four books of Myrthen always end with two songs by the same poet, like two people standing together at the end of a book – a loving couple.”

He finds another example. “You also have the Op.83, which is an opus reflecting the number ‘3’. There are three songs, and the last song for example, which is a perfect strophic song, is reflecting the trinity of God. You have the three forms of songs – a strophic strong, a very strophic song, and a through composed song, which is the first one. Then you have the number three in people – a loving couple who decide to have a child in the middle of no.2. These go on and on, it is astonishing.”

Gerhaher’s partnership with Gerold Huber (above) exists on wholly equal terms. “Certainly, it is never a case of piano accompaniment. Gerold is a ‘Lied pianist’, not an accompanist. For me it is one of the major achievements of my life, like having a wife that I love, to have Gerold as my best friend. We have been working together for 33 years now!”

It must have been special for the two embarking on this particular voyage of discovery together. “Yes. It was demanding, though,” he says with understatement, “and you have to decide which songs you would add to the recording and those where you think do not match what you were expecting to record. When we had to choose other singers to do the work you can’t do yourself it was really a big mountain to climb, but it was one of the major achievements of my life.”

The guest singers tend to appear on the songs where more than one vocalist is required, or where the range goes beyond that of a baritone. How were they chosen? “By sympathy and by professional admiration,” he says, “but what I like very much is not to choose singers for a quartet or trio that have very similar voices. That is a very important thing to think about, getting the ensemble right. I like to have very different voices, like a light tenor or a soprano, and an alto which is darker. Having different voices is very important in an ensemble because the identity of a voice and person with a sung role is important, to keep this identity as strong as possible. It vanishes in comparison with a solo song, but I did not want a perfect unity in the quartet songs.”

When preparing their interpretations, Gerhaher was mindful of the lives of the poets whose text Schumann was setting. “Yes, certainly”, he says warmly. “How could I not be? Some of the poets are quite unknown, so it was a curiosity that led to nothing because the information did not always give me any advantage. The other thing is that Schumann as an artist didn’t, in my eyes, try to perfectly match the possible meaning of the text he was putting into music. That means he never tries to understand a poem entirely, in the way of noting down the certain meaning. I understand literary lyricism as an open field of thoughts and associations which are not strictly written. There are many possible meanings coming together and not being nailed down with a solution. This is what Schumann does, and he even adds something to the lyricism by obliterating some possible meanings, or bending the meaning of a poem to make it more complicated than it is. He does this not only by putting a poem into music but sometimes by combining poems into his cycles, as combinations which have no relation to each other.”

He gives an example. “In the Op.96 the second song, called Schneeglöckchen, is about one of the first flowers coming out after winter. They are tiny, white flowers, with a small green line on the end of the blossoms. The song is about a winter storm coming in and saying to the Schneeglöckchen, ‘Look, you have to vanish – the storm is coming, and you can’t survive here. The song says, you have such a strange uniform, white with this green strip. The poet is anonymous, and you don’t really know what the whole song is about – it’s a total mystery.” He has a solution. “It’s not about springtime, or the end of winter, but I thought about the colours of the flower in uniforms of old soldiers. I found one uniform of a Hanover group of soldiers, fighting alongside England in the seven-year war of the 1750s. There was one battle in the East of Germany where the Austrians were pushing them away from south to north. They had to flee, and I assume there was a soldier, one of them wounded, and they told him ‘Come with us, we can’t stay here’. He couldn’t, because he was wounded, and was like this strange Schneeglöckchen which couldn’t flee to the north. Why should a Schneeglöckchen flee to the north? If anything it should flee to the south. It’s so complicated, so strange, and so full of mystery and even nonsense. This is what I love with Schumann’s songs and understanding of poetry. He doesn’t deliver a solution – he makes it complicated.”

Gerhaher is a compelling speaker. With Schumann’s music so wholly absorbed in his own consciousness, does he think the approach he described appeals to audiences? “Yes, though you can’t always explain the complications by words, or even explain the meaning. You just show them how complicated music, art and poetry is. There’s nothing to be understood easily in coming to one meaning, like in opera maybe. It’s not a concrete art, it is more abstract.”

He trained with one of the greatest Lieder singers of them all, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This great German baritone recorded much of Schumann’s Lieder output for Deutsche Grammophon, though Gerhaher did not spend too much time listening to his mentor’s interpretations. “Certainly I had some different ideas. He was on one hand my hero, but our purpose was different. The cyclic intention of Schumann is what we think is important to us. Dietrich was taking songs out of opuses that he thought he could sing well, and others he neglected, which is against the cyclic idea. On the other hand, we don’t want to give the impression that we are right, it’s just our idea of how to perform them.”

He cites another set of the complete songs, curated by Graham Johnson for Hyperion. “He did the entire songs, but he was choosing different singers for song cycles. For my eyes I would rather cast them with one singer to keep the identity of thought. We have our own ideas, and I think they are important to ourselves, not to the truth as such.”

As they recorded more of Schumann’s work, how did their feelings towards the composer develop – and in particular the struggles he experienced with his mental health? “Schumann was always in my eyes a perfect artist, or the image of an artist. An idea which I got later on is that you have these two different groups of songs – the songs with one person singing, and the songs with different people singing. I think the illusion of a voice representing the lyrical ego of singing a song, which is an illusion of a story going on, on a stage, that is easily understood by everyone as an illusion, this disappears immediately when several people are singing together. The singularity of one fabric is vanishing, so you have two different possibilities of song. You have the songs I recorded and sing for one person, which are in Schumann’s case representing his world of emotion, his difficult world of depression where he was getting sicker and sicker. The other world, with these many people singing together, has a very special sweetness sometimes – you could say it’s on the border of being kitschy. This made me think of Schumann conceiving these song cycles as a perfect and unproblematic world which he doesn’t live in, but which he wishes for himself. It’s two layers of life, very differently handled by him. This is my idea, I can’t prove it!”

In Christian’s view, what are the qualities required to be a successful Schumann singer? “I would say everyone can do it as they want, as they feel. Certainly for me, being a good singer with my own purposes would mean to have a lot of colour. This is the advantage of singing alone as opposed to other people at the same time. The other thing is the pronunciation of the German language in Schumann songs is especially important. I would say all these layers of colour add to the occasion, to the author as a kind of painting with many colours. You can only deliver them if the pronunciation, as a first instance of colourisation, is done in a perfect way. That means the pronunciation and the understanding of sung words in German is very much depending on the right vowel.”

Finally, as Gerhaher moves towards his next interview, what are his favourite instrumental pieces by our chosen composer? “I admire EVERYTHING by Schumann,” he says warmly, “but there are some pieces without which I can’t imagine a meaningful life: Szenen aus Goethes Faust, the Violin Concerto, and of course the piano works. I think especially of the Symphonische Etüden, Kinderszenen, Waldszenen, Intermezzi, 7 Clavierstücke in Fughettenform, Gesänge der Frühe, and the Geistervariationen.” With that he moves on – leaving us with a remarkable legacy of Lieder recordings to enjoy.

Alle Lieder, the box set of Schumann’s complete songs, is out now on Sony Classical – and you can listen to any of the 299 songs on Spotify here:

You can also watch Christian Gerhaher singing his Salzburg program of Berlioz and Schoeck in this concert stream from the Wigmore Hall in London, which also includes a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht: