Wigmore Mondays: Inon Barnatan plays Bach, Franck & Barber

Inon Barnatan (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Toccata in E minor BWV914 (c1710) (6 minutes)
Franck Prelude, Choral et Fugue (1885) (18 minutes)
Barber Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op.26 (1949) (20 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

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

This was a fascinating hour in the company of American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, exploring the role of the fugue in piano music while showing off considerable artistry and technical control of his instrument.

He began with Bach, and one of the lesser heard Toccatas for keyboard. This fell into three parts (starting at 4:06 on the broadcast) and initially took on quite a serious tone before relaxing for the fugue (which begins at 5:04). Barnatan signed off expansively, in a sense preparing for what was to come.

This proved to be Franck’s three-movement Prélude, Choral et Fugue, surely written in homage to organ pieces such as Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, but working particularly well on the piano. Barnatan gave a performance of impressive stature, really getting to the nub of the deep and almost religious expression the Belgian composer achieves.

An expansive Prélude (from 12:40) was followed by a reverent statement of the Chorale in hushed tones (at 18:18), before this grew inexorably in stature, leading to a superbly controlled peak at 21:10. The Fugue was confidently delivered, gaining intensity from its initial statement (23:50) until the final peal of bells signalled its triumphant switch from B minor to B major (30:11).

The Barber Sonata was simply superb, and a timely reminder that this is a composer worth so much more than simply the Adagio for Strings. Good though that piece is, the Sonata explores much more aggressive and twisted musical thoughts, perhaps a surprising response to a commission from Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, in honour of the League of Composers’ twenty-fifth anniversary. As announcer Clemency Burton-Hill says in the radio introduction it is a formidable work, perhaps not surprisingly given its dedicatee, Vladimir Horowitz.

It is difficult to imagine a better performance than Barnatan gave here, setting the tone immediately with the jagged outlines of the first movement’s main material (marked Allegro energico, from 32:40). There was considerable drama as this tumultuous piece of music unfolded, with bits of occasional lyrical repose but ultimately big outbursts in the form of the inspiration behind the piece, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Piano Sonata.

All were given with the utmost clarity by Barnatan, who softened the mood for the second movement Scherzo (40:39), then the intimate slow movement (Adagio mesto, from 42:52) which nonetheless reached a hair raising climax some three minutes or so later. Barnatan was totally inside the music, this passage described by Barber’s biographer as ‘the most tragic’ of the composer’s slow movements. Finally a terrific final movement Fuga, brilliantly played and with some complex figurations made to look easy!

The encore (from 54:00) was wholly appropriate, Busoni’s transcription for piano of the J.S. Bach choral prelude Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, in which a sense of stillness returned.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. Inon Barnatan has not recorded any of this repertoire to date, so the versions chosen here are by established pianists Glenn Gould, Jorge Bolet and Joanna MacGregor:

You can also see for yourself what the fuss is about by watching Inon Barnatan playing the first movement of Schubert’s C minor Piano Sonata below:

Meanwhile if you want an introduction to the music of Samuel Barber, starting with the Adagio for Strings, look no further!

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Leanne Mison on the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra with Renée Fleming

The final Ask The Audience from the 2017 BBC Proms is with Leanne Mison, who promotes and endorses an impressive roster of electronic music artists for Bang On PR. Leanne talks to Arcana about a Prom given by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and their chief conductor Sakari Oramo, – with two solo vocal turns from the superstar New York soprano Renée Fleming.

Prom 61: Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Andrea Tarrodi Liguria

Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915 Op.24

Richard Strauss Daphne – Transformation Scene, ‘Ich komme – ich komme’

Nielsen Symphony No 2 ‘The Four Temperaments’

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 30 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Leanne, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

My parents attempted to introduce me to classical music from quite an early age, but I didn’t show too much interest in it at the time. My mum joined a classical music vinyl club and would be sent a record every month, but we rarely ever played them. I’d love to dig them out now and see what she had! My proper introduction to music was via piano which I learnt to play from the age of seven, so pieces by BeethovenChopinMozart and Mendelssohn. I did get really into it at one point as I had an inspiring teacher who was about 80 years old and I’d get to practise on her baby Steinway. I reached Grade 7 but as the expectations grew for me to practise for an hour and more a day, my interest waned. At that age, it doesn’t earn you very much kudos with other kids so I gave in to peer pressure. My parents said I would regret it and they was right of course!

My parents listened to things like The Carpenters and The Cars.  Around the age of 9, I started listening to things like Salt ‘n’ Pepa, En Vogue and Bobby Brown. I still like that music now, it’s super fun. When I about 15, I tried to fit in and listen to the same kind of music my friends were into like Bon Jovi, Oasis and The Verve but it didn’t really stay with me to be honest. When I was 12, I randomly picked up a Telstar tape of rave music for 99p at Woolworths and I heard things like The KLF and 808 State for the firs time. I was like ‘Wow, what was that?!’ – there were no reference points, I had no idea about rave culture. I didn’t hear music like that again for quite a long time but that was the start of me getting into electronic music.

Could you name three musical acts that you love and say why you love them?

I really love what Factory Floor do. Their music can get so madly intense and mesmerising, and live – you can’t help but dance but you can also have a very cerebral experience with it too.

I’ve been really enjoying listening to Nick Hakim of late. His album Green Twins has this irresistible, other worldliness to it – all hazy psychedelic R & B.

And then there is the master entertainer Chilly Gonzales. He puts classical music and pop music in the same space, weaving them together and presenting their common thread. Then he throws in a heavy dose of comedy, a bit of history and a piano tutorial and we just lap it all up! I wish he’d been around when I was growing up, I probably would have been inspired to carry on and do my Grade 8!

Are you ever tempted to go back to the piano?

Obviously I’d love to be able to play now, who knows I might get back into it at some point (probably when I’m retired!)
One of the great benefits of having instant access to music on Youtube and Spotify is that you can actually hear what the piece is supposed to sound like and what you should be aiming for. It’s more inspiring than back in the old days!

What did you think of the Andrea Tarrodi piece tonight?

It was really pretty, delicate and playful. Lots of shimmers of light but then it went on a dramatic roller coaster later.

I really enjoyed it, so much so I wanted to go to the front to get the full experience!  I was quite surprised when you said the composer was younger than both of us.

If you didn’t know that piece was about anything, did it conjure up any images?

That’s a good question, I wasn’t really thinking along the line of images  – but now you mention it maybe rolling fields and mountain tops?

What about the Barber, with Renée Fleming?

This was very enjoyable too, and took me a bit more out of my comfort zone as I’m not used to listening to an operatic voice accompanied by that many musicians.  Sadly I’m more used to listening to things on laptop speakers so it’s a real treat to experience that breadth of sound and visually it’s very impressive too.

What did you think about the Strauss?

There was a lot going on here, I found the soaring operatic voice quite dramatic and emotional, I think I was more taken by what was happening with the strings. I should listen to more music like this and try and understand it. I found my mind wandering a bit more with this one, I started looking at the audience and observing their facial expressions and they seemed pretty serious on the whole. Perhaps they were intensely into it! The musicians facial expressions themselves were a lot more expressive, especially the conductor’s.

Working in music PR, I spend a lot of time reading reviews and people’s thoughts on music. Tonight it was a clean slate, I was listening to music I’m very rarely exposed to and with no idea what critics have said about it and that was very refreshing.

What did you think about the Proms, and what did you enjoy about it?

The music was actually quite accessible and experiencing that range and depth of sound in a space as beautiful as the Royal Albert Hall brings out all sorts of different feelings in you. It’s quite unique and I can see why people enjoy it so much.

Would you change anything about your Proms experience?

Not at all, I only wish I’d come to more. I went once about 10 years ago but my recollections of it are vague.
I’d read some of your Ask the Audience pieces before and was really intrigued by it and really glad you invited me!

My experience of seeing classical music is quite limited, I’ve seen some experimental music with orchestras such as Varèse performed at the Royal Festival Hall which was really dark. Also Helmut Lachenmann and Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, all quite challenging and let’s face it, not nearly as fun as tonight!

Would you go again?

Yes, definitely. Here’s to next year and thanks very much for inviting me.

Verdict: SUCCESS

BBC Proms 2017 – Renée Fleming sings Strauss & Barber – Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Prom 61 – Renée Fleming (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Andrea Tarrodi Liguria (2012) (UK premiere)

Barber Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Op 24 (194)

Richard Strauss Daphne – Transformation Scene, ‘Ich komme – ich komme’ (1937)

Nielsen Symphony no.2, ‘The Four Temperaments’ (1901-2)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 30 August 2017

You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance

In her previous visits to the Proms Renée Fleming has proved a big draw, and although the arena may not have been full for her latest visit, with regular collaborators Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, it comprised a satisfying and ideally executed program.

Fleming’s contributions grouped into a loose theme of distant light and transformation. Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is a love letter to the American home, and its dappled evening sunlight flickered beautifully under the hands of Oramo, the composer’s warm harmonies setting the scene for Fleming’s characteristically full bodied interpretation. She inhabited the storyteller’s guise with effortless and instinctive calm, though the animated middle section was also very well judged. With just the right amount of sentimentality, this was an ideal performance, and an aptly chosen encore of the song Sure on this shining night blazed a similar trail.

Fleming’s projection was ideal, particularly in the Transformation Scene from Richard Strauss’s second opera Daphne, where she moved from the front to a well-chosen offstage position for the culmination of the transformation itself, which sees Daphne take on the form of a laurel tree. The extended postlude from the orchestra reached upwards to a serene level of euphoria, and Fleming’s wordless vocalise at the end put the seal on a beautifully judged performance. Again we had an encore, and this was a special account of Strauss’s own orchestration of his best-loved song Morgen, with rapt solo from orchestra leader Andrej Power.

If anything the other two pieces were even more successful. The music of Andrea Tarrodi was new to the Proms, but on the basis of the orchestral piece Liguria this was extremely unlikely to be her only appearance. A colourful account of a visit to the Italian coast, Liguria is a kind of symphonic lettercard, its six scenes recounted in brightly lit orchestrations. The recurring, creeping brass harmonies from the first scene stood out, and reappeared towards the end, but also notable was the assurance with which the Swedish composer works with the orchestra, making original sounds and not resorting to contemporary music clichés. A composer whose acquaintance you are strongly advised to make.

Finally we heard Carl Nielsen’s Second Symphony, ‘The Four Temperaments’, receiving its second Proms performance in three years after the festival’s complete neglect of it in the 20th century. It is a powerful piece, and this account made a strong impression. Although the feverish first movement (Choleric) was convincing and brilliantly played the emotional centre lay in the Melancholic third movement, where Oramo wrought music of impressive angst and depth. Nielsen’s struggles were resolved by the Sanguine finale, where the composer lets rip perhaps a little too easily, but again the structure and the melodic groups made perfect sense. Oramo has built a strong affinity with the Danish composer’s music over the years, and there was something very satisfying in these days of disunity at seeing a Finn conduct a Swedish orchestra in Danish music.

Ben Hogwood

Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Leanne Mison will give her verdict on the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Prom. Coming shortly!