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.

Online recommendations – Gramophone Charity Gala & English Music Festival

To hopefully boost your Monday evening Arcana has two recommendations for online music – one recently given and a whole festival of music later in the month to look forward to.

Last night Gramophone magazine held the Gramophone Classical Music Awards Winners Charity Lockdown Gala, a three-hour event whose purpose was ‘to support musicians whose work has dried up due to the Covid-19 crisis, and who are finding themselves in severe financial difficulty’. You can watch on YouTube below, with the concert available until this Sunday 17 May – and you can donate on the links given at the link too:

The program was richly entertaining, from the Zoom-based capers (and brilliant singing) of I Fagiolini performing Monteverdi to a number of sublime excursions into the world of solo Bach, led by Sir Antonio Pappano. There were special performances from guitarist Sean Shibe, in a selection of Scottish lute tunes, pianist Vikingur Ólafsson in Rameau, Beatrice Rana and Boris Giltburg playing Chopin, Ian and Oliver Bostridge performing Beethoven and the Pavel Haas Quartet playing Dvořák.

Meanwhile the enterprising team behind the English Music Festival, scheduled for May and inevitably cancelled, have ensured the event will take place online. They have rustled up a most impressive programme, with concerts featuring recordings from the ‘house’ label EM Records but, most excitingly, with online concerts from violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck, cello and piano team Joseph Spooner and Nicholas Bosworth, Ensemble Hesperi and pianists Paul Guinery and Duncan Honeybourne (above)

For more information and to donate / buy tickets, you can visit the festival’s programme page here

BBT – Wednesdays at Wilton’s

bbt-wednesdays-at-wiltons

(Wilton’s front door photo James Perry; Wilton’s interior photo Mike Twigg)

The Borletti-Buitoni Trust and a new residency at one of London’s buried treasures

A week ago, Wilton’s Music Hall was home to an intimate Duran Duran charity gig. This week the grand old venue, one of East London’s little-known charms, looked down on young classical musicians starting out, recipients of a fellowship from the Borletti-Buitoni Trust given their chance to shine.

The hall is a wonderful performing space, a former 18th century ale house converted to a music room and concert hall, and now in the throes of a renovation that looks set to preserve its character while offering new, vibrant performance opportunities. The hall itself, with a high roof and balcony supported by what looks like parts from an old pile-driver, has acoustic properties ideal for piano or guitar – which was illustrated in an hour-long concert to launch the BBT‘s Wednesday’s at Wilton’s series.

Composer-pianist Kate Whitley made a strong impression – and as co-founder and artistic director of Multi-Story, which gave a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in a disused car park in Peckham, she is clearly an imaginative force. Whitley writes direct, unflinching music that can hit you between the eyes (two of her 5 Piano Pieces, for instance) or expose a melting heart (the song This is my love poem for you, from the poetry of Sabrina Mahfouz).

Her Three pieces for violin and piano, meanwhile, stood next to an equivalent set by the György Kurtág – a brave move that, it not entirely successful, illustrated the grand old Hungarian composer and his extraordinary musical compression, writing in one note what others could hardly manage with one hundred!

Performers and audience are treated as equals on these nights, and it was helpful that Whitley gave good context and musical examples to her pieces beforehand. We also had a sneak preview of the second concert in the series from guitarist Sean Shibe, who took on the tragic tale of Spanish composer Antonio José, executed by firing squad in his early thirties. Shibe played two movements, a winsome Pavane Triste and vigorous Finale from his Sonata for Guitar.

With concertgoers, performers and building ideally matched, this looks like the start of a meaningful friendship in East London – and you would be firmly advised to take the chance to see the musicians of the future in such a friendly and inspiring environment.