Wigmore Mondays – Leila Josefowicz & John Novacek play Sibelius, Prokofiev, Knussen, Mahler and Bernd Zimmermann

Leila Josefowicz (violin), John Novacek (piano) (photo: Hiroyuki Ito for the New York Times)

Sibelius arr. Friedrich Hermann Valse triste (1903-4) (2:10-6:40)
Prokofiev Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.80: 2nd movement Allegro brusco (1938-46) (6:45-13:21)
Knussen Reflection (2016) (15:17-23:44)
Mahler arr. Otto Wittenbecher Symphony no.5 in C sharp minor: 4th movement Adagietto (1901-2, arr. 1914) (25:45-34:00)
Zimmermann Sonata for violin and piano (1950) (34:51-48:11)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 21 January 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

On paper, this was a strange programme for an hour-long lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall. Yet that in itself is refreshing. Why should programming have to be conventional and fit a particular blueprint all the time? So while I may not have necessarily warmed to their choices initially, on reflection Leila Josefowicz and John Novacek gave us something different. There was a chance for those attending and listening on BBC Radio 3 to hear two very familiar pieces out of context, complemented by music such as the Zimmermann Violin Sonata that we may not have heard before.

Josefowicz and Novacek begin with a highly charged account of Valse triste (2:10 on the broadcast link), the third number from Sibelius’s Kuolema Suite. This is normally heard in the hands of a string orchestra, but the arrangement here – and the ardour with which Josefowicz plays the violin line – especially when doubled with the piano – brings a striking dimension to the piece.

It would have been lovely to hear Josefowicz and Novacek take on the whole of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.80, for this is a dramatic piece indeed with a chill to its writing that would have matched the weather outside. Sadly the second movement was all we had time for (from 6:45), and it felt disjointed outside of its familiar context, despite the passion invested in it by both performers.

Of far greater meaning was Oliver Knussen’s Reflection (15:17), one of his last completed works. Josefowicz was a close acquaintance of the composer, and he wrote his Violin Concerto of 2002 for her. The Reflection is not necessarily what you would expect, a reminder that not all reflections are calm and reflective. It begins urgently, the violin ascending before being joined by the bell-like sonorities of the piano. Some of the reflections are jagged, and most are urgent – and typically for Knussen there is a great deal of interest in the melodies and textures, a style that is compact and extremely listenable but also forward-looking. It finishes abruptly.

The excellent writer Paul Griffiths clearly had trouble finding any information on arranger Otto Wittenbecher, let alone anything to do with his version of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Symphony no.5. This famous excerpt transfers surprisingly well to the reduced forces here, helped by sumptuous tone and control from Josefowicz, whilst Novacek distils the orchestral parts into something surprisingly manageable. Played with soft affection, the main theme leaves its mark, even though the arrangement is taken at quite a quick pace.

The main work of this recital, Bernd Zimmermann’s Violin Sonata made a strong impact. In three concise movements, it manages to explore the outer realms of twelve tone writing without compromising its composer’s folk-inflected style. From the outset at 34:51 Josefowicz and Novacek carry the urgency of the piece as though it were hot in their hands. The inflections are reminiscent of Bartók but have a more jagged melodic style; the punchy percussive approach from the piano is similar however. The slow movement (39:00), is written in a 12-tone form (that is, each of the 12 pitches has to sound before it can be heard again). It is however surprisingly tonal, with its stress on the pitches of ‘C’ and ‘F sharp’ giving the music a restless base. The nocturnal scene again recalls Bartók but is resolutely Zimmermann’s own, with passionate lines from the violin. The busy third movement (44:07) revisits the mood of the first, with terse but meaningful statements from the duo.

As an encore the duo added Charlie Chaplin’s Smile (50:06) in an initially eerie, high-range arrangement made by Claus Ogermann.

Further Listening

Most of the music in this concert (with the exception of the Knussen) can be heard on the Spotify playlist below:

For further insight into Josefowicz’s clever programming, her disc with Novacek For The End Of Time provides ample evidence, bringing together works by Falla, Messiaen, Grieg and Bartók:

Wigmore Mondays – Alexander Gavrylyuk plays Prokofiev, Mozart & Rachmaninov

Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano)

Mozart Piano Sonata in C major K330 (c1783) (1:56-20:20 on the broadcast link below)
Rachmaninov Preludes: in G flat major Op.23/10 (1903), in G minor Op.23/5 (1903), in G sharp minor Op.32/12 (1910) (22:04-32:25)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1942) (34:12-51:06)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 7 January 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

On his website, Ukrainian-Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk makes the profound statement that ‘not many things in this world can unite people – no form of diplomacy could ever do that. I think that music comes the furthest in revealing that perhaps on a deeper level we are all quite similar’.

The quote is especially instructive given the work with which Gavrylyuk ended this concert, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7. Yet in these uncertain times his words are appropriate to any musical experience. Few have the purity of his Mozart, an account of the Piano Sonata in C major K330, the composer’s tenth published work in the form which was written just after he moved to Vienna. Published in his late twenties, it is very much a ‘white’ work – as in, written in the key whose scale uses all the white notes on the keyboard.

Yet, as a listen to this performance (from 1:56 on the broadcast link) will show, Mozart enjoys a good deal of chromatic movement, using the black notes to add considerable spice and intrigue to what initially seems like an extremely polite piece. Gavrylyuk plays with poise and elegance, enjoying the composer’s good manners but equally thriving on the diversions as they get more pronounced.

The slow movement (from 8:59) reveals much more of these tendencies, especially in its central minor key episode, a deeply personal piece of writing with tragic overtones (from 11:28). It casts a shadow from which the whole movement takes a while to recover, even when moving back into the safer intimacy of the major key (13:38). With a cutesy flourish the finale (15:22) returns us to happier music making, and seems to take on the influence of Scarlatti while looking forward to early Beethoven. Again Mozart enjoys more exotic melodies than the key suggests, keeping wit and positivity to the fore.

Rachmaninov’s big early success as a composer came through the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, its declamation a big hit with audiences. From this he was inspired to write 24 Preludes, one in each key, published in two subsequent books of 13 and 10 works respectively. The three heard here are fine pieces in their own right, beginning with the relatively confidential Prelude in G flat major Op.23/10 (22:04). This leads to the raw power of the Prelude in G minor Op.23/5 (25:24), one of Rachmaninov’s best-loved piano pieces, which builds into a march of real substance in Gavrylyuk’s performance. The Prelude In G sharp minor Op.32/12 (29:40) is an intriguing work, its bell-like sonorities hinting at the influence of the East and leaving quite an impression in this performance.

The reason Gavrylyuk’s statement is so pertinent to Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7 is because the piece was written – as with so many Soviet pieces of its era – on two levels. Its crowd-facing elements were to please Stalin, to ensure Prokofiev stayed in his favour with works that left his audience in an ultimately positive frame of mind. How could they be otherwise, given the ferocity of the final movement? And yet the private elements are there for all who listen closely, for this is the central of Prokofiev’s three ‘War Sonatas’, completed in 1939. The first movement may be loud and brash (from 34:12) but it also has music of barely concealed turmoil, revealed clearly in the second theme two minutes later, where the virtuosity is completely absent.

Prokofiev is one of the most percussive of earlier 20th century composers for the piano, alongside Bartók and Stravinsky, and as the first movement proceeds there is an impressive rhythmic drive. All that is removed for the profound slow movement, however (42:11), where he quotes from Wehmut (Sadness), part of Schumann‘s Op.39 cycle Liederkreis, another private clue to his predicament.

In this performance Gavrylyuk has the sonata’s measure to a tee, investing a lot of feeling in the slower music while seemingly using the louder moments to banish evil from his sight. The last movement (47:57) is thrill-a-second, the repeated three note motif in the left hand taking over and driving to a hugely impressive finish, by which time the pianist was so far back he was almost horizontal!

Appropriately we had calming Schumann for an encore, providing a consoling link to the slow movement of the Prokofiev. This was Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) from his 1838 collection Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) Op.15 (52:28).

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Alexander Gavrylyuk’s own recording of the Prokofiev:

The recording of the Prokofiev is part of an intriguing recital disc released in 2011, which includes works by fellow Russian composers Rachmaninov (his underrated Moments Musicaux Op.16) and Scriabin (his Piano Sonata no.5):

Meanwhile to further explore the Prokofiev piano sonatas, Denis Kozhukhin is an excellent guide. This album contains the other two sonatas in the so-called ‘war trilogy’ of works:

Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen at the Wigmore Hall – A Revolutionary cello recital

Steven Isserlis (cello) and Olli Mustonen (piano)

Prokofiev Ballade, Op.15 (1912)
Mustonen Chanson russe & Danse Oriental (1995)
Kabalevsky Cello Sonata in B flat major Op.71 (1962)

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 29 October 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

A chamber concert with revolution in the air. This carefully chosen recital was short and to the point, but contained some deeply meaningful music lying just outside of the normal repertoire for cello and piano. Just before Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen played an early Sibelius Waltz as their encore, the cellist explained the programme’s themes of revolution, both in Russia and Finland.

They began with a startling performance of Prokofiev’s Ballade in C minor, startling in the sense that this music was brought to life with an intensity rarely experienced in this or any of the composer’s music. Isserlis was at his probing best, particularly in the pizzicato sections, but Mustonen took the lead, bringing out the composer’s phrasing as only he can, with heavily weighted emphasis on the most important harmonic notes. Thus the piece became a Ballade in the truest sense of the word – dark, passionate and stormy.

Mustonen’s joining of links between his own Finland and Russia was next, the Chanson russe surprising in its simplicity, which was touchingly effective, before a whirlwind Danse Oriental that could have been contemporaneous with the Prokofiev. It made a highly effective concert piece, and both performers clearly enjoyed it.

The most substantial piece was Kabalevsky’s Cello Sonata, written perhaps inevitably for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in 1962. With some of the Rostropovich dedications the cellist’s spirit hangs heavily over the music, and it was easy to imagine his larger than life projections of the melodies. While Isserlis may not have the sheer volume of the late Russian (who does?!) he has sensitive phrasing and a lovely tone at his disposal, and, at the beginning of the second movement, produced a feather-light touch on the tremolos that sent a shiver down the spine.

Again it was satisfying to experience a piece packed full of melody, and with more harmonic sleights that Mustonen inevitably brought to the fore. The style could be viewed as a hybrid of Prokofiev and Shostakovich – no bad thing, certainly! – and the main melody, which reappeared at the end, had a harmonic twist and simplicity that pulled subtly at the heartstrings.

The major-minor subtleties of the writing were fully explored, and while Mustonen often took the lead rhythmically this felt wholly appropriate. Kabalevsky is a composer whose music works well in the concert hall, with memorable tunes, a sense of humour and pockets of unexpected poignancy. It is less obviously weighted than Prokofiev but extremely enjoyable on its own terms.

Gratifyingly, Isserlis and Mustonen explored those qualities to the full, and with their virtuosity and drive they gave the composer the best possible advocacy. The Sibelius waltz, known as the Lulu Waltz, was economy itself, over in a minute – but leaving a strong impression.

Further listening and reading

Unfortunately this concert is not available online, but you can hear the premiere recording, made by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich with the composer at the piano, on the Spotify link below:

In addition the Kabalevsky Cello Concertos are highly recommended – and they can be heard in these recent recordings by Torleif Thedéen and the Hannover Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Eiji Oue:

The Borrowers – Robbie Williams: Party Like A Russian

What tune does it use?

The Dance of the Knights from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet.

Arguably Prokofiev’s most famous piece of music, Romeo and Juliet has some fantastic music and tunes – and the Dance of the Knights is one of its most impressive calling cards. It has recently gained extra exposure as the opening titles for the BBC programme The Apprentice.

How does it work?

Williams uses the two heavy bass notes from the start to power the chorus:

A bigger sample gets used for the first chorus:

Then some snippets from later in the dance are incorporated:

The Prokofiev material appears to be replayed throughout, and Robbie adds a big male chorus for some bits, but unfortunately the bluster of verse and chorus, plus some really clunky rhyming (Russian – concussion!), mean the song itself is relatively unmemorable. The posturing in the video takes away from the music – of which Prokofiev’s contribution is arguably the most memorable.

What else is new?

Williams made far more effective use of a sample in his UK no.1 hit from 1998 Millennium, where a loop of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice tied together with a beat and a much more memorable chorus:

Prokofiev is no stranger to pop music, and has been used by Emerson, Lake and Palmer on a number of occasions. Here is their slightly foursquare take on the Dance of the Knights:

A much more effective Prokofiev transcription can be found with their transcription of the Scythian Suite – its second movement, The Enemy God Dances with the Black Spirits:

Where can I hear more Prokofiev?

The playlist below gives an introduction to Prokofiev’s symphonies and includes his Classical Symphony and Symphony no.5 – with brilliant tunes at every turn:

The second album is music for the stage, a brilliant collection under Claudio Abbado that includes Alexander Nevsky, Lieutenant Kije (with the brilliant Sleigh Ride as used by Greg Lake!) and the Scythian Suite:

Let’s also not forget Peter and the Wolf…here voiced by none other than Alice Cooper in a new version!

Wigmore Mondays – Steven Isserlis & Olli Mustonen in Prokofiev, Schumann and Mustonen

steven-isserlis-olli-mustonen

Steven Isserlis (cello), Olli Mustonen (piano) (both above)

Schumann 3 Romances, Op 94 (1849) (11 minutes); 3 pieces from Album für die Jugend, Op 68: Sheherazade; Winterszeit I & II (1848) (9 minutes)

Olli Mustonen Frei, aber einsam (UK premiere) (2014) (4 minutes)

Schumann arr. Isserlis Intermezzo from F.A.E sonata (1853) (3 minutes)

Prokofiev Cello Sonata in C, Op 119 (1949) (23 minutes)

Listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast here, until 2 November

Arcana’s commentary

Schumann is arguably Steven Isserlis‘ favourite composer. The clues are there in the enthusiasm with which the cellist talks about his music, the affection he gives to each of the melodic lines, and in this concert the construction of an imaginative suite of works for cello and piano, where his natural and extremely intimate lyrical side was to the fore.

Schumann did not write a fully-fledged sonata for cello and piano, but he did complete a number of pieces either directly for the combination or in a form that could be naturally arranged. Such is the case with the 3 Romances, published for oboe and piano as Schumann’s Op.94 but making a seamless transition to the cello.

In this performance the first Romance (from 1:47 on the BBC iPlayer) is a little doleful, the second (from 5:22) is notable for a relatively stormy central section, while the third (9:13) brings the instruments together in thoughtful unison.

After this Isserlis sat head bowed, listening intently as Olli Mustonen performed pieces from Album for the Young as though he and the listener were the only two people in the room. The first piece is Sheherazade (from 13:19), finding the level of intimacy that Schumann’s pieces for the young so consistently achieve, then from 17:10 we hear Winterszeit I and then the changing moods of Winterszeit II (19:01)

Mustonen himself then turns composer, with Frei, aber einsam (from 22:06), a piece for Isserlis alone written with the grace and intimacy of Schumann. It also has a bit of his childlike mischief when it gathers confidence – rather like a bird emerging from the nest – and starts flying along.

Mustonen uses the notes F-A-E as his starting point – which offers a strong like to the next work, heard from 26:46 we hear a tender performance of an arrangement of Schumann’s Romance for the collaborative FAE Sonata, a work written in tandem with Brahms (who contributed the famous Scherzo) and Albert Dietrich. It uses the notes ‘F-A-E’ in the simplest possible way – but also the most personal.

Following this attractive suite is the Cello Sonata of Prokofiev. Typically for the Russian composer this is full of good tunes, and in this performance (from 32:26) Isserlis and Mustonen bring them all to life in a vivacious performance. Isserlis had his way with the audience in the hall, too, with a few glances that sent up the more humourous moments of the second movement perfectly (from 42:46). There is music of romantic power, too, whether in the powerful climax of the first movement (at 41:11) or in the big finale (from 47:27) which sweeps impressively through its return to the main tune at 51:47.

A wonderfully affirming concert ends on a sad note with a tribute to the late conductor and violinist Sir Neville Marriner, the face of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, who passed away the day before at the age of 92. Isserlis chose the second of Schumann’s Five Pieces in Folk Style (from 56:42), and with Mustonen proceeded to give a touching and affectionate encore.

Further listening

For more music related to this concert, try the Schumann and the FAE playlist on Spotify below. This includes the whole of the collaborative FAE Sonata, the oboe and piano version of the 3 Fantasy Pieces in a wonderful recording from Heinz Holliger and Alfred Brendel and, to finish with, a rare recording of the Cello Sonata no.1 by Myaskovsky. He was the composer who raved about Prokofiev‘s Cello Sonata after its early performances – so here is his own moment in the sun:

by Ben Hogwood