In Concert – Pavel Haas Quartet @ Wigmore Hall: Haydn, Prokofiev & Haas

Pavel Haas Quartet [Veronika Jarůšková, Marek Zwiebel (violins), Karel Untermüller (viola), Peter Jarůšek (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in G major Op.76/1 (1979)
Prokofiev String Quartet no.2 in F major Op.92 (1941)
Haas String Quartet no.2 Op.7 ‘From The Monkey Mountains’ (1925)

Wigmore Hall, London
Thursday 24 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The Pavel Haas Quartet often cause a stir on their visits to the Wigmore Hall, and this concert was no exception for the Czech ensemble.

Many of Haydn’s mature string quartets begin with a trio of chords effectively designed to hush the audience and guide their ears towards the performance getting underway. The first in his crowning set of six quartets published as Op.76 is no exception, though in this red blooded account the Pavel Haas Quartet pinned the audience back in their seats, such was the vigour with which this performance began.

There were some ragged edges to their interpretation, and less evidence of the genial Haydn that makes himself known with the conversational melody of the first movement. We did however get more exposure to his experimental side, through an interpretation pointing the music forward towards middle period Beethoven. The quickstep third movement, very much a scherzo rather than a minuet, pointed up Haydn’s daring harmonic excursions and dalliances, as did the finale, based mostly in the minor key and featuring a number of brisk about-turns. Stemming the tide was the second movement Adagio, a reverent account with a solemn air to its central section in particular.

There followed a superbly played account of Prokofiev’s String Quartet no.2. This attractive work is not often heard in concert, which is a shame for it has a good deal of spice and charm through its investment in folk tunes from the Northern Caucausian region, where the composer was evacuated in 1941. Encouraged by his new neighbours, Prokofiev achieved a very satisfying blend of the original tunes with spiky good humour and scrunched up harmonic dissonances, always in thrall to the highly melodic content.

The first movement revelled in the abundance of good tunes, bringing the Pavel Haas Quartet’s Slavonic instincts into play. The mood softened for a heartfelt cello solo from Peter Jarůšek, setting a thoughtful and delicately nostalgic tone for the Adagio. Here more time was taken for reflection, with a noticeable chill running through Prokofiev’s writing.

Within the folk references it is possible to discern the worrisome mood of the time, with World War Two underway. The third movement however felt like a show of resolution in the face of this threat, laced with humour that in this performance could have been exploited to greater effect. It was however a fine performance, with terrific ensemble playing.

The main event of the concert was undoubtedly a performance of music from the quartet’s namesake. Pavel Haas, born in Moravia, studied with Janáček between 1920 and 1922, completing his String Quartet no.2 three years later. Tragically in 1941 he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and died in Auschwitz three years later. Much of his work lay in neglect but has in the last thirty years enjoyed an extremely welcome renaissance, led by a number of enterprising recordings made in the 1990s, not least that of this work for Decca’s Entartete Musik imprint in the 1990s by the Hawthorne String Quartet. Since then the second quartet has gone on to gain a welcome foothold in the concert hall.

It would be difficult to contemplate a better performance than this one from the Pavel Haas Quartet. Led assertively by Veronika Jarůšková, they showed what an assured and imaginative piece it is, a travelogue giving the listener a tour of the sights and sounds of the famous Monkey Mountain range in Moravia.

The musical language is a curious but highly engaging hybrid of influences, drawing on the music of Dvořák and Smetana but in compressed melodic pockets of heightened intensity. Janáček, too, is an influential voice, but Haas’s unusual phrasing and distinctive rhythms make for a unique and enjoyable style.

The Pavel Haas Quartet enjoyed it greatly, the first two movements (Landscape and Coach, Coachman and Horse) enjoying the rarefied outdoor air and some crisply secured dance rhythms. The third movement, subtitled The Moon and I, was much colder to the touch, the muted strings taking time for introspection and creating some striking colours along the way. Their beautifully poised playing set up a riotous Wild Night finale where they were joined by percussionist Owen Gunnell (above), whose battery of instruments were expertly marshalled to bring the sounds of 1920s jazz into the fray.

The riotous closing pages brought the swaying Moravian dances and jazz rhythms to the foundations of the Wigmore Hall, brilliantly played and ideally balanced. So good was this section that the five performers gave us a quick reprisal as an encore, reminding us in the process of the fiercely original writing from a composer whose resurgence is to be greatly welcomed.  

In concert – Clara-Jumi Kang, CBSO / Elena Schwarz: Dukas, Prokofiev & Dvořák

Dukas L’apprenti sorcier (1897)
Prokofiev Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor Op.63 (1935)
Dvořák Symphony no.8 in G major Op. 88 (1889)

Clara-Jumi Kang (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Elena Schwarz

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Tuesday 15 November 2022 2.15pm

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra followed the once customary format of overture, concerto and symphony for what was a compact but cohesive programme which duly highlighted the considerable conducting prowess of Elena Schwarz.

It may be a ‘symphonic scherzo’ rather than overture, but Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice after an early ballade by Goethe makes for an ideal curtain-raiser and if Schwarz stressed its purely musical rather than evocative qualities (there being little sense of Fantasia goings-on), the piece still packed a fair punch. Other accounts might have brought out more of that sense of teetering on the brink of disaster during its climactic stages though, a couple of awkward transitions and premature entries aside, this was rarely less than gripping as a performance.

So, too, was Clara-Jumi Kang in Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Long a staple of the repertoire, the work’s appeal can often be undermined by an emotional disengagement over its course. There was no chance of that here – Kang alive to the opening Allegro’s interplay of ambivalence and eloquence as were barely resolved by the terse closing pay-off. Nor was there any absence of expressive poise in the Andante, Kang’s often astringent tone pointing up that uneasy lyricism such as characterizes so much of the composer’s music at this time.

Kang entered fully into the final Allegro’s bracing if often sardonic spirit. The main theme’s rhythmic undertow, accentuated by castanets on its returns, likely indicates no more than a generalized Spanish-ness rather than any Civil War premonition, but it does add an edginess to the music’s course right through to its peremptory signing-off. This was a performance to savour, and Kang responded to its warm reception with an encore – the soulful Grave from Bach’s Second Violin Sonata (BWV1003) – which seemed entirely appropriate in context.

Although this was her debut with the CBSO, Schwarz clearly found no mean rapport with the musicians, as was evident in Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. Not all those tempo changes in the opening Allegro were equally well handled, but the unbridled verve with which the composer handles his material was sustained through to the effervescent coda. With its deft alternating between wistfulness and pathos, the Adagio is surely as finely achieved a slow movement as Dvořák wrote and such qualities were as evident here as was the raptness of its closing bars.

The other movements might represent a marginal falling-off of invention, but the Allegretto’s gentle lilt was delightfully inflected with its unexpected breezy coda made all of a piece with the foregoing. Similarly, the variation format of the final Allegro can easily become a formal strait-jacket – yet with a delectable response from the CBSO woodwind and Schwarz pacing its eventful progress ideally through the ruminative latter variations and on to a scintillating close, it rounded off this performance with no less conviction than was evident at the outset.

From a relatively traditional programme to one much freer – next week’s CBSO concert is devised and directed by Pekka Kuusisto, and features music by Sibelius, Vaughan Williams and Rautavaara as part of an ingenious sequence centred on the concept Birds of Paradise.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Elena Schwarz and Clara-Jumi Kang

In Concert – Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev Piano Sonatas Part 2 @ Wigmore Hall

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Prokofiev
Piano Sonata no.5 in C major Op.28 (original version) (1923)
Piano Sonata no.8 in B flat major Op.84 (1939-44)
Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.1 (1909)
Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor Op.28 (1917)
Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1939-42)

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 1 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The second part of Olli Mustonen’s journey through Prokofiev’s nine completed piano sonatas featured crucial roles for piano tuner and page turner. On the first night Mustonen had experienced problems with the upper register of his Steinway, which fell out of tune under duress as the Piano Sonata no.6 progressed. Tonight one was at hand to ensure temperament was consistent throughout, while the page turner deserves a special mention for his busy supporting role in the whirlwind passages of the Piano Sonata no.7.

The real star, though, was the music – as Mustonen has always been at pains to point out. He is a humble artist whose preparation was clearly meticulous, but one with an extraordinary range of dynamics and the ability to think quickly on his feet / fingers. Here the composer in him comes to the surface, his thoughts on stage often highly instinctive while offering unique insights into Prokofiev’s music.

The order of the sonatas on the second night was as logical as the first – with two more substantial works before the interval and three short sonatas after, two of those presnting their arguments in single-movement form. The Piano Sonata no.5 in C major was first, a work whose initial tempo marking Allegro tranquillo was at odds with the music itself. Certainly Mustonen set about his task with a uniquely probing intensity for the right hand line, becoming increasingly agitated as the music progressed. The Fifth, the only sonata to be written outside Russia, has an unmistakeably French flavour, its Parisian origins found in languorous bass lines and harmonies aligning themselves with the Les Six school. The third movement presented an enchanted sound world, presenting impish qualities but evading any attempt to pin down a definite mood.

The Piano Sonata no.8 is the largest of the nine sonatas, capping the wartime trilogy completed in the early 1940s. Mustonen started in a dreamy mood, but soon the thoughts meandered and the music became increasingly distracted. The powerful middle section was capped by a remarkably strong outburst of feeling, passions near to the surface. The slow movement had warm lyricism and cold sorrow in almost equal measure, while the finale’s capricious theme gave way to music of raw power, with fiendishly quick passagework in the right hand and some incredibly intricate workings under the bonnet. The spectre of war lies close to the surface of this work, and its percussive clout in the faster music gives it impressive power, yet the more measured melodies made the lasting impressions.

It was fascinating to hear Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.1, his Op.1, after the interval. While not his first work in order of composition, this is a piece looking back to peaks of ardent Russian romanticism as well as Chopin and Liszt. The rich harmonies were however topped by signs of the mature Prokofiev to come in the occasionally jagged rhythmic profile and some spicy dissonances, all of which Mustonen conveyed in an incident-packed 7 minutes.

The Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor, also a single-movement work, looks sideways at the sonatas of Scriabin. An awful lot happens in the course of its eight minutes, from the profile of a virtuoso tarantella to an emphatic signing off. Along the way there are distinctive melodic snippets, crisply developed, with harmonic barbs and clipped comments. Later in the sequence some bell-like sequences ring out, projecting easily to the back of the hall. Mustonen’s affection for this music was clear, the sharp-witted themes and peppery harmonies brilliantly realised.

The Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major was the logical next step, Mustonen delivering the three works with barely a pause in between. The shortest of the wartime trilogy, the Seventh is the most explicitly virtuosic, its driving rhythms making it something of a crowd pleaser. Mustonen took its outer movements at a blistering pace, the right hand somehow phrasing the quirky opening melody of the first so that it still made sense, before rolling out the barrel as the music tripped along. The real heart of the performance lay in the Andante caloroso, this curious marking of the second movement asking for warmth from the performer in what was by far the slowest music of the night. There is a deeply yearning centre to this movement, and Mustonen’s soulful interpretation felt just right. The finale could not have been more different, a hair-raising drive to the finish where the insistent three-note motif in bass octaves threatened to go right through the floor. The right hand had a breathtaking speed of transition, somehow coping with the aggressively fast tempo to drive the music kicking and screaming over the line.

Mustonen received a well-deserved standing ovation for his Herculean efforts, his incredible stamina powered by Prokofiev’s unique and instantly recognisable writing for the piano, and his commitment obvious from first note to last. As if to remind us of Prokofiev’s innocent and simple lyricism, he then gave an excerpt from the Music for Children Op.65 as an encore, capping a remarkable two days of music.

In Concert – Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev Piano Sonatas @ Wigmore Hall

Prokofiev

Piano Sonata no.4 in C minor Op.29 (1917)
Piano Sonata no.2 in D minor Op.14 (1912)
Piano Sonata no.9 in C major Op.103 (1947)
Piano Sonata no.6 in A major Op.82 (1939-40)

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 31 October 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood; Photo of Olli Mustonen (c) Heikki Tuuli

Sergei Prokofiev is a composer whose music responds well to a ‘completist’ treatment. In the last decade London has seen cycles of his seven symphonies (from Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra) and his five piano concertos, given in a memorable Prom in 2015 with the London Symphony Orchestra supporting five different soloists. Now came the chance to look more closely at the composer’s writing for piano in a two-night performance of the nine solo sonatas, given by a specialist of the composer’s music.

Olli Mustonen has recorded the Prokofiev concertos but not yet committed his thoughts on the sonatas to disc. Should he do so the results will be fascinating, for he has a highly individual and uniquely compelling take on this composer’s music. His is an energetic approach, and even by the end of the first movement of the Piano Sonata no.4 he was mopping a fevered brow. Fourteen movements later he had delivered a revealing look at music whose power to reflect its time and place of composition is remarkably strong, carrying profound messages forward to the present day.

Born in what is now Ukraine, Prokofiev experienced great trials and separations throughout his life. Those tensions are felt in his music, where they are offset by a ready sense of humour, expressed through piano writing that emphasises athleticism but makes room for tender lyricism, backed by an instinct for concise yet developed frameworks in which the music can sit. As a result, pieces and movements rarely overstate their welcome.

Piano Sonata no.4 was a good choice with which to start, a collection of old jottings sometimes subtitled D’après des vieux cahiers (After Old Notebooks). Using material dating back to 1908, Prokofiev assembles a selection of inner thoughts and bittersweet memories. Mustonen expressed these first hand, taking liberties with the rhythm and note emphasis on occasion but wholly in the spirit of the music. The language, initially gruff, melted to an emotive and balletic slow movement with an expressive tune using the white notes on the keyboard. The bustling finale exhibiting a common language with the contemporaneous Piano Concerto no.3.

Like the fourth sonata, the Piano Sonata no.2 bears a dedication to Prokofiev’s friend from the St Petersburg Conservatory Maximilian Schmidthof, tragically lost to suicide in 1913. The language here is more obviously Romantic, with elements of Chopin and Scriabin, but the tart lyricism in the right hand could only be from Prokofiev, and Mustonen brought it out with often startling clarity. There was a whirlwind scherzo, like a devilish skaters’ dance, before a cold melancholy encased the slow movement, which sounded like a distant relative of The Old Castle from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. The helter-skelter finale, brilliantly played, took the audience on a fairground ride.

After the interval Mustonen gave a rare performance of the Piano Sonata no.9, an elusive work whose dedicatee, Sviatoslav Richter, confessed to finding it a difficult work to understand. Its music hints at a new simplicity, emphasised by the choice of C major as the ‘home’ key, but the awkward complexion of the music tells of a troubled mind, Prokofiev seemingly thrown by the end of the Second World War and yet another set of restrictions on musical style from the Russian authorities.

The faster figures in the first movement soon tired of their attempts to run away from this, but the macabre second movement suggested a restless toy shop after dark. Throughout the work, bursts of brittle melody threatened to extinguish the more songful elements of Prokofiev’s writing, though the forceful finale was typical of the composer in its power and obduracy. Mustonen did well to communicate what seemed to be a dip in the composer’s energy towards the close.

Finally we heard the Piano Sonata no.6, a work speaking directly to the wartime climate today. Written as the Second World War was raging, it is closely linked with the seventh and eighth sonatas, works that also tell of conflict, anger and desolation. The opening salvo of the Sixth was chilling indeed, but in Mustonen’s hands it became an outright assault, the treble notes biting through with such power that the ‘A’ on the piano lost its tuning as the sonata progressed. If anything this made the impact of Prokofiev’s writing even stronger, the scrunched-up harmonies raw and dissonant.

The Sixth is not a depressing work, however – as its stuttering Scherzo told, wrenched this way and that by a left-hand melody. The lyrical power of the third movement, initially subtle but then more overtly passionate, looked ahead towards the composer’s colourful ballet scores. Mustonen felt that connection, conducting himself whenever a hand was free, and sensing the orchestral connections for the voices in front of him. The finale had a curiously phrased but highly effective main theme, and when the artillery from the first movement returned it brought with it an even greater chill than before. The sonata ended in a cacophony of noise, powerfully wrought and given without quarter.

Taking the white heat out of the sonatas a little, Mustonen proceeded to charm with an encore of the Prelude Op.12/7, published in 1913 and often used as an encore by the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels. It was an unexpected treat, capping an evening of exceptional pianism.

You can hear Olli Mustonen’s recording of the Prelude, part of a Prokofiev miscellany recorded for Ondine, below:

Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev

This week, Arcana will be visiting the Wigmore Hall to hear the complete piano sonatas of Prokofiev, played over two nights by Olli Mustonen.

The Finnish pianist is a specialist in the Ukrainian-born composer’s music, and it looks set to be a fascinating pair of concerts, offering a rare chance to appraise the complete works in this area of Prokofiev’s output. As a taster to illustrate his natural rapport with Prokofiev’s writing for the keyboard, here is Mustonen performing the Piano Concerto no.2 in G minor with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu:

Olli Mustonen plays the complete sonatas at the Wigmore Hall, over two nights – for information click on the links for Monday 31 October and Tuesday 1 November:

Mustonen has also recorded the five piano concertos for Ondine, with Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. You can hear these dynamic accounts below: