Wigmore Mondays – Louise Alder & Joseph Middleton: Lines written during a sleepless night

Louise Alder (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 6 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

This was a concert with an especially personal link for soprano Louise Alder. The Russian Connection – subtitle of her first album for Chandos – goes much further than the repertoire chosen. It reflects Alder’s Russian ancestry, with generations of her family, up to and including her grandfather in 1914, born in the country.

In addition to that, Alder and regular recital partner Joseph Middleton have created a captivating program linking Grieg, Medtner, Tchaikovksy, Britten, Rachmaninov and Sibelius through their choice of poets and their use of a language outside of their own. Six composers, four languages (at last count!) and some richly descriptive writing all made for a particularly memorable concert, especially when performed with the passion and musicality on show here.

Alder and Middleton judged their program to perfection, bringing in the new year with a spring in its step as Grieg’s Heine setting Gruß (Greeting) tripped into view (2:33 on the broadcast link). This is the first song in a compact but deeply descriptive cycle of six from the composer, setting German poetry with his typical melodic freshness and flair. Alder shows lovely control on the final ‘Gruß’ word, before applying a slight husk to the deeply felt Dereinst, Gedanke mein (One day, my thoughts) (3:40), which made a striking impact here. Lauf der Welt (The Way of the World) (6:23) has heady urgency, singer and pianist working as one, while the evocative Die verschwiegene Nachtigall (The secretive nightingale) (8:01) is a sultry, sensual setting in these hands, the initial picture beautifully painted by Middleton. Zur Rosenzeit (Time of roses) (11:40) is filled with intense longing, while Alder’s tone in Ein traum (A dream) (14:55) is particularly beautiful, working through to a powerful finish.

Nikolai Medtner is a Russian composer known for his piano music rather than his songs, so it was gratifying to have Alder and Middleton (above) include two here. They are fine pieces of work, too, with an impressively fulsome piano part that Middleton tackled with deceptive ease and clarity. Mailied (May song) (18:15) holds an intense vocal line over its catchy piano part, while Meeresstille (Calm sea) (20:10) is really well controlled by Alder here.

Tchaikovsky’s numerous songs contain many treasures, and the two French language examples here were no exception. The Sérénade (23:22) dances in the bright light of dawn, with a slightly furtive piano, while Les Larmes (The tears) (25:02) provides much darker soul searching.

Britten’s Russian-language song cycle The Poet’s Echo is a relative rarity in the concert hall, but as Alder and Middleton showed here it contains music of typically fearsome and compressed intensity. The spirit of Musorgsky is evident not just in the choice of poet (Pushkin) but in the bare piano lines, rumbling in the deep for the first song Echo (29:22). Alder’s line is fearlessly delivered, with songs like My heart… (32:17) and Angel (33:48), with its quasi-orchestral piano part, making a powerful impression. The nightingale and the rose (36:20) take powerful flight, the piano gnawing at the heel of the vocal line, while the strange Epigram (40:13) has a striking reverberation achieved through the open piano lid. The final song, Lines written during a sleepless night (41:07) captures the supreme irritation of insomnia through the ‘monotonous tick of the clocks’, with a chilling piano postlude. This work remains a difficult nut to crack, listening-wise, but this is the sort of performance to do it.

We then heard two songs by Rachmaninov, both again setting Pushkin texts. Sing not to me, beautiful maiden (46:44), an early song from the composer’s late teens, receives a fulsome account here with Alder capturing the devastating beauty of the song. The later How fair this spot (51:56), taking the mood from darkness to relative light, is even better, Alder’s top ‘B’ a note of extraordinary clarity.

The generously packed concert concluded with three Sibelius songs, sung in Swedish. Once again these songs are found to be fiercely intense, often expressed through the bare minimum of means. The tempestuous Säv, säv, susa (Sigh, rushes, sigh) (54:02) is heady stuff, while the dynamic range achieved by both performers in Våren flyktar hastigt (Spring is swiftly flying) (56:27) is hugely impressive. Finally Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote (The girl came from her lover’s tryst) (57:49) has a huge, orchestral scope, a reminder that the Second Symphony is not far away in the composer’s output. The song chills to the bone when turning tragically into the minor key for its third verse and the lover’s treason.

This was a simply outstanding concert from Alder and Middleton, deeply intimate yet including the audience in all of their asides. These qualities extended to the wonderful encore, Rachmaninov’s A Dream, where the rippling piano part and exotic harmonies supported Alder’s heavenly soprano line.

If more of the Wigmore Hall Monday lunchtime concerts are as good as this in 2020, we are in for many treats indeed! It only remains for you to listen on BBC Sounds if you haven’t already…and to keep up with the series as it progresses.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Grieg 6 Songs Op.48 (1884-8) (2:33)
Medtner Mailied Op.6/2 (1901-5) (18:15), Meeresstille Op.15/7 (1905-7) (20:10)
Tchaikovsky Sérénade Op.69/1 (1888) (23:22), Les Larmes Op.69/5 (1888) (25:02)
Britten The Poet’s Echo Op.76 (1965) (29:22)
Rachmaninov Sing not to me, beautiful maiden Op.4/4 (publ.1893) (46:44), How fair this spot Op.21/7 (1902) (51:56)
Sibelius Säv, säv, susa Op.36/4 (1900) (54:02), Våren flyktar hastigt Op.13/4 (1891) (56:27), Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings möte Op.37/5 (1901) (57:49)
Encore – Rachmaninov A Dream Op.38/5 (not on the broadcast)

Further listening

Most of the music from this concert is part of Louise Alder and Joseph Middleton’s new disc for Chandos, Lines Written During A Sleepless Night: The Russian Connection, with the exception of the two Rachmaninov songs. The full playlist is here:

If you enjoyed Alder and Middleton in this concert – which I’m sure you did! – their previous outing together is a sumptuous collection of songs by Richard Strauss for Orchid Classics which is bound to appeal, and certainly plays to their strengths:

Meanwhile to enjoy the Rachmaninov song output in its entirety there are few better historical guides than soprano Elisabeth Söderström and pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy:

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:

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 28: Tadaaki Otaka conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Rachmaninov & Huw Watkins

Prom 28: Iurii Samoilov (baritone), Natalya Romaniw (soprano, below), Oleg Dolgov (tenor), BBC National Chorus of Wales, Philharmonia Chorus, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Tadaaki Otaka (above)

Takemitsu Twill by Twilight (1988)
Huw Watkins The Moon (2018-19) (BBC commission: world premiere)
Rachmaninov The Bells (1912-13)
Borodin Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances (1869-87)

Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 8 August 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credit (Tadaaki Otaka) Chris Christodoulou

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Given his commission brief, to write a choral piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing, Huw Watkins must have been tempted to set Neil Armstrong’s immortal ‘one giant leap’ quote to music. Instead however he opted to ‘capture our experience of viewing the moon from Earth’. In doing so he set four intriguing texts pre-dating the first manned visit to our original satellite – two from Percy Bysshe Shelley, and one each from Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen.

The four were stitched together like phases of the moon in a continuously running 20 minutes, with plenty of opportunity for the orchestra to have their say in between. Watkins has an interesting musical language, always rooted in tonality but using evocative colours and harmonies hinted at in works for chorus and orchestra by Holst, Vaughan Williams or even Hugh Wood.

The Moon had a very satisfactory flow to it, and was passionately delivered by the 130-strong BBC National Chorus of Wales, who clearly enjoyed the experience. Given its length it makes a tricky piece to programme or to appraise on one listen, but it is to be hoped in this anniversary year we get more chances to acquaint ourselves with a composer who writes in a very human voice, and found the ‘definite and bright’ description of Larkin’s verse. That may sound like an obvious statement to make, but surprisingly few composers form a connection with their audience as pronounced as Watkins did here, and even less make the words as clear as he did.

He was of course helped by his ‘home’ orchestra, conducted by a returning prodigal in Conductor Laureate Tadaaki Otaka. Making his first visit to the Proms since 2015. Otaka opened with a piece by his dear friend Toru Takemitsu. Twill By Twilight, in memory of Morton Feldman, was in clear thrall to the Debussy of Nocturnes, creating a dreamy atmosphere. The piece is typical of Takemitsu’s compositions in its dealing with orchestral colour, melody and harmony on equal standing, and it runs slowly if inevitably. In this performance it panned out beautifully, the expansive orchestral sound guided by Otaka’s steady yet relaxed direction.

Otaka has a special place for the works of Rachmaninov, having recorded the symphonies and piano concertos for Nimbus back in the early 1990s. Yet the Russian composer’s choral symphony The Bells was absent from this project, and it was great to hear it in such full-bodied form here. The BBC National Chorus of Wales were boosted still further by the 100-strong Philharmonia Chorus, making a terrific bank of sound that carried all before it – and yet which, thanks to Otaka’s careful balancing, was complemented by the orchestra.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loud Alarm Bells, the third movement, was suitably terrifying especially at the end, Otaka driving at a quick tempo, and this balanced out the relative joy felt in the first movement, Silver Sleigh Bells, where tenor Oleg Dolgov was a fulsome presence. Soprano Natalya Romaniw sang beautifully in Mellow Wedding Bells, the second movement, her voice effortlessly soaring up to a top B flat without a hint of effort, while baritone Iurii Samoilov offered a darker hue for the depths of Mournful Iron Bells, whose late shift from darkness to light was beautifully done. Rachmaninov’s choral epic has been well served by the Proms in recent years – I remember a terrific outing directed by Vladimir Jurowski – and this was another fine advocacy.

Finishing with Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances was a masterstroke, sending the audience home with several tunes in the locker that simply refused to leave for the rest of the evening! What a gifted melodist Borodin was, and how frustrating that because of his day job – a chemist – he did not leave more for us to enjoy. What he did leave still gives much pleasure, however, and the Polovtsian Dances benefited from such a big choir at their disposal.

The women floated the tune of the Young Girls’ Dance beautifully, while the men – while not quite hitting the passion of Russian voices in this music – were still fulsome and bold. Several orchestral solos stood out, not least from clarinetist Robert Plane, while Otaka’s pacing and linking of the sections was ideal. At 71 the conductor still looks in fine fettle, and his ‘sleep’ gesture at the end was borne more of mischief than genuine fatigue. It seems he, like the rest of us, was fired anew by the passionate Russian music of the concert’s second half.

Wigmore Mondays – Louis Schwizgebel, Benjamin Beilman & Narek Hakhnazaryan: Shostakovich & Mendelssohn

Louis Schwizgebel (piano, above), Benjamin Beilman (violin), Narek Hakhnazaryan (cello, both below)

Shostakovich Piano Trio no.1 Op.8 (1923) (from 2:14 on the broadcast link below)
Rachmaninov arr. Gayane Hakhnazaryan Vocalise Op.34/14 (1915)
Mendelssohn Piano Trio no.1 in D minor Op.49 (1839)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 1 April 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

A piano trio of exciting soloists gave this memorable concert at the Wigmore Hall as part of BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert series.

Pianist Louis Schwizgebel, violinist Benjamin Beilman and cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan are all making a name for themselves on their own terms, but by uniting for chamber music performances illustrate the very first principles of why this music was written.

Before their stylish performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no.1, we heard them in early Shostakovich – his first of two works in the popular form. The Piano Trio no.1 is not a typical work in the context of the composer’s full output, however – but it does show a prodigiously talented 17-year old student making formal innovations and writing heartfelt music, in this case pointing towards the work’s dedicatee, Tatyana Glivenko.

Shostakovich’s teacher Maximilian Steinberg perceived his increased ‘enthusiasm for the grotesque’, documented in Anthony Burton’s excellent notes for this concert, but looking back in the context of the composer’s full output this fascinating work revealed more of a debt to Russian romanticism than could initially be expected.

Beilman and Hakhnazaryan picked up this connection in their ardent melodies, while the steely piano of Schwizgebel gave some clues as to the source of Steinberg’s displeasure. Here though they put the seal on an outstanding account of music full of energy but with its excesses curbed through Shostakovich’s compact design. A captivating performance which is well worth experiencing from 2:14 on the broadcast link.

The inclusion of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise (from 17:50) made good sense in the context of the Shostatkovich. Made by Gayane Hakhnazaryan, mother of Narek, this arrangement illustrated the versatility of Rachmaninov’s original, more familiar to us in orchestral guise or for solo instrument with piano. Violin and cello dovetailed beautifully here, the trio managing the balance with an appropriate blend of nostalgia and poise.

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no.1 is perfectly suited to a recital such as this, a piece with virtuoso demands that would appeal to the soloists but also a work whose close integration brings a special intimacy to its more reflective moments. This was a terrific performance, the darker colours of the first movement established immediately in Hakhnazaryan’s heartfelt cello subject (27:02). A doleful second movement Song without words was lighter but also touching (37:04), before the twinkling right hand figures of Louis Schwizgebel led a sparkling account of the Scherzo (44:20).

The finale fused all these qualities, starting in relative seriousness and darkness (48:04) but finding bright light as the music transferred subtly but gloriously to the major key (55:16).

As an encore the Scherzo twinkled again, completing a concert notable for its fresh, enthusiastic and virtuosic qualities. Catch it if you can!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard in the best available recordings on Spotify here:

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: