Prom 8 – BBC NoW & Thomas Søndergård: The Music of Lili Boulanger & Morfydd Owen

Prom 8: Bertrand Chamayou  (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thomas Søndergård

Lili Boulanger D’un matin de printemps; D’un soir triste (1917-8)

Mendelssohn Piano Concerto no.1 in G minor Op.25 (1831)

Morfydd Owen Nocturne (1913)

Schumann Symphony no.4 in D minor Op.120 (original 1841 version)

Royal Albert Hall, Friday 20 July 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can watch this Prom on BBC4 on Sunday 22 July here

Debussy and Bernstein may be the blockbuster anniversary composers this Proms year, but there are several composers whose cause is arguably more important. We heard two of them in this intriguing Prom from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and their outgoing chief conductor, Thomas Søndergård.

Lili Boulanger and Morfydd Owen died far too early, in their twenties, but both left works telling of an original style that should have been heard far more often than they have – which sadly is the case for all female composers. Happily the BBC has made a commitment to start putting that right, and this Prom went back to the second decade of the 20th century with two short pieces from Boulanger (below).

D’un matin de printemps (Of A Spring Morning) caught the ear immediately. Completed in 1918, it was slightly furtive at times, as though describing flowers shyly poking their heads into the fresh morning air. The transparent orchestration drew parallels with Debussy, and the colourful textures and positive harmonies made for an ideal, descriptive curtain raiser.

By contrast D’un soir triste (Of A Sad Evening) wore a troubled frown. Here the music was more ominous but also more exotic, its use of modal melodies extending its reach towards the East. Again Boulanger’s orchestration was exquisite, with a lovely rasp to the bass clarinet in the texture, and some powerfully wrought climaxes strengthened the intensity of feeling but failed to shake off the preoccupied state of mind. Both pieces made a lasting impact.

Morfydd Owen’s Nocturne began the second half. Written just before the First World War, this was an intriguing piece that was livelier than you might expect from a piece bearing that name. Initially the shady textures found the orchestra depicting the half light of the evening, but as well as atmospheric pictures there were attractive dance episodes, Owen breaking towards lighter music with a twinkle in her eye. She returned to this music on several occasions, each time casting the tune in a slightly different setting, before the piece finished with a silvery harp, sweeping us away into the night.

Complementing the anniversary composers was music from Mendelssohn and Schumann. The former’s Piano Concerto no.1 in G minor was brilliantly dispatched by Bertrand Chamayou, whose stylish playing emphasised Mendelssohn’s precocious writing for the instrument at the age of 22. Initially the speed of the music was a bit too fast, and the Royal Albert Hall acoustic didn’t help here, but soon pianist and orchestra were aligned in a performance light on its feet and, in the Andante slow movement, tender at its heart. As a well chosen encore Chamayou, popular with the Prommers, gave Liszt’s arrangement of Mendelssohn’s On Wings of Song.

Finally Schumann, and the original 1841 version of his Symphony no.4. Søndergård connected the four movements into a satisfying whole, bursting with melody, but here again made sure the slow movement had plenty of air. There can be a foreboding atmosphere to this symphony, mindful of the mental struggles that dogged the composer throughout his life, but here the BBC NoW, energetically led by Lesley Hatfield, found the positive mood running through its core. The most dramatic music of the night came in the transition between the obdurate scherzo and the triumphant finale, Sondergard stripping back the textures to a cold, hollow sound before surging forward to the rousing finish.

Wigmore Mondays: Danny Driver plays Dreamscapes by Messiaen, Saariaho, Ligeti & Schumann

Danny Driver (piano, above – photo credit Richard Haughton)

Messiaen Prélude No 5 (Les sons impalpables du reve) (1928-9) (2:36-8:15 on the broadcast link below)

Saaraiaho Ballade (2005) (8:30-15:06)

Ligeti Étude No 6 (Automne à Varsovie) (1985) (15:29-20:37)

Schumann Kreisleriana Op.16 (1838) (23:17-59:32)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 26 March 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating program from Danny Driver on the theme of ‘Dreamscapes’, an hour away from reality in the company of composers intent on using the piano to express new harmonies and colours.

Few 20th century composers had a greater sense of colour than Olivier Messiaen, and the vivid shades of his Prélude No.5 began the recital. Titled Les sons impalpables du reve (The Impalpable Sounds of a Dream), it was described by its composer as ‘polymodal, consisting of a blue-orange mode with a chordal ostinato and cascades of chords, and a violet-purple mode having a copper timbre. Note the pianistic writing, composed of triple notes, rapid passages in chords, canon in contrary motion, hand crossing, various staccatos, brassy louré, gem effects’. All elements to enjoy in Driver’s richly textured performance, from 2:36 on the broadcast link above – with a questioning feel to some of the harmonic phrases.

Then a relative rarity, a piano work by Kaija Saariaho, the Finnish composer whose output until now has largely concentrated on the orchestra and works for the stage. This time the composer ‘wanted to write music with a melody that grows out of the texture before descending into it again; a work that constantly shifts from a complex, multi-layered texture to concentrated single lines and back again’. From 8:30 on the broadcast you will hear the Ballade under the assured control of Driver, in a performance of great intensity that plummets back to earth at the end.

For the third of this group Driver intriguingly chose Ligeti’s Étude no.6 (15:29) – with the immediately recognisable, rarefied sound world of the composer. The fingers of the right hand worked largely in octaves here, with richly layered music supporting the descending melodies – until absolutely everything descended at the end in Driver’s powerhouse performance.

Schumann’s Kreisleriana is a group of eight pieces inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fantasy on the imaginary musician Johannes Kreisler. Each of the sections is in direct contrast to its neighbour, reflecting the character’s manic depression – with which Schumann may have felt an affinity given his own extremely variable state of mind. Certainly inspiration was at hand for this substantial work, which he completed in the space of just four days in 1838, before revisiting slightly in 1850.

Inevitably the muse of Clara Schumann, Robert’s soon-to-be-wife, is close at hand – and explains the outpouring of feeling in each of the works. The pieces vary between between dramatic, tempestuous fantasies such as the first, third and seventh numbers, and deeply personal thoughts expressed in beautiful surroundings, as in the second piece, the longest in the cycle by far.

Schumann sets up a tonal conflict, too – the fast pieces are in the minor key, and most rooted on G – nos. 3, 5, 7 & 8 fall into this category – while the slower, tender pieces (2, 4 & 6) are conceived around B flat major, G minor’s closest relative. The tension between the two, as well as an abundance of melodic material, lay at the heart of Danny Driver’s interpretation.

Driver clearly loves this music, and gave a passionate performance, enjoying the unbroken stream of inspiration in the first piece (23:17), then the repose and reflection in the second (26:14), the pianist allowing plenty of room for thought and contrast between the faster episodes in this much longer piece.

The third piece set up an excitable drama (36:36) with a commanding left hand, while the fourth responded once more with calm introspection (41:45). The fifth piece was detached in this performance, quite an edgy main idea (45:30) giving way to a more graceful centre. Appropriately the sun appeared during the sixth piece (49:18), giving a promise of the spring we are all hoping will arrive soon – and then Driver tore into the seventh piece with relish (53:32).

Any performance of Kreisleriana lives or dies by the last piece, a playful but rather haunting finale (55:56) that rises and falls like a bird on the wing. Driver caught its essence superbly here, with plenty of give and take in the tempo to give the melody its natural rise and fall. Schumann’s music is at its most exquisite here.

For an encore Driver turned full circle, bringing us back to Messiaen for another Prélude – his first, La colombe (The Dove) – a sign that birds would be his principal subject matter when writing music!

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below – which in the absence of a version from Driver includes Alfred Brendel’s recording of Kreisleriana:

Danny Driver’s discography includes a recent landmark recording of piano concertos by women composers for Hyperion, bringing the works of Dorothy Howell, Amy Beach and Cécile Chaminade:

Wigmore Mondays: Fatma Said sings Schumann, Mendelssohn, Poulenc & Sherif Mohie El Din with James Vaughan

Fatma Said (soprano, above), James Vaughan (piano, below)

Schumann 6 Gesänge Op. 89 (1850); Singet nicht in Trauertönen Op.98a/7, Liebeslied Op.51/5 (both 1849), Requiem Op.90/7 (1850)
Mendelssohn Die Liebende schreibt Op.86/3 (1831), Ach, um deine feuchten Schwinge (Suleika) Op.34/4 (1837), Hexenlied Op.8/8 (1827)
Poulenc Les chemins de l’amour, from Léocadia (1940), 2 poèmes de Louis Aragon (1943)
Sherif Mohie El Din Three Poems by Amal Donqul (1989)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

As a demonstration of artistry, this was quite some Wigmore Hall debut for soprano Fatma Said, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. The Egyptian singer used four languages in the course of an hour, and showed an aptitude for contrasting musical styles in a cleverly constructed programme.

It was good to hear less familiar Schumann songs as a starting group (from 1:32 on the broadcast) The set of six, published as Op.89, were written in the composer’s second ‘year of song’, the productive 1850. They set words by Wilfriend von der Nenn (a pseudonym for Wilhelm Schöpf), and show off an economy and intensity of word setting, with none lasting more than two minutes.

Said caught the agitation running through Es stürmet am Abendhimmel (There are storms in the evening sky) (1:32), set up by a wonderfully turbulent introduction from the excellent James Vaughan. A flowing Heimliches Verschwinden (Stealthy departure) (3:07) led to the yearning harmonies of Herbstlied (Autumn song) (5:12), then the softer hearted Abschied vom Walde (Farewell to the forest) (7:38). Both performers threw wide the curtains for a bracing Ins Freie (Out in the open) (9:45), before Röselein, Röselein! (Rose, little rose) (11:54) began with a striking solo, setting its dreamy mood.

A group of three more Schumann songs followed, the bright and carefree Singet nicht in Trauertönen (Do not sing in mournful tones) (15:20) leading to Liebeslied (Love Song), where there was a nice rapport from both performers in the song’s ebb and flow (17:38). Requiem (19:46) had a restrained and respectful air.

Mendelssohn’s songs are less-often heard, but carry melodic invention along with often incredibly challenging piano parts! A thoughtful Die Liebende schreibt (The beloved writes) (24:55) and the more urgent Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen (Ah, West Wind, how I envy you) (27:51) were nicely done, but the Hexenlied (Witches’ song) (30:34) was something else, the high notes nailed impressively by Said while Vaughan handled the flurry of notes with apparent ease.

The pair then turned to Poulenc, whose songs are the jewel in the crown of his musical output. We heard three brief but meaningful numbers, Les chemins de l’amour (The paths of love) (34:44) caught the efforts to stay cheerful despite the approach of World War II in 1940, while C (38:51) dealt with the immediate and horrific aftermath. Fêtes galantes (41:40) was a bit too breathless, but maybe that was the point as it raised a laugh!

Said then turned to ‘home away from home’, introducing three songs by Egyptian composer Sherif Mohie El Din, a welcome move that introduced a new sound world to the Wigmore Hall as well as showing the soprano’s clear passion for music and words of her first language.

The musical depiction of The Rain (from 44:22) was vivid and featured well-placed silences, the piano part enhancing the effect of raindrops. Could the river flow forever (46:50) had darker shading, while the final Against whom?  (49:57) was a tortuous and anguished study of feelings felt during surgery.

The performers generously gave us two encores – a further Egyptian song, Daughter of the Sultan by Gamal Abdel-Rahim (54:41) and then, after the radio went off air, Old Sir Faulk by Sir William Walton, with accompanying gestures from the soprano.

This emphasised how at home she is on the stage, and capped an extremely impressive and enjoyable recital, where a blend of musicianship and communication of the messages behind the text was always the primary goal. Both performers succeeded comfortably.

Further listening

You can listen to recorded versions of the repertoire in this concert on this Spotify playlist, apart from the Sherif Mohie Eldin songs which are not on the streaming service:

Meanwhile here is a link to the Sherif Mohie Eldin official YouTube page, including the three poems performed in the concert:

Wigmore Mondays: Céline Moinet & Florian Uhlig – Schumann Romances for oboe and piano

Céline Moinet (oboe, above – picture Francois Sechet), Florian Uhlig (piano, below)

Schumann 3 Romances Op.94 (1849)
Nielsen 2 Fantasy Pieces Op.2 (1889)
Clara Schumann 3 Romances Op.22 (1853)
Robert Schumann 12 vierhändige Clavierstücke für kleine und grosse Kinder Op.85/12 – Abendlied (1849)
Pasculli Concerto on ‘La Favorita’ by Donizetti ()

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 4 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Robert Schumann was a composer equally at home in short musical forms as he was in longer constructions – but it seems his most intimate thoughts can be found in the shorter pieces, either his songs or his chamber music. Schumann’s lyrical style of writing means that pieces like the 3 Romances, written for Clara as a gift, transfer effortlessly between treble instruments such as the violin, clarinet or horn. These three, however, work best on the oboe, its tone perfectly suited to the reflective and slightly mournful outer pieces.

The two Nielsen pieces are early works, written by the composer shortly after his graduation from the Copenhagen conservatoire – a Romance and an Intermezzo in the form of a Humoreske.

Returning to Schumann, we hear an arrangement of a piano piece for children, and then three Romances by Schumann’s wife Clara. These were originally written for the violinist Joseph Joachim, but like her husband’s music they transcribe for oboe and piano with ease.

Finally a piece by Antonio Pasculli, regarded as the best oboist of his time – and one who enjoyed arranging operatic themes for the oboe in highly virtuosic pieces with piano accompaniment.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Schumann 3 Romances Op.94 (1:34) (12 minutes)

The first piece (1:34) is lyrical but slightly downcast in its musical though, a time for reflection. The mood becomes more upward looking for the second piece (4:55), Schumann switching towards the major key for a gentle tune that he contrasts with an energetic central section (from 6:04). The third piece (8:54) begins with the bare bones of a melody, played by the oboe and piano together, with darker shades to the texture and harmony that never fully leave the music.

Nielsen 2 Fantasy Pieces Op. 2 (from 15:13) (6 minutes)

Nielsen gives the oboe a sweet melody for the first fantasy piece, a Romance (15:13) but characteristically alters the harmonic setting to throw it just a little out of kilter.

For the Intermezzo – a Humoreske – from 18:32, an impish and slightly mischievous approach makes for a charming piece, especially when the harmony moves into the major key.

Clara Schumann 3 Romances Op.22 (from 22:36) (10 minutes)

The first Romance is a genial piece that goes on to test the oboist’s control of the upper register. There is fluid interplay between the oboe and piano before the piece softens at the close. From 25:34 the second piece moves into a minor key, and once again a darker outlook. The third Romance, from 28:22, is the most expansive of the three, with flowing piano and a long legato oboe line, before Clara introduces a more playful aspect to the oboe’s lines.

Schumann Abendlied Op.85/12 (from 32:56) (2 minutes)

A short but sweet lullaby from Schumann’s Music for Children (Large and Small!), Abendlied (An Evening Song) is beautifully played.

Pasculli Concerto on La Favorita by Donizetti (36:44) (12 minutes)

A carefully considered piano introduction sets the scene, in the spirit of the best concertos, with the oboe following 40 seconds later. The slower introduction includes some extremely tricky passagework for the oboe, but also some broader melodies from Donizetti’s opera. Then after a cadenza from the oboe, the pace quickens (41:45) in a march. Now the oboe line is incredibly demanding, twisting and turning in rapid figurations in what feels like a thorough test of stamina rather than anything more musically meaningful!

Thoughts on the concert

This was quite a short recital for the Wigmore Hall lunchtime, but was beautifully played by Céline Moinet, who showed off technical prowess but more than anything a keen ear for and aptitude with the music. She inhabited Schumann’s world easily, finding the thoughtful intimacy that he pours into his shorter works, not to mention the darker side they inevitably hint at.

For the Pasculli she was really able to cast off the shadows, but here Florian Uhlig’s virtuosity and prompting were just as important, the pianist mastering some tricky runs in response to Moinet’s ever greater athletic feats. That she managed to bring across Donizetti’s operatic melodies was no mean feat, and the end was thrilling in its bravura.

Further listening and reading

You can listen to Céline Moinet and Florian Uhlig in their new album Schumann Romances, available here on Spotify:

Meanwhile Moinet’s previous disc, Meditations, brings together a lovely combination of French, Italian and German works – some original, some arranged:

Wigmore Mondays: Gabriela Montero plays Schumann, Shostakovich and her own improvisations

Gabriela Montero (above, piano)

Schumann Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op.15 (1838)
Shostakovich Piano Sonata no.2 in B minor, Op.61 (1943)
Gabriela Montero Improvisations (2017)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 13 November 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Schumann’s piano pieces were written for his beloved Clara to play, in the early stages of their courtship – when he was far from flavour of the month in the Wieck household. They are reminiscences of childhood life and were not intended for children to play as such. Happily some of them are a bit easier, but they are viewed through adult frames.

Shostakovich, meanwhile, wrote his Piano Sonata no.2 in memory of his former Leonid Nikolayev, at a time of particular hardship with World War II at its height. The substantial work a much more mature piece than his First Sonata, set in one movement, and it sits between two massive symphonies in the Seventh (Leningrad) and Eighth. Perhaps because of the enormous dimensions of those pieces the Sonata is a thoughtful and almost fiercely intimate work that has the listener subconsciously leaning in to listen to the quieter moments.

Gabriela Montero is one of the few classical pianists to actively practise the art of improvisation in concert, and as she told the booklet writer Jessica Duchen she finds a ‘different state of consciousness…like an open vessel’.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Schumann Kinderszenen, Op.15 (from 1:52) (20 minutes)

Rather than describe each piece for you, I have elected simply to list the titles Schumann assigns the pieces and the time at which they appear in the broadcast. His writing is so descriptive it will conjure all sorts of pictures in the imagination! The movements are:

  1. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) (from 1:52)
  2. Kuriose Geschichte (A Curious Story) (3:49)
  3. Hasche-Mann (Blind Man’s Bluff) (4:56)
  4. Bittendes Kind (Pleading Child) (6:21)
  5. Glückes genug (Happy Enough)
  6. Wichtige Begebenheit (An Important Event) (7:32)
  7. Träumerei (Dreaming) (8:32)
  8. Am Kamin (At the Fireside) (11:30)
  9. Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the Hobbyhorse) (12:26)
  10. Fast zu Ernst (Almost Too Serious) (13:03)
  11. Fürchtenmachen (Frightening) (15:17)
  12. Kind im Einschlummern (Child Falling Asleep) (16:53)
  13. Der Dichter spricht (The Poet Speaks) (19:22)

Shostakovich Piano Sonata no.2 in B minor, Op.61 (1943)

The sonata starts like a cold wind blowing into the concert hall, with rapid figurations in the left hand, but soon develops into a driving march (around 24:00) with the right hand of the piano striking notes an octave apart. At 26:53 it comes back to an emphatic statement of the main tune, now lower in the left hand, before an introspective passage of thought and then an emphatic finish

The second movement, marked Largo (29:47) is one of Shostakovich’s characteristically intimate elegies, notable for its slow tempo and recurring pulse. The performer here is lulled into quiet thought.

In the third movement Shostakovich delivers one of those nagging themes in which he excels, given out by the right hand alone (from 36:27). Once heard it dominates proceedings, no matter what other music Shostakovich introduces – it all comes back to that theme, blurring the boundaries between minor and major keys and wavering uncertainly whenever it appears. The melodic material is made up of variants on that tune, the music becoming increasingly twisted and anguished before burning out, spending time in downcast thought and then recovering for a final, furtive statement of the theme.

Gabriela Montero Improvisations (from 50:34) (4 minutes)

In a spoken introduction, Venezuelan pianist Montero describes the improvisation offered here as a reaction to ‘my broken country’. It adopts the same tonality of the Shostakovich, B minor, and sets out its thoughts in a way that the Russian composer would surely recognise. The fluid and heartfelt musical progressions are all the more meaningful for being of the moment.

Thoughts on the concert

A recital of contrasts from Gabriela Montero. Schumann’s Kinderszenen provided the audience with a lot of fun through its wistful reminiscences, though at times Montero did stretch out the tempo rather, especially in the opening number. The characterisations were very enjoyable though, and Wichtige Begebenheit had a proud step, while Träumerei was appropriately dreamy. Montero also captured the melancholy that can come with rose-tinted recollections such as these, especially in Schumann, and the final Der Dichter spricht was ideally pitched.

Shostakovich’s Second Sonata crackled with atmosphere, and the presence of an unnamed menace that marks his most private works was here throughout. The bluster of the first movement was fooling nobody with its resolve, for the heart of Shostakovich’s music here lay in the bare outlines of the finale, where Montero excelled, and in the unexpected ghostly chord that arrives just before the end.

It was refreshing to hear an improvisation from Montero that seemed to take its lead from this work in professing its despair at the political and economical state of her home country, and this music was made all the more memorable by her relative restraint in its execution. More performers would do well to follow her lead.

Further listening and reading

You can read more about Gabriela Montero at her website, while the Spotify album below couples her interpretation of Rachmaninov‘s Piano Concerto no.2 with three of her Improvisations:

Montero has not recorded the Shostakovich sonata, but you can hear a new album from Peter Donohoe that brings both concertos and sonatas together in one collection: