Wigmore Mondays – Boris Giltburg plays Rachmaninov Preludes

Boris Giltburg (piano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 30 September 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

When Bach finished the first set of his celebrated Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722, he set in motion an approach to writing for the keyboard that has captured the imagination of several other composers through the centuries, writing a prelude and / or a fugue in each of the 24 keys and having them performed as a collection.

Sergei Rachmaninov was one of those composers so influenced, though he didn’t approach it as a collection initially. In fact he began with just one piece, the Prelude in C sharp minor, which sat in the middle of the 5 Morçeaux de Fantaisie for piano when published in 1892. With the composer still in his late teens, this Prelude shot him to stardom – and so he was only too happy to revisit the form with another 23 pieces, delivered in two installments in the years 1903 and 1910.

The prelude became one of Rachmaninov’s primary methods of expression in his solo piano music, and the pieces are much loved. Boris Giltburg’s selection here did not however include the two most famous examples – the C sharp minor piece, nor the famous G minor prelude from the Op.23 set, Boris Giltburg preferring instead to show that the other 22 are absolutely not to be overlooked! From these he picked a selection of 14, arranged chronologically but also logically in their key groups.

Rachmaninov’s writing for piano is almost instantly recognisable, and only a few seconds of the Prelude in B flat major Op.23/2 (1:27) are needed to confirm his authorship. The ready and natural flow of notes, the power of the right hand, working in octaves on this occasion, and an outpouring of passion. Giltburg kept a fine measure of expression and control.

He complemented this heady start with the soft yet ardent Prelude in D major Op.23/4, and then another stream of consciousness from the Prelude in C minor Op.23/7, carrying all before it to an emphatic end. Giltburg’s phrasing was ideal here, knowing when to ‘breathe’ in the longer phrases.

The Prelude in A flat major Op.23/8 shows something of the influence of Chopin, and this one too flowed nicely under Giltburg’s direction. Shifting the base to the Prelude in E flat minor Op.23/9 brought a more worrisome outlook, the right hand more agitated and becoming relatively sombre in its closing statement. The last of this set, the Prelude in G flat major Op.23/10, negotiated calmer waters, Giltburg lost in thought and the music.

The Op.32 selection begins in the ‘purest’ key, C major, so named as all its notes are the white keys on the piano – yet from Rachmaninov this is his shortest prelude, powered here by Giltburg’s weighty left hand opening. It formed a nice gateway to the Prelude in B flat minor Op.32/2, from which we were led to the heroic Prelude in E minor, the fourth in the set. This was brilliantly characterised and paced by Giltburg, a darkly dramatic performance.

The serenity of the Prelude in G major Op.23/5 was beautifully observed, as was the stark contrast to the following Prelude in F minor Op.32/6, which erupted out of the blocks. Most impressive of all, perhaps, was the substantial Prelude in B minor Op.32/10, a response to Arnold Böcklin’s painting Die Heimkehr (The Homecoming, above), a piece of genuine, bittersweet emotion, especially at the end where Rachmaninov struggles to choose between the minor and the major key.

After this the penultimate Prelude in G sharp minor Op.32/12 had a touch of the Mediterranean in its tremolo passages, and here Giltburg again gave the music plenty of room to breathe, his virtuosity extremely impressive. The final, substantial Prelude in D flat major Op.32/13 had a keen sense of homecoming, given a regal air in this performance.

Repertoire

Boris Giltburg played the following Rachmaninov Preludes (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Rachmaninov
10 Preludes Op.23 (1902-03) – excerpts: in B flat Op.23/2 (1:27); in D Op 23/4 (5:09); in C minor Op 23/7 (9:27); in A flat Op 23/8 (12:04); in E flat minor Op 23/9 (15:56); in G flat Op 23/10 (18:15)
13 Preludes Op.32 (1910) – excerpts: in C Op 32/1 (23:05); in B flat minor Op 32/2 (24:34); in E minor Op 32/4 (27:31); in G Op 32/5 (33:03); in F minor Op 32/6 (36:18); in B minor Op 32/10 (37:50); in G sharp minor Op 32/12 (43:17); in D flat Op 32/13 (45:48)

He also played Schumann’s Arabeske in C major Op.18 (52:00) as an encore:

Further listening

All the preludes in this concert can be heard on this playlist in the order they were performed, using Giltburg’s own recently issued recording:

Giltburg proclaims Rachmaninov to be a favourite composer, and his recent recording of the composer’s Piano Concerto no.3 gives the listener little doubt in that respect! It’s coupled with the solo Variations on a Theme of Corelli:

Meanwhile this earlier release for Naxos gives a welcome coupling for the second set of Rachmaninov’s Études-Tableaux Op.39 – one of his best achievements for solo piano – and the impressive 6 Moments musicaux Op.16, which between them last around half an hour and contain some deeply expressive music:

Wigmore Mondays – Benjamin Appl & Kristian Bezuidenhout: Schumann, Loewe, Mendelssohn & Zelter

Benjamin Appl (baritone, above), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 September 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Lieder can be downright miserable sometimes, as Benjamin Appl acknowledged when thanking us for attending this recital of ‘jolly German music’, with which the Wigmore Hall opened their 2019-20 season of BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts.

Appl, a baritone of ever-growing reputation, was performing with Kristian Bezuidenhout, who played a Blüthner fortepiano dating back to Leipzig in 1856 – the year of Schumann’s death. The instrument, an attractive rosewood colour, proved the ideal foil for an interesting programme looking at the Lied in Germany around the first half of the 19th century. In an hour we covered some little known ground from the output of Schumann himself, complemented by settings by Mendelssohn, Zelter and Loewe.

The pairing began with three later Robert Schumann songs, all based around the character Harper, from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Schumann set the songs in 1849, the centenary of the poet’s birth. Appl stood tall and upright in front of the piano, communicating directly with the audience through his eyes as well as his voice. Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass (Who never ate his bread in tears) was a sombre note on which to start, though the pain eased a little before the end, Bezuidenhout’s spread chords giving an indication of the fortepiano’s rounded sound. Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt (Who gives himself to loneliness) had a penetrating delivery from the singer, with a dark and unsettled postlude from the piano, while An die Türen will ich schleichen (From door to door will I steal) had a slightly lighter touch.

There followed three songs by Mendelssohn setting the poetry of Nikolaus Lenau. The short song An die Entfernte (To the distant beloved) danced lightly and was nicely phrased, before the nocturnal Schilflied (Reed song) was distracted and occasionally lost in thought. Frühlingslied (Spring song) emphatically blew away the cobwebs, the positive energy of the new season blowing the dark thoughts away.

The music of Carl Friedrich Zelter, a good friend of Goethe, is not often heard in the concert hall these days. He had his friend’s blessing however, the author approving of his direct methods of word setting, without too much in the way of musical dressing. His three Harfenspieler are bold settings and Appl sung them with clarity here, hitting the high notes of the second song with impressive intensity. Bezuidenhout was subtle in his complementary melodic lines on the fortepiano.

Contrasting with these were the dramatic songs of Carl Loewe. Herr Oluf is a self-contained Danish legend against the dangers of meeting Elves, and was performed with no quarter given, a terrific introduction from Bezuidenhout setting the energy level high. On occasion the singer has quite an unusual melodic profile, but this was straightforward for Appl’s vivid interpretation. The mischievous Hinkende Jamben was gone in an instant, with its mannerisms and lisps, before an expansive introduction to Tom der Reimer brought a grand tone from the singer. In a legend comparable in profile to Herr Oluf, it finished with brightly ringing bells, courtesy of Bezuidenhout’s picture painting.

When Schumann made his six settings of Lenau’s verse, he added a short Requiem in the mistaken knowledge that the poet had died. However when the day of the first performance arrived in 1850, news reached the gathering that Lenau had only just passed away, making the composer’s tribute strangely prophetic.

It is a dark cycle, reflecting perhaps the struggles of both men with mental illness – but illustrating at the same time the inner strength that music and poetry gave them. The steely Lied eines Schmiedes (Blacksmith’s Song) found Appl gathering himself with impressive projection, before the mood and heart softened a little for a languid account of Meine Rose (My Rose). Meanwhile Kommen und Scheiden (Meeting and Parting) had a devastating pay-off in the form of the emphasised last word, where the ‘last dream of my youth was taking leave of me’

Die Sennin (The Cowgirl) began with flowing piano, which led to Appl’s ringing delivery of ‘spring’s first song in the trees’, one of the recital’s most memorable moments. From there the cycle took a darker tone, Bezuidenhout breeding anxiety with the restless fortepiano line of Einsamkeit (Solitude), where Appl’s vocal was bold, and then to Der schwere Abend (The Sultry Evening) which was darker still, with a cold final line ‘to wish us both dead’. Thankfully the Requiem itself – a short Latin text – offered consolation and rest, as well as a rousing central section looking to the heavens.

This was a magnificent recital, with grace and power in equal measure from both performers, and the sound of the fortepiano a real treat in complement to Appl’s caramel tone. As a bonus we heard Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song), finishing in celebratory mood.

Repertoire

Benjamin Appl and Kristian Bezuidenhout performed the following songs (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schumann Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt Op.98a/6 (1:54); Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass Op.98a/4 (4:55); An die Türen will ich schleichen Op.98a/8 (all 1849)
Mendelssohn An die Entfernte Op.71/3 (1842) (9:56); Schilflied Op.71/4 (1832 (11:17); Frühlingslied Op.47/3 (14:08) 1839)
Zelter Harfenspieler I-III (18:03)
Loewe Herr Oluf Op.2/2 (24:18) Hinkende Jamben (29:51); Tom der Reimer (30:35)
Schumann 6 Gedichte von Nikolaus Lenau & Requiem, Op.90 (37:53). Individual songs: Lied eines Schmiedes (37:53), Meine Rose (39:05), Kommen und Scheiden (42:52), Die Sennin Schöne (44:00), Einsamkeit (46:08), Der schwere Abend (49:11), Requiem (50:49)

Encore – Mendelssohn Auf Flügeln des Gesanges Op.34/2 (56:07)

Further listening

Benjamin Appl has not yet recorded any of the repertoire in this concert, save the encore, but suitable recorded versions can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Wigmore Mondays – Julian Prégardien & Éric Le Sage: Schumann ‘Liederkreis’ & Fauré ‘La bonne chanson’

Julien Prégardien (tenor), Éric Le Sage (piano)

Schumann Liederkreis Op.24 (1:21-20:44 on the broadcast link below)
Fauré Nocturne no.6 in D flat major Op.63 (22:32-30:36)
Le Bonne Chanson Op.61 (32:13-52:38)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 15 April 2019

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

The words to the song cycles can be found here for the Schumann and here for the Fauré

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Julien Prégardien and Éric Le Sage began their double header of Romantic song cycles with a lesser known collection from Schumann. The Liederkreis he published as Op.24 in 1840, his celebrated ‘year of song’, sets poetry by his contemporary Heinrich Heine – specifically the Buch der Lieder, where writer Richard Wigmore identifies common ground of ‘extremes of elation and despair and their mingled sentimentality, self-pity and ironic self-mockery’.

These are relatively short but emotive songs, the end of one often linking to the start of the next through key and mood. The first song, Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage (Every morning I awake and ask) (1:21 on the broadcast) is carefree with an accompaniment from Le Sage that trips along relatively happily, then Es treibt mich hin (I’m driven this way) (2:22) recounts the giddy excitement of waiting to see a loved one. By contrast, Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen (I wandered among the trees) (3:25) finds the subject in deeply introspective and almost resentful mood, despite the relatively calm music. Prégardien reaches some effortless high notes here, and also adopts a suitably flat tone towards the end.

Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen (Just lay your hand on my heart) (7:00) is a short but rather macabre poem, given with halting piano from Le Sage, after which Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden (Lovely cradle of my sorrows) (7:45) follows immediately, offering consolation in the major key.

Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann (Wait, o wait, wild Seaman) (11:06) stays in the same key but throws off the shackles with a brilliantly descriptive piano part from Le Sage. Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter (Mountains and castles gaze down) (13:08) describes the ‘mirror-bright Rhine’ with effortless romanticism, but almost unwittingly prophesies Schumann’s attempt on his life with the words, ‘The river’s splendour beckons; But I know it – gleaming above it conceals within itself Death and Night’.

Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen (At first I almost despaired) (16:49) is sombre in mood but quickly cast off by Mit Myrthen und Rosen (With myrtles and roses) (17:43), a light and spring-like conclusion to the cycle.

As a satisfying bridge from Liederkreis to Fauré’s most successful cycle Éric Le Sage – a specialist in the music of both composers – gives a fluid performance of the sixth of Fauré’s thirteen Nocturnes for piano, works that span his whole career. No.6 in D flat major (22:32) is probably the best known, and while its Chopin influences are evident its harmonies bear the French composer’s stylistic imprint. It has a long melody in the right hand from the start, and reaches an impressive climax at 28:20.

La bonne chanson is close to the Nocturne in Fauré’s output, and was intended for his mistress Emma Bardac. It sets nine of the 21 poems from Paul Verlaine’s collection, but it was not initially well received due to its elusive harmonies and longer phrasing. In the cycle Fauré uses recurring melodies to bind the collection together.

The cycle begins in radiant light with Une sainte en son aureole (A saint in her halo) (from 32:13 on the broadcast). The mood is cast, and Puisque l’aube grandit (The day is breaking) continues the bright atmosphere with flowing piano from Le Sage (34:16), and Prégardien copes well with the demands on the lower register of his voice half way through.

La lune blanche (The white moon) casts its spell from 36:14, the pure tone of Prégardien unforced but gaining strength on the higher notes. J’allais par des chemins perfidies (I walked along treacherous ways) is more forceful (38:17), then J’ai presque peur, en vérité (In truth, I am almost afraid) (40:12) has a nervous energy and won’t stay still, before proclaiming its love at the end.

Avant que tu ne t’en ailles (Before you fade) (42:27) is a lovely song, initially harking back to the Nocturne in both key and mood, before Fauré breaks off, propelling it away in another fit of restlessness describing the ‘thousand quail singing in the thyme’. The composer keeps the piano busy once more in Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d’été (So, on a bright summer day it shall be), though Prégardien is much more powerful here too (44:58).

N’est-ce pas? (Is it not so?) is richly romantic, retaining the subtlety of Fauré’s best songs (47:28), while the cycle concludes with L’hiver a cessé (Winter is over) (49:47). Beautifully phrased and paced by Le Sage, the introduction sets the scene for a song that pulls together all the separate elements of the cycle.

For an encore Prégardien and Le Sage gave us three Schumann songs – the first three from his cycle Dichterliebe in fact (54:24 onwards).

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

Although Julien Prégardien has not recorded Liederkreis, he has a good deal of Schumann under his recorded belt – including this attractive collection with Le Sage and Sandrine Piau, which includes the masterly song cycle of Heine settings Dichterliebe:

You can also watch the album promo here:

Live review – Sinfonia Tamesa & Matthew Taylor – Ethel Smyth Serenade & Brahms Third Symphony

Sinfonia Tamesa / Matthew Taylor

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London
Saturday 9th March 2019

Schumann Genoveva Op.81 – Overture (1850)
Smyth Serenade in D major (1890)
Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Now into its eighteenth season, Sinfonia Tamesa has never been an orchestra afraid to ring the changes when it comes to programming. Tonight was no exception, with a rare hearing for Dame Ethel Smyth‘s Serenade to commemorate International Woman’s Day.

Not that this substantial piece proved unworthy of revival on its own merits. Brahms (whom Smyth admired above all others) is the obvious influence here, but Dvořák is equally evident in the rhythmic lilt and deft woodwind writing of its inner movements, an energetic scherzo followed by a hardly less animated intermezzo, and Matthew Taylor secured playing as lithe as it was incisive. He also brought out those expressive contrasts as make up for the opening Allegro’s lack of textural variety and ensured an underlying propulsion that carried the rather repetitious finale on to its decisive close. No major rediscovery, but a likeable and engaging work by a composer who wrote all too little purely orchestral music; should Tamesa choose to schedule Smyth’s masterly Double Concerto for Horn and Violin, then so much the better.

Framing this piece was music by Schumann and Brahms. The former’s only opera, Genoveva was a failure at its premiere and only infrequently revived today, but its melodic appeal helps compensate for some foursquare characterization – the overture making an effective concert item on its own terms. Some shaky intonation robbed the introduction of mystery, but what followed found a viable balance between agitation and an affirmation which (as also in the opera) ultimately wins through – evident here in the surging optimism of those closing bars.

After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, its quiet ending merely one of the reasons why this is the least-often heard of the cycle. From the outset, Taylor secured the right tempo for an opening movement that can easily lose shape and direction; finding winsome charm in the second theme, before judging the development’s relaxation then accruing of momentum with assurance. The coda’s transfigured poise (Brahms’s riposte to Tristan?) carried over into the Andante, whose melodic simplicity belies an emotional ambiguity which was teased out from its ruminative asides before being made explicit in those confiding final pages. Good to hear what followed taken not as an unintentional slow movement, but rather an intermezzo whose pathos is accentuated by its deftly propelled motion. The finale brought a culmination in all respects, and though ensemble faltered during more dynamic passages, a sure impetus was sustained across the reprise (the thrilling modulation into which was tangibly conveyed) then a coda that recalls the work’s initial motto with a mingling of aspiration and benediction.

Make no mistake, this was a convincing and insightful take on a symphony of which such readings are still an exception to the rule. A fine showing, too, for Sinfonia Tamesa, which will return to St James’s on 6th July for a Rachmaninov programme under Matt Andrews.

For further information on Sinfonia Tamesa, visit the orchestra’s website – and for more on Matthew Taylor, click on this link

Wigmore Mondays – Sophie Pacini plays Chopin, Wagner & Schumann

Sophie Pacini (piano)

Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op.66 (c1834) (1:27-6:18 on the broadcast link below)
Wagner, transcribed Liszt Overture to Tännhauser S442 (arr.1848) (7:25-22:33)
Schumann Carnaval Op.9 (1834-5) 24:25-47:13

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 4 February 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Sophie Pacini’s Wigmore Hall recital began with a fast, flowing performance of Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. As the name implies this is an extremely free piece but there is structure too, with two distinct themes. From 1:27 on the broadcast link above you can hear the main material, then at 2:31 a contrasting and relatively settled theme in the major key. A short development section brings us back to the main material at 4:33, and then Chopin spins a beautiful coda from the second theme at 5:35.

Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s overture to the opera Tannhäuser (from 7:25) is something of an Everest for pianists; one that Sophie Pacini appeared to have scaled with commendable ease. This was a towering performance but also one that allowed the detail of the parts to come through – only rarely did the tunes threaten to become subsumed by the massive textures, and that certainly wasn’t the fault of Pacini – just a case of Liszt trying to accommodate so much of the orchestra!

In the broadcast the overture builds steadily from soft but noble beginnings, reaching what sounds like a mighty peal of bells at 9:27. This majestic theme dominates the music, coming back at 18:42 with an extraordinary accompaniment of what sounds like circling birds in the right hand part, leading up to a massive statement towards the end.

Carnaval is a favourite among the Schumann piano output, a series of character pieces that present a masked ball. Schumann himself is there, together with wife Clara – and not only that, Schumann invents several characters to depict the very different strains of his personality. There is a grand total of 20 different sections making up this attractive and colourful suite of pieces, and they run as follows (with approximate descriptions):

The very lively Préambule (24:25) begins the piece, cutting to Pierrot (26:36), whose repeated three-note figure reminded me of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Arlequin (27:47) is a short, playful number, leading to a charming Valse noble (28:32), then Eusebius (29:39), one of the ‘selfies’ in Carnaval that depicts composer’s ‘calm, deliberate’ side. By contrast Florestan (31:26) depicts the composer’s fiery, impetuous nature, and Schumann quotes the main waltz theme from his earlier work Papillons, Op. 2.

The Coquette (32:15) follows, depicting a flirtatious girl, before Réplique (33:18) acts as a reply. There would then be a freely-written section called Sphinxes, which Sophie Pacini chooses not to perform here. Instead we move on to the quick fire Papillons (33:48, no connection to Op.2), then A.S.C.H. – S.C.H.A (34:31), another form of self portrait. Chiarina (35:09) is a depiction of the composer’s wife Clara, while the spacious arpeggios of Chopin (36:03) depict the composer.

Estrella (36:46) depicts Ernestine von Fricken, before Reconnaissance (37:23), a brilliant musical portrayal that is thought to depict Schumann and Ernestine recognizing each other at the ball. Pantalon et Colombine (38:54) are from the commedia dell’arte, then we hear the charming Valse allemande (39:38)

An extremely active Intermezzo: Paganini (40:14) leads into a reprise of the Valse allemande. Then Aveu (41:30) initally feels a bit bashful in its depiction of a confession of love. A Promenade (42:20) moves directly to a Pause (43:58), written out in musical form. After an almost identical reprise of a passage from the opening Préambule, we lead without a break into the final section, the Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins (The March of David Against the Philistines) (44:16) It is a rousing finish to a cycle full of character.

Sophie Pacini’s performance is a fast one – most versions clock in just under half an hour, whereas hers is under 23 minutes. This shows the quick tempo choices she makes, and the short pauses between musical numbers. On occasion the music feels a bit too hasty and some of the softer moments and dance scenes could do with a bit more space and charm, some time to breathe between the sections perhaps. That said, a very enjoyable performance of characterful music that ends triumphantly.

As a suitable footnote to the concert, Pacini returned to the key of C sharp minor for Saint-Saëns (48:26-53:33) and his Allegro appassionato.

Further listening

Sophie Pacini has recorded all of the repertoire given in her recital. Her encore piece, the Saint-Saëns Allegro Appassionato, is added in a new recording from Bertrand Chamayou:

Quite where Liszt found the time to transcribe loads of orchestral pieces for piano is a mystery, but he did – including all nine Beethoven symphonies! This collection from Glenn Gould includes the Fifth, as well as more Wagner:

Schumann’s character pieces for piano are greatly loved. Carnaval is one of the most popular, but there are plenty of others – and on this album from Wilhelm Kempff you can enjoy three collections – Kinderszenen (for children), the wonderful Kreisleriana and the Waldszenen (Forest Scenes):