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:

Oxford Lieder Festival – Kai Rüütel and Roger Vignoles: Tallinn to St Petersburg

Kai Rüütel (soprano, above), Roger Vignoles (piano, below)

Härma Ei saa mitte vaiki olla (I cannot stay silent)
Brahms Wie Melodien Op.105/1, Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer Op.105/2, Klage Op.105/3, Auf dem Kirchhofe Op.105/4
Rachmaninov O, dolgo budu ja, v molchan’i nochi tajnoj (In the silence of the secret night) Op.4/3, Poljubila ja (The Soldier’s Wife) Op.8/4, Zdes’ khorosho (How fair is the spot) Op.21/7
Mägi Kolm laulu Betti Alveri luulele (3 songs on poems by Betti Alver) [(Päike paistis, kaste hiilgas (The sun was shining, the dew gleamed), Kui kajab muusika (When music echoes), Uneaknale, uneaknale kevad koputas (On the window of sleep)]
Tormis Nukrad Viivud (Sorrowful Moments) [Kevadpäike, ära looju veel (Spring sun, do not set yet), Sügislaul (Autumn Song), Ei ole roose õitsenud minule (‘No roses have bloomed for me’), Armastus (‘Love’)
Rimsky-Korsakov Plenivshis rozoj, solovey (The Nightingale) Op.2/2, Na kholmakh Gruzii (On Georgia’s Hills) Op.3/4, Serenade Op.4/4, Drobitsya, i pleshchet, i brizzhet volna (The wave breaks) Op.46/1, Kogda volnuyetsya zhelteyushchaya niva (When the ripening wheat fields gently stir) Op.40/1
Mart Saar nnemuiste (In Days of Yore), Kõrs kahiseb (The Straw Murmurs), Kadunud ingel ‘Lost Angel’, Sügismõtted (Autumn Thoughts), Mis see oli? (What was It?), Üks ainus kord (Only Once More)

Holywell Music Room, Oxford
Wednesday 17 October 2018 (evening)

Written by Ben Hogwood

Continuing the Baltic theme of this Wednesday at the Oxford Lieder Festival, Estonian mezzo-soprano Kai Rüütel and pianist Roger Vignoles gave a fascinating concert introducing their audience to Estonian song from the 20th century, helpfully placed in the context of Romantic Russian and German song. Rüütel had very helpfully provided English translations of the Estonian songs, which was particularly useful for those Festival goers who had attended the earlier ‘Language Lab’ in the Ashmolean museum, where we had an introduction to the language from Kerli Liksor.

Rüütel set the tone with the unaccompanied Estonian folk song Ei saa mitte vaiki olla (I cannot stay silent), before four late Brahms songs showed off the rich tones of her mezzo-soprano. Yet there was a feeling these were merely a prelude to the meat of the concert, which really began with a wonderfully evocative account of the first of three Rachmaninov songs, In the silence of the secret night. The value of Vignoles’ scene setting was incalculable both here and in the Brahms, with some complex piano writing handled with apparent ease and an instinctive sense of melody and expression. Rüütel inhabited the character of The Soldier’s Wife with a powerful sorrow, contrasted with a dream-like finish to How Fair Is The Spot.

There followed 3 Songs on poems by Betti Alver from the 96-year old Estonian composer Ester Mägi. These had a very clear sense of location in their folk-inspired melodies, with distinctive inflections that Rüütel was ideally placed to exploit. These were mirrored in the piano part, which provided a particularly dramatic introduction for the second song, Where Music Echoes. The directness of the text was strangely refreshing and was reflected in the economy of the music, slightly redolent of Janáček in its economy but forging a very distinctive path.

The name of Veljo Tormis will be a more familiar name to students of Baltic music. Known primarily for his choral work, he is a fine song composer too – and the 1958 collection Sorrowful Moments left a lasting impression. Its central pair, Autumn Song and No Roses Have Bloomed For Me, were darkly toned, but the final Love offered much greater hope, Rüütel singing from the heart of ‘the stars that light the traveller’s way’.

Photo credit (c) Ben Ealovega

We returned to Russia for the beginning of the second half, with some rarely heard songs from Rimsky-Korsakov. Given the melodic prowess and dramatic scene setting on show in songs like On Georgia’s Hills and The Wave Breaks it remains a mystery that Rimsky’s songs are not heard more in the concert hall. Rüütel sang them with great fullness of tone but also enjoyed the more tender moments of Serenade and When The Ripening Wheat Fields Gently Stir. Vignoles’ tumultuous evocation of The Wave Breaks was a highlight; so too the pair’s account of The Nightingale.

Finally we heard the music of Mart Saar, an Estonian composer from the first half of the 20th century who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov. In one of several helpful introductions Rüütel told of how Saar followed Rimsky’s advice to ‘be himself’ but also to take risks – and those qualities were evident in these deceptive songs. They were deceptive because some of the twists and turns had an individual quirk, Romantic in profile but alighting on unexpected harmonies or melodies. To Rüütel these were second nature, and in Autumn thoughts especially she found a deep, soulful mood. The first song, In days of yore, had more obvious folk music inflections, but perhaps the most dramatic song of all was Lost Angel, where Vignoles’ mastery of the challenging piano part set the way clear for Rüütel’s direct, emotive response.

As an encore Rüütel and Vignoles gave us a timeless account of Richard Strauss’s Morgen which, while brilliantly performed it did not distract from the impact of the Estonian and Russian music we had just heard. Clearly there are many riches to be discovered from the Baltics, and it is to be hoped Rüütel and Vignoles might set these down permanently for a record company such as Hyperion.

This was a memorable concert, and will be broadcast soon on BBC Radio 3. It comes with the strongest possible recommendation!

Further listening

There is relatively little material on streaming services with which to discover Estonian songs – but there is a new series devoted to the songs of Mart Saar that has just begun:

Meanwhile most of the music from the concert can be heard on the below Spotify playlist:

Yuki Ito & Sofia Gulyak play Rachmaninov at the Wigmore Hall

Yuki Ito (cello, above), Sofia Gulyak (piano, below)

Rachmaninov
2 Pieces for cello and piano Op.2 (1891/2)
from the Morçeaux de fantaisie Op.3: Élégie; Mélodie; Sérénade (arr. Ito, Mélodie arr. Vlasov (1892)
Prelude in G flat major Op.23/10 (arr. Brandukov) (1903)
Lied for cello and piano (1890)
5 Songs: Morning Op.4/2 (1892), I the silence of the secret night Op.4/1 (1892), Lilacs Op.21/5 (1902), How fair this spot Op.21/7 (1902), Spring Waters Op.14/11 (1896) (arr. Ito)
Cello Sonata in G minor Op.19

Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 2 June 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

Rachmaninov’s music for cello and piano dates from the early part of his life, starting in teenage student years and working through to the mature sonata of his late twenties. With the addition of some judicious arrangements, Yuki Ito and Sofia Gulyak built a most attractive program for this concert, the last in the AVEX Recital Series at the Wigmore Hall for 2017-18.

They began near the start, with Two Pieces published as Op.2 in 1892. Rachmaninov’s gift as a melodist was already clear, as was his affinity with the piano, which already had a few demands placed on it here. Gulyak, as she did throughout the concert, proved an ideal partner, reining in the big textures where appropriate in the second piece, an attractive Danse orientale, so that Ito’s probing melodic line could still be heard.

A series of arrangements – maybe a couple too many in context – followed, several of them made by Ito himself. Rachmaninov’s songs have a register that fits the cello perfectly, as do the early piano pieces – and the Elegie and Sérénade, both Ito arrangements from the Morçeaux de fantaisie published as Op.3, worked well alongside a Mélodie arranged by Alexander Vlasov.

Of the following pieces the rich lower register of the Lied, an original cello piece, was beautifully brought to the fore by the Japanese cellist, while in the song arrangements the ardour surrounding In the silence of the secret night was nicely complemented by the higher arrangement of How fair this spot, and the onrush of the Spring Waters, where Gulyak’s control was exemplary.

And so to the Sonata, by far Rachmaninov’s biggest chamber work. It represents the culmination of his friendship with cellist Anatoly Brandukov in 1901, and is packed full of big tunes and tempestuous fast music. Once again the control and phrasing of Sofia Gulyak was key, and she was extremely attentive to Yuki Ito’s sensitive phrasing in the big-boned statements of the first and fourth movement in particular. The second movement scherzo, fleet of foot, had a tense drama about it, while the slow movement’s romantic tunes were lovingly delivered by Ito. The players returned for an encore, which was naturally more Rachmaninov – the Vocalise Op.34/14.

This was a fine chamber music concert, full of good things, with both players receptive to Rachmaninov’s style, phrasing and emotion. Yuki Ito is a fine young cellist, and has great things ahead of him – and as long as he continues to surround himself with musicians of the calibre of Sofia Gulyak, he will surely do extremely well.

For more information on Yuki Ito and Sofia Gulyak’s new disc of Rachmaninov, head to the Champs Hill website or listen on Spotify below: