Calin Huma – ‘Carpatica’ Symphony World Premiere


Richard Whitehouse on the London premiere of a new work from Romanian composer Calin Huma from the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London under Christopher Petrie, with Leslie Howard joining them for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto

Cadogan Hall, London on Thursday 17 December

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no.2 (1901)

Enescu: Romanian Rhapsody no.2 (1901)

Calin Huma: Symphony, ‘Carpatica’ (London premiere) (2015)

Leslie Howard (piano), Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London / Christopher Petrie

The Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London has demonstrably established itself on the London calendar over its two years of existence, with tonight’s programme surely the most enterprising yet. Leslie Howard was on hand for Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto – and a reading which, while offering little in the way of a fresh perspective, was for the most part finely articulated and well-coordinated. The opening Moderato was a touch stolid in its earlier stages, though the second theme was raptly conveyed on its return, then the central Adagio had pathos and, in its scherzo section, deftness to spare. The twin themes of the final Allegro were pointedly contrasted, the PCO nimbly negotiating the fugato at its centre, and the return of the ‘big tune’ capping the whole in a generous yet not over-bearing peroration.

Music by Romanian composers followed in the second half, which began with the welcome revival of Enescu’s Second Romanian Rhapsody. While its predecessor has latterly regained much of its former popularity, this piece is heard but seldom – its melodic eloquence at one with its largely ruminative persona. Christopher Petrie assuredly had its measure – whether in the soulful expression of its initial pages (Enescu’s deployment of traditional melodies at its most alluring), cumulative build-up to its fervent central climax, then the gradual ebbing away of emotion towards its close; a sense of place fleetingly if tangibly evoked. Hopefully this orchestra will go on to perform other works by Enescu – not least the First Orchestral Suite, whose mesmerising unison ‘Prelude’ would doubtless be relished by the PCO strings.

For now, listeners were treated to the London premiere (and only the second performance)   of the ‘Carpatica’ Symphony by Calin Huma (b 1965), the Romanian entrepreneur who has been based in Hampshire these past two decades. Huma has professed himself an avowed neo-Romantic in terms of aesthetic, and the present piece looks back beyond Enescu to the Romantic nationalism of Eduard Caudella (1841-1924) while evincing the melodic directness of more recent figures as Nicolae Kirculescu (1903-85), whose Moment Muzical (or at least its main theme) was well known to Romanian listeners in the 1960s and ‘70s. Huma’s work shared something of its unabashed nostalgia, yet whether the three movements of this half-hour piece amounted to anything which approaches a cohesive conception is open to doubt.

That it failed to do so was hardly the fault of the PCO, whose strings played with lustre, or of Petrie – who directed with sure conviction of where this rhapsodic music ought to be headed. Not that this prevented the lengthy first movement from losing focus before its final climax, while its successor – more a slow intermezzo than a slow movement – would have benefitted from a more flowing tempo. The finale brought a welcome degree of energy, its main theme capping the whole with a decisiveness in which the ends came closest to justifying the means.

A section from Petrie’s own Fantasia on Christmas Carols made for a winsome and appealing encore. More Romanian music from this source would be most welcome: the 90th birthday of Pascal Bentoiu, doyen of post-war composers, in April 2017 provides just such an opportunity.

You can listen to more music from the Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of London on their website

Stephen Kovacevich 75th birthday concert with Martha Argerich


Stephen Kovacevich 75th birthday concert, Wigmore Hall, London Monday 2 November

How to review a concert where two genuine piano legends quite literally collide on stage? Well since this was a celebration, it seems only right to celebrate the main protagonist first.

Stephen Kovacevich, who has recently celebrated his 75th birthday, was honoured with this concert by the Wigmore Hall, where he made his debut over fifty years ago. He chose to include two-piano works with Martha Argerich, herself a celebrated pianist whose public appearances, if on occasion irregular, are as greatly revered as ever – and with whom he has a daughter. For the two to be together in a musical sense, performing relatively unfamiliar repertoire – for the birthday boy at least – made an opportunity too good to miss.

It was perhaps just a bridge too far in the case of Debussy’s En blanc et noir, however. Not because the performance was bad, but because the necessarily short rehearsal time meant the use of two page turners. This unfortunately relegated the modest Kovacevich to the back of the stage, rendering him only partly visible. The musical chemistry was pronounced between the two, especially in the second movement where Debussy hauntingly evokes the sounds of First World War bugle calls and gunfire against the slow, stately movement of a Bach chorale, which Argerich solemnly intoned. Yet the outer movements were tense, partly because of page turning quirks (no fault of the turners themselves) and the sense of two players not yet fully in gear.

They were emphatically in the zone for Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, a terrific performance of the two-piano arrangement by the composer who is currently Kovacevich’s first love. The first movement punched at a considerable weight, with sharp ensemble and crisp rhythms, the speed a little slower than orchestras tend to take. Kovacevich himself clearly enjoyed the great second theme, usually assigned to the saxophone but beautifully phrased here.

The second movement was similarly fine, Argerich closely watching her partner, who was now nearest to the audience. This was his first public performance of a piece she has been performing for decades with friends, so it was natural she would want to ‘drive’ – but Kovacevich was very much her equal here and in the last dance, where rhythmic precision was key, they cut through the complexity of Rachmaninov’s writing to secure a powerful finish.

The second half of the concert immediately felt more relaxed, without the tension of page turning or multiple pianos to worry about. Instead Kovacevich gave from memory a lovely performance of Schubert’s final Piano Sonata in B flat, D960, one that flew in the face of the approach many pianists bring to this work. Rather than make it a final dying breath, he seemed to be saying this was music with plenty of life still to give. He made it so with faster tempo choices, a lack of repeats and phrasing that was at times unfussy but always affectionate.

Because of this the fabled slow movement was lovely, like a slow motion dance of contentment, coming after the first movement and its serenity – compromised by the rumblings of the lower left hand, though here they did not present too much threat. Kovacevich was keen to press on, each movement running into the next, and while there were a couple of choppy moments in the third movement, the intensity never let up. The feeling was of each of us being allowed into his own private recital room.

For an encore there was more Rachmaninov, Kovacevich beckoning the violinist Alina Ibragimova to join him from the audience for the Vocalise. This was a special moment, the pianist still discovering new music to perform even in his 76th year. He has made an incredibly good recovery from the stroke that threatened to end his career a few years back, and his disposition on stage is inspiring – modest but also affectionate. He is a musical treasure we should continue to nurture.

Stephen Kovacevich – a truly great pianist

Steven Kovacevich Photo: David Thompson/EMI Classics

If you were asked to name some of the world’s greatest living classical pianists, the chances are it would not be long at all until you got to the name Stephen Kovacevich.

Kovacevich has just reached the age of 75, but despite some recent health problems it is clear when Arcana has the privilege of meeting him that he is in good physical, mental and musical shape. He is the perfect host, too, pouring coffee as we prepare to discuss aspects of his career to this point, based around the recent issue of a handsome box set with the collected recordings he has made for Philips. These include legendary performances of Bartók, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms – all of which he will discuss over the course of the next half hour.


To begin with, however, it’s back to the start. What are his earliest memories of playing the piano? “I can’t remember the very first one”, he considers, “but I know that it was in San Pedro, about an hour and a half south of Los Angeles. My grandmother had an upright piano, and I probably tinkered with that but I just remember that it was there. I don’t remember much. Then I had at around the age of seven the local piano teacher, who was OK, then I had lessons with a very good teacher in San Francisco where my family moved to Berkeley. I remember thinking that I wasn’t very good, because I found it difficult at the age of eight or nine, but by the age of eleven I was playing quite well. I gave quite a good concert then, and looking back I probably wouldn’t be ashamed of it today – or maybe I would be! Then I studied in San Francisco until I came here to work with Myra Hess, a great artist.”

Myra Hess

“She was a profound artist”, he says of his teacher, “and I had a choice of going to Juilliard, with a scholarship at the college there, or coming to London. I chose London because of the repertoire, and Myra Hess’s repertoire interested me more. Juilliard is so competitive.”
What were the lasting things he learned from study with her? ““I was 18 or 19”, he recalls, “and I could play well, but I think it was rather monotonous in terms of variation of sound. I remember the first lesson was on the Brahms Variations on a theme of Handel.

The theme, which can be sight read, we worked 45 minutes just on that, trying to get a ‘trumpet sound’ that was perfect, a sound that was ‘dolce’. Just working on that started to provoke other areas of your imagination. She was a great teacher, with repertoire that interested me at that time. I hadn’t liked Beethoven very much until I heard her play it, and she really understood late period Beethoven. I was privileged and benefited greatly from that, because genuinely – if immodestly – it was the only music I was interested in.”

I mention to Stephen how I have been listening recently to his recording of Bartók’s Piano Concerto no.2, made with Sir Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra for Philips:

“It’s one of the best I ever did!” he says emphatically. “Everything I could do musically, mechanistically, emotionally, is there, and I was lucky because when I first heard the piece I then went and bought the score. I’m not being coy, but I just didn’t think I could play it! I dropped in on Colin Davis and I wasn’t fishing but I simply said, “Colin, I’ve heard this incredible piece but I think it’s beyond my abilities”. He was in charge at the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the time, and he asked me to play it at a Prom nine months later.”

“I knew if I couldn’t do it that I could always cancel, but that I would never forgive myself for not trying! I had never played anything so difficult – and actually there isn’t anything more difficult! It was the making of me – in some ways a bit too much, because I developed muscles, and a sound which was on the cusp sometimes of being too …but I had it in my repertoire. It made a lot of things possible, but also psychologically, if you can play the third Rachmaninov concerto, the second Bartók, the second Brahms maybe, the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata, if you can do these things it gives you a certain pride. The Chopin Études, I can’t play them properly but I can play them alright. But Bartok’s Second I can play. So that gave me some confidence. It’s a frightening piece, you know!”

Kovacevich goes on to reminisce about his early experiences with the concerto. “The first performance I gave was at the Proms, and a very distinguished composer who learned with Myra Hess, he turned the pages for me. In the middle of the second movement he got lost, and just sat down! Thank God the passage is so difficult that I had memorised it. He just sat down and gave up, and this was a live Prom!”

And what about that recording session? Just listening to the results, the listener gets an idea of the sheer adrenalin generated by the performance. “Colin and I had performed it ten times – in New York, and on tour with the Scottish National Orchestra, and in several performances with the BBC. I knew the recording went well because the first performance at the Proms was OK but nothing special. Then the next performance I stopped in the studio recording, but the performance after that was the opening night of the Edinburgh Festival, a live broadcast. I was so terrified I couldn’t even do the BBC balance test. Can you believe it?! They did it cold. There is a passage which I had missed before and two of my friends, very famous and wonderful young players, they embraced each other when it was coming up, and I got through it! And when I did I went completely nuts and really played out of my skull. So I knew if I could survive a concert then I could do a recording. I just went for it, and I remember Colin knew it very well by then too, we knew how we did it together, so we did not have any problems. I think it took three sessions. One session we concentrated on the sound but then we did two and a half sessions on it.”

What was it about Stephen’s relationship with Sir Colin that worked so well? “Well it stopped, but when it worked I can only say there was similar passion and energy, and in those a similar sense of tempo. He then became more spacious, so it didn’t work because I didn’t do that – and both are perfectly valid journeys. At that time he was a firebrand, with the Beethovens and the Brahms and the Bartók. I think he loved the first and third, and that’s appropriate. At the time he was doing the Rite of Spring but interestingly enough he stopped becoming interested in doing it. I had to trust him on it but I didn’t understand it. I think he turned away from that kind of wild stuff. I never heard anyone conduct Berlioz the way he did; I heard two staged performances of The Trojans – just marvellous. Why he stopped, I don’t know, but it did. Thankfully we did more Mozart piano concertos, Schumann, Grieg, Bartók and both Brahms, Stravinsky and all the Beethovens.”

One of Kovacevich’s favourite stories is of his recording with Martha Argerich of Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. One of the pianos had been dropped, and was unplayable – but somehow they found a replacement so that recording could take place at an unearthly hour. Was that the right time to record it after all?! “I think the second movement is definitely a late night piece”, he agrees, “but the rest is so difficult – almost as difficult as the Second Piano Concerto. Again it’s a piece of savagery. The first movement, if that’s not an onslaught I don’t know what is! As you know the piano was dropped, and they tried to say that nothing had happened, and then at about 8 at night they were trying to find another piano for the session. Steinway was closed, I don’t know how they found it, but at about two in the morning another piano arrived, and that’s when Martha starts working. I was gaga at that stage but the adrenalin kicked in, and we finished probably around 6:30 or 7:00. If you had said I was going to be recording at 2:30 then of course I wouldn’t have accepted it, but there was nothing else we could do!”

Kovacevich will give a concert at the Wigmore Hall in honour of his birthday, taking place on Monday 2 November. The first half consists of Debussy’s En blanc et noir and Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, both with Argerich at the second piano. When did he last play these pieces? “I last played the Debussy with Martha at her festival in Lugano, about two months ago, so that is in our fingers.

The Rachmaninov is the first time I’ve ever played it, and I just came back from Brussels two or three days ago where we rehearsed. I think our rehearsing is done. My new love is Rachmaninov. I’ve always loved him but now I think I’ve completely fallen for him!” Is that in a sense that makes him want to play his music? “Yes. I’d like to learn some of the solo music, but it’s no joke at my age to learn this type of repertoire, especially when it’s not the kind of repertoire that is my home territory. Now my favourite Rachmaninov concerto is the second. I can’t play it, but I have a few months where I don’t have a concert. I have to learn the Bartók Second Violin Sonata, and I will try and do the Second Piano Concerto or some of the shorter pieces.”

Clearly he still has a keen spirit of discovery, and I ask what it is about Bartók that particularly appeals to him? “The rage, because you feel much of the music – rather similar to Beethoven – has protest, anger, rage at the brutality and suffering that people go through. When you feel it is not just an individual thing, but society is doing it – like the Second World War which was going on – that’s a feeling of oppression. I think he captures that sense of rage and I think Beethoven is the only one to my mind who does it in the same way. Stravinsky’s rage in The Rite of Spring is ferocious, but you don’t feel it is a negative piece. Whereas Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, the String Quartets, the Piano Concerto no.2, the Out of Doors suite – the music of the night and The Chase especially. The Chase (the last movement of Out of Doors) is about one animal chasing another, with a chomp at the end! That’s it, but it is not music for Blue Peter!”

I note that when listening to the Out of Doors Suite, it seems Bartók finds parts of the piano that no one else seems to find. Kovacevich nods. “The piano writing is magnificent, and the music of the night – Ravel or Debussy did not write more exquisite music and super sensitive sonorities, but the music of the night in the second piano concerto, that’s a dark atmosphere, and the chase is frightening.”

This is perhaps why some see Bartók’s music as containing roots of rock, and I suggest it may be why his music has been used in horror films. Stephen agrees, but has more to add. “Another fact that isn’t known about him, which I have read, is that he had the feeling of an isolated person. When he was very young he had a skin disease that was so unpleasant to observe that at that age, only his mother could touch him. It cleared up, and he had beautiful skin after, but there was a feeling that he was probably physically isolated. I’m guessing but I think it stayed with him.”

A love of dance also stayed with Bartók in his music. “Absolutely. You take the Mazurkas of Chopin, you push it a bit further and you get some of the dance rhythms in Bartók. Also a composer who is surprisingly dark sometimes in his dances, but where nobody plays them, is Grieg. He is not the boy next door! I love Grieg. He wrote so little, but Peer Gynt is wonderful. It is also terrifying, and I find Anitra’s Dance scares me! There is a shadow there.”

The Philips set includes Kovacevich’s recordings of the late Brahms piano works, providing a nice contrast to the concertos:

Does he find now that at the age of 75 he appreciates composer’s late works more than he used to? “No, I don’t think so. I have always had a weakness for composers’ third period works. Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms as well. I was always intrigued, so I don’t think about that.” Can it go the other way, to exploring composers’ young works? “I enjoy early Beethoven much more now than I did in my twenties, for sure. But the late stuff, there is something about the third periods which is different.”

At the moment Schubert appears to be the one with whom he feels the strongest connection – and his last Piano Sonata, the famous B flat major work numbered as D960:

“This work means a lot to me and to many, many people,” he says. “In the late Beethoven sonatas, in Op.110 the aria speaks so personally about late thoughts, and I think that the B flat sonata in the slow movement is in that area. The sonata before has this amazing outburst in the slow movement, and where does that come from? If you just played that passage, you would never know it was Schubert! It could be Liszt, Rachmaninov, Musorgsky, but never would you think it was Schubert. And where does it come from? Woody Allen, in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors, in the murder scene, he chooses that String Quartet of Schubert with the eerie tremolos at the beginning, they are like a slap in the face. Woody Allen, who knows music upside down, chooses Schubert for moments when the centre does not hold:

Does it feel with the Schubert piano music that he is playing songs sometimes? “I wouldn’t say so. Maybe with some of the Impromptus, but I think when he writes piano sonatas it’s not just melody with accompaniment, there are more ingredients than that.” I comment how in late Schubert it feels like time has stopped sometimes. “Well the late String Quintet is a good example of that, but it is inexplicable. I mean, I love it but I have no idea what it’s all about! There is something there, where the imagination is supercharged from him. And also the lyricism, it defies analysis, you don’t know why it is so beautiful – it just is.”

Given the story of the Bartók session above, I wonder if he has any other unusual stories of recording sessions or performances? “I was doing a Prom once, where I was playing the world premiere of the Piano Concerto by Richard Rodney Bennett, and they had forgotten to lock the wheels of the piano! It was a live broadcast, and as I played the piano started to move away from me, and it went straight into the cello section! So these guys were playing cello and they saw this massive beast heading towards them. The piece begins quite quietly and there is about a ten second break just after you start, so in those ten seconds I reached into the piano, pulled it back to me.

Of course the audience laughed, and this time it didn’t move. That was quite scary! Yet even as I was bowing, the phone rang backstage and the Beeb said, “It’s the Daily Express. Did your piano start to go into the cello section?!” Unlike me I just calmly pulled the piano back. And of course the audience loved it.”

Kovacevich has conducted more recently, and enjoyed a series with the London Mozart Players at the Cadogan Hall, performing all the composer’s symphonies and piano concertos. Did it give him extra insight into the music in any way? “Not into the music, but with conducting it is different to the piano. No matter how anxious you might be you don’t have to play the notes, so when you’re on stage conducting, and you know the piece very well, you can actually concentrate on the music, to a degree more than when you are playing. So I was walking on stage and looking forward to the concert. The first time I performed the Ninth Symphony I was looking forward to it! The first time I played the Emperor Concerto I wasn’t looking forward to it!”

“I loved conducting”, he says. “I’ve conducted the Beethoven Symphonies, the Brahms, Sibelius‘ Fourth, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique. I wanted to do those pieces. I’ve lost interest, I don’t know why exactly – I think because when I am conducting I have to concentrate so much that part of my concentration is actually on playing the piano. I have done all the Beethoven concertos from the keyboard, and I find it easier to play them when I’m conducting too – I think the Emperor paradoxically is easier to play! The Fourth is harder to coordinate, as it has more flexibility, and when we performed we placed the piano in the middle of the orchestra so that the winds and I could hear each other. I loved doing those concerts at the Cadogan Hall where we did the concertos and symphonies.”

What role has music played in Stephen’s life outside of performing? “It has been a source of consolation, which is one of the things that music is for. Late Beethoven when I was younger was a source of consolation. I remember being very blue and Wagner‘s Die Meistersinger getting me out of it night after night. Also Brahms – it’s like someone consoling you.”

And does he listen to any music besides classical? “I like the ‘black jazz’ from America in the 1930s and 1940s and I love the American musicals, I think they are phenomenal. I love Gershwin, I think he’s phenomenal, and he has a lyrical gift which is fabulous, really inspiring. The fact he and Schoenberg used to play tennis in Los Angeles – can you imagine?!”

Talk turns to audiences, and more specifically how classical music could boost its own. “How often, especially in the days when I dressed in tails to go to a concert – you would get into a taxi and the driver would say what you are doing? I would say I’m playing a concert – do you ever go? “No”, would be the response. Do you enjoy it? “Yes”. Why don’t you go? I don’t know how many times but the response is “I’m embarrassed – I wouldn’t know how to behave”. I know the same thing. I would love to go more jazz, but I’m shy to go to a jazz club because I think I would not know how to behave. The feeling of sticking out – if classical music could get rid of that it would be good. It’s an uphill battle.”

Does he think classical music can portray itself as being slightly removed? “I would think only a small percentage of musicians would want to exclude anybody. This whole idea of clapping between the movements, I find it fine – but some people are horrified by it, and I think that’s ridiculous.” So is it less the musicians but more the audiences? “You could say it destroys continuity, but Mozart and Beethoven had plenty of breaks between movements. I think most musicians would welcome it. I don’t stand up when it happens but I acknowledge it with a nod of the head and a smile, for sure. When I was young I went to some Indian concerts with Ravi Shankar, and during the concert people were shouting but not loudly. I asked for the translation and they were saying, “to this there is no answer”. That is such a wonderful response to a turn of phrase!”

The Complete Philips Recordings by Stephen Kovacevich is out now as a box set – and is available to buy from the Universal music store here

Wigmore Mondays – Sol Gabetta and Polina Leschenko play Rachmaninov


Sol Gabetta (cello), Polina Leschenko (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 12 October 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 11 November


In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. Sol Gabetta has recorded all of these pieces, with the pianists Bertrand Chamayou (Chopin) and Olga Kern (Rachmaninov), and, in the case of the Tchaikovsky, in an orchestral version with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Olivieri-Monroe.

What’s the music?

Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op.3 (1829) (8 minutes)

Tchaikovsky: Lensky’s Aria (1879) (6 minutes)

Rachmaninov: Cello Sonata, Op.19 (1901) (34 minutes)

What about the music?

There is something about music for cello and piano from Eastern Europe that communicates directly with lovers of classical music, and in particular smaller scale chamber music. This may be because the cello’s range is like that of a vocalist, which becomes very clear in the arrangement of Lensky’s Aria that Sol Gabetta and Polina Leschenko play here. The cello has a way of portraying the solemn contemplation that Lensky goes through before his duel and inevitable death at the hands of Eugene Onegin.

On a far more cheerful note are the works by Chopin and Rachmaninov. Chopin wrote very little music where the piano was not the starring instrument, and even in this Introduction and Polonaise brillante the piano part is challenging to say the least! Chopin did love writing for the cello though, and showed in this late student piece how his melodic style became very well suited to the instrument. Later in his life he completed a substantial sonata for cello and piano.

The Rachmaninov Sonata is one of the big Romantic works for cello and piano, with a piano part whose difficulty is comparable to that of the piano concertos – and interestingly the composer had only just completed his famous Second Piano Concerto when he got to work on this piece. It is full of big tunes and bold musical statements but has a tender heart too, which we get to see in the third movement Andante. The finale is one of sheer jubilation, the composer moving from the earlier, stormy music of the minor key to bask in the full sunshine of the major key – with a good melody never far from the cello throughout.

Performance verdict

This was a technically spectacular concert from two performers clearly at the top of their game, and thoroughly enjoying their music making.

The Chopin was a delight, all the youthful vigour captured in Polina Leschenko’s grand introduction, with its impressive pyrotechnics in the right hand. Meanwhile Gabetta’s tone was particularly beautiful, an aspect common to the pair’s performance of Lensky’s Aria, the arrangement – apparently completed by cellist Werner Thomas-Mifune – making a seamless transition to the instrument.

The Rachmaninov Sonata was a tour de force, the piano if anything dominating a performance rich in romantic feeling but also keen to impose itself through challenging and fast speeds. This did on occasion become too much and some of the phrases were constricted, especially in the second movement Scherzo, which hurried forward as though late for an urgent appointment, and some of the detail was lost – a shame, as despite its big statements, this piece does have some lovely detail.

The slow movement Andante was lovely, Gabetta’s tone and phrasing ideal, her knack of holding back on some of the phrases just right. The finale resembled pealing bells at times, its sheer exuberance proving irresistible, and here the performance had what felt like exactly the right tempo, pausing for breath half way through.

Even allowing for those slight gripes though, this was an extremely impressive, high voltage performance from two musicians clearly enjoying their craft.

What should I listen out for?


1:35 – a grand introduction from the piano, showing off the youthful composer’s impetuosity. The cello, however, is perhaps closer to his heart with a songful and broadly phrased melody above.

4:12 – the Polonaise itself begins, with a distinctive rhythm that speeds up as the three beats in the bar go on (from 1 crotchet to 2 quavers to 4 semi-quavers, for the musos amongst us!). It takes the profile of a florid march, and is passionate and extrovert. The piano leads the rhythm, with power and a little charm, while the cello provides the songful melody. The end, when it comes, is vigorous and like a drink fizzing over.


11:27 – a solemn mood is immediately evident from the pensive piano introduction, with Lensky awaiting his duel with Onegin. The cello picks up on this, reproducing the tenor line with a feeling of imminent dread, especially when the end approaches at 16:58.


17:56 – the sonata begins with a tentative slow introduction (marked Lento), as though testing the water, but feels on much firmer ground when the faster Allegro moderato begins at 18:55.

19:58 – the second theme of the first movement, first heard on the piano. This is classic Rachmaninov, combining Romantic thoughts with a melancholic undertone. Then from 21:23 the pair repeat the faster section before an intense development of the main material, the cello now playing lower in its register and the piano taking a hard hitting approach

26:53 – the piano now brings out the second theme in the ‘home’ key, where it retains its original melancholic quality, before the music gathers itself for a final big statement, finishing at 29:21.

29:34 – the Scherzo second movement begins at quite a fearsome tempo, led by the piano. Here the emphasis is much more rhythmic, though there is a distinctive six-note figure that dominates the movement. At 30:16 we hear a second theme, more songlike in nature.

31:29 – the contrasting ‘Trio’ section of the second movement, much smoother in nature. Then at 33:19 the stormy clouds of the Scherzo approach once again, with even greater force this time. The end, at 35:34, is beautifully done – quiet but atmospheric.

35:46 – the slow movement begins, marked Andante (at a walking pace). The piano introduces the tune, which is once again a deeply felt melody of contemplation. The cello takes it up at 36:34, and the theme proceeds to dominate the whole movement.

41:30 – the fourth and final movement bursts out the blocks. The key has switched from G minor, the sonata’s overall key, to G major – and the mood is completely contrary to the previous movement, full of jubilation. The music gets particularly stormy around 44:30, with cello and piano making particularly passionate statements.

A slower, quieter episode gives brief pause for reflection before a restatement of the last movement’s main theme at 46:59. At 49:44 the slower music returns, beautifully shaded by the performers, before the helter-skelter closing pages wrap up the piece from 50:52.


53:33 – the fourth and last movement of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata. The composer’s spiky approach to this music is stressed in an interpretation that almost spills over into violence at times!

Further listening

The combination of cello and piano was one that 19th century composers loved to use – fuelled no doubt by Beethoven’s success in bringing the instruments forward as equal partners.

One of the most successful composers writing for cello and piano was Brahms – so here is a link to the powerhouse combination of Mstislav Rostropovich and Rudolf Serkin playing his two sonatas for the combination, both of which are known as repertoire staples:

Perhaps less well known but equally glorious are the two cello sonatas by Mendelssohn, also rich in melody and deep feeling. Here they are played by Jan Vögler and Louis Lortie:

Finally Chopin went on to write a Sonata for cello and piano, one that is perhaps best heard in a recording by Johannes Moser and Ewa Kupiec. The companion piece on the disc is the Piano Trio:

Pictures at an Exhibition – Steven Osborne

Pictures at an Exhibition – Musorgsky’s much loved collection for piano played by Steven Osborne

steven-osborneSteven Osborne (piano) – Wigmore Hall, live on BBC Radio 3, 2 February 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

on the iPlayer until 3 March

For non-UK listeners, this Spotify playlist is available:

Please note that recordings of these works by Steven Osborne are not available on Spotify – the Musorgsky however is available to hear on the Hyperion website. I have therefore chosen suitable alternatives and will change the time references below when the BBC iPlayer link expires.

What’s the music?

Rachmaninov – a selection of 4 Etudes-Tableaux (1916-17) (13 minutes)

Musorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) (36 minutes)

What about the music?

Musorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition is a much-loved group of pieces, capturing the imagination of performers and arrangers alike. Although written originally for piano it has enjoyed life in several guises, most famously in a tremendous orchestration by Ravel but also through arrangements for all sorts of instrumental combinations, including brass band and even pop group – which Emerson, Lake and Palmer released as a live album in 1971.

The composer wrote it so the listener takes the part of the viewer at an art exhibition – in this case a series of paintings by the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann. Some of the pictures are separated by Promenades, where Musorgsky takes a breather to portray the viewer moving between paintings, reacting to what they have just seen. The pictures often refer to Russian legend, and some of them are grotesque – Gnomus, for instance, a gnome with crooked legs, or The Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a depiction of the terrifying Russian witch Baba-Yagá. There are social interactions – children playing (Tuileries), a rich man meeting a poor man (Samuel Goldberg and Schmüyle) and a violent quarrel (The Market at Limoges) – as well as two striking depictions of buildings in The Old Castle and an imposing Great Gate of Kiev, with which the exhibition ends.

Complementing Pictures are four of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaux, part of a set of pictorial studies published in 1917. In this case the objects of Rachmaninov’s characterisation were hardly if ever revealed, but the four chosen invite the listener to create an image. They are a brisk march, a contemplation, a scene at a fair (as described by the composer) and a restless mood.

Performance verdict

Steven Osborne won a Gramophone Award for his Hyperion recording of Pictures in 2013, and it was easy to see why here – there was the odd wrong note but this was generally because he was striving for maximum expression, which he found in a compelling performance. His pacing was ideal, so that some of the really loud moments – the old cart Bydlo grinding into action, or The Great Gate of Kiev in all its splendour – built inexorably from start to climax point.

The Rachmaninov was terrific, an indication that Osborne is spending a lot of time at the moment discovering his piano music. The Etudes-Tableaux do not really feature regularly in concert, partly because they are hard to bring off, but Osborne managed it handsomely here.

After the Musorgsky we had the considerable bonus of a serene Rachmaninov Prelude in D major, which tugged at the heart strings in all the right places.

What should I listen out for?

Because they are so well-loved, I have opted to describe each of the Pictures below:


6:31 – the second Étude-tableau, a spacious reverie with a particularly beautiful floated central section, where the key changes from C minor to C major (8:44).

11:41 – the third Étude-tableau, brightly voiced with crisp rhythms.


18:36 – the first Promenade. Musorgsky’s viewer has a quick stride!

19:51 – Gnomus. Dark, grotesque and unpredictable, with a heavy line for the piano’s left hand and some ominous trills (22:11). After this the viewer ambles on to….

23:40 – The Old Castle. The melody is a depiction of a troubadour singing – but the mood is grey and heavy of heart, the harmony almost completely static. A weighty Promenade moves the viewer on to…

28:43 – Tuileries. A delicate description of children’s play, over in a flash!

29:40 – Bydlo. A depiction of a Polish cart grinding into action. The heavy weight of the machinery is supplied by the piano’s left hand, and the cart recedes into the distance at the end. Osborne applies as much weight to this as possible while the vehicle lumbers past! The viewer pauses briefly to take stock, before…

34:10 – The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells. An amazingly vivid depiction of the little birds in clipped figures for the piano right hand, played very delicately here.

35:21 – Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle. An imposing dialogue with the grandeur of the rich man (Goldenberg) and the quavering speech of the poor man (Schmüyle). After this the viewer moves on with another Promenade.

38:59 – The Market at Limoges. An excitable cackle of voices from the piano here, tripping over themselves and becoming increasingly out of control as they career into…


40:22. Darkness descends as we move underground, Musorgsky conveying the stillness of space. The melodic figure of the Promenade appears (from 43:16), though here it appears shrouded in mist

45:26 – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. I often think this piece on its own inspired a lot of rock music – it has the sort of figure you would not find out of place on a King Crimson album. The hammering figure on the left hand feels like drums and bass guitar combined while the right hand is almost completely unhinged. This leads straight into…


The Great Gate of Kiev

48:40. The massive outlines of the gate are clear in the big block chords Musorgsky writes for the piano, which become ever more imposing as the piece progresses. Towards the end (50:22) a huge peal of bells rings out, then there is another reference to the Promenade (52:01) ahead of an emphatic final set of chords, by which time the pianist is playing as loud as he possibly can!


56:06 – Rachmaninov – Prelude in D major. A graceful and rather moving complement to Pictures!

Want to hear more?

Excerpts from Steven Osborne’s recording for Hyperion can be heard here

For more Musorgsky, I would suggest the Songs and Dances of Death, for low male voice and orchestra – which is ironically on BBC Radio 3 this Thursday 5 February , with a listener’s guide to come here! For more Rachmaninov I would suggest an earlier work, the Five Morceaux Op.3. This group of five pieces contains the famous Prelude in C sharp minor.

For more concerts click here