Wigmore Mondays – Kungsbacka Trio play Schumann and Ravel

Kungsbacka Piano Trio [Malin Broman (violin), Jesper Svedberg (cello), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)

Schumann Piano Trio no.2 in F major Op.80 (1847)

Ravel Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 13 March, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Schumann seems to have approached his career in clumps of music. 1841 was the fabled ‘year of song’, the catalyst for years of exceptional achievements in the form. The next year he ventured into the world of the string quartet, publishing three works. It wasn’t until 1847 that he decided to publish a piano trio, and here he was apparently spurred on by the quality of his wife Clara’s trio the year before. 1847 yielded two works for the combination.

The Second Piano Trio, Op.80 in his catalogue, begins with an outpouring of fervent but very positive feelings (1:35 on the broadcast), though its casting in F major makes it a little less tempestuous than the First Piano Trio in D minor, Op.63. Yes, it was a prolific year for the composer!

By now Schumann’s style was more contrapuntal – that is to say he was applying more of the practices perfected by Bach, linking his melodies through eventful interplay. The Kungsbacka Trio were alive to this way of writing, and all the parts were clearly audible, though when they merged into one there was some beautiful unison playing.

The second movement, a slow romance (from 9:57), was notable for the sweet tone of Malin Broman’s violin, though there was sterling work from cellist Jesper Svedberg at the outset. Meanwhile the third movement, a ‘canon’ (from 18:11), is almost like one bird following another in a slightly irregular waltz, the ‘canon’ being an almost exact imitation of one instrument (piano) by the others (cello and then violin). This movement softened further into the major key at the end. The finale (from 23:10) continued in the same high spirits.

The only Piano Trio of Ravel made a nice contrast. He did not publish much chamber music, but what his output lacks in quantity is compensated by works that remain right at the top of the repertoire. The shadow of World War I hangs over this work, published in 1914, especially as Ravel finished it before signing up as a truck driver. Despite moments of great sorrow and introspection in the slow movement, it ends on an ultimately positive note.

There are beautiful colours to be savoured, both through Ravel’s writing and this performance. The trio begins in dappled sunshine (31:10), and was especially notable in this performance for a first movement containing a lovely transition from the puffed up statements of the faster music to the slower, daintier second theme (leading up to 36:51).

The second movement (40:27) was also colourful, surging forwards in unison but also really attractively phrased for the second theme given by pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips at 42:23 and then a unison from the strings shortly after. Then the mood turned inwards at 45:09 for the solemn third movement passacaglia, a form where the same bassline is repeated again and again but the tune varies. The final movement (52:30) shimmered in the sunlight, making a timely appearance on the Wigmore Hall stage to accompany the beautifully rendered harmonics of violin and cello.

As an encore the trio gave Beethoven, a movement from his Piano Trio in E flat major, Op.70/2 – again beautifully played and consistent with 20 years of great artistry from this source.

Further listening

A very nice complement to both the Ravel and the Schumann can be found in the Kungsbacka’s recordings of Faure for Naxos. This album includes his late Piano Trio and the stormy – and thrilling! – Piano Quartet no.2

Wigmore Mondays – Marwood, Power and Crawford-Phillips play Brahms

Anthony Marwood (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano) perform music by Rebecca Clarke, Martinů and Brahms

Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 28 September 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06dbdk3

on the iPlayer until 27 October

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of the music in this concert, from available versions on Spotify. The Horn Trio is very rarely heard in the version for violin, viola and piano, but a recent recording from Maxim Rysanov and friends is included:

What’s the music?

Rebecca Clarke: Dumka for Violin, Viola and Piano (1941) (8 minutes)

Martinů: Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola (1947) (16 minutes)

Brahms: Trio for Violin, Viola and Piano (1884) (28 minutes)

What about the music?

rebecca-clarke

The music of Rebecca Clarke has taken a long while to reach our concert halls, but thankfully it is not the rarity it once was. A viola player of some distinction, she wrote a wonderful competition-winning Sonata for viola and piano in 1919. This Dumka comes towards the end of her career as a composer, though she lived for nearly 40 more years without consistent inspiration to compose. The piece alternates slow, melancholic figures with an attractive and dramatic dance.

Like Clarke, Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů had relocated to New York, and his Three Madrigals for violin and viola, essentially a late wartime work, were inspired by hearing the English Singers in concert in Prague. They were written for the brother and sister duo of Joseph and Lilian Fuchs. Though instrumental the pieces are clearly written with voices in mind, and through clever use of double stopping techniques (where the instruments play more than one string at once) it often feels as though more instruments are in the room.

Brahms wrote his Horn Trio, for horn, violin and piano, in memory of his recently-departed mother. A profound work, it contains a passionate and often stormy pair of slow movement, placed first and third, and two faster movements – a triple time Scherzo of more lyrical design and then a finale tailor made for the horn, sending the audience away with a vision of adversity conquered by strength.

Performance verdict

This was a very well-chosen program by the three friends, and it was especially rewarding to hear the music of Rebecca Clarke, a composer who is gradually feeling her way back to the exposure she deserves.

The Dumka performance was deeply felt, the slower music elegiac in tone through Marwood and Power’s closer harmonies.

These two excelled in Martinů’s Three Madrigals, which were surprisingly vigorous in content. The central madrigal was the charmer, its trills like autumn leaves in the breeze, calm but yet strangely restless.

The Brahms is an emotional work that tugs at the heart strings in the third movement Adagio, where the trio found the depth of the composer’s feeling. Yet the horn, for which this piece was ultimately written, was conspicuous by its absence and the viola – nicely played as it was by Lawrence Power – could not hope to fully deputise. Without the horn the fast music felt too polite, with no brassy rasp to enjoy in the Scherzo, nor fullness of tone towards the climax of the first movement. The finale was too fast, and although it is great ‘chase music’ this was a helter-skelter dash, the strings skating swiftly over thin ice rather than ducking and diving.

What should I listen out for?

Rebecca Clarke

2:13 – the stringed instruments are in close unison at the start, with a gentle melancholy running through their musical thoughts.

4:03 – the pace quickens and now the music dances, the stringed parts moving more independently of each other but still in close musical discussion. Their destination is less certain, as though dancing around the room unpredictably, and the mood becomes fractious.

7:58 – after the music reaches an emotional high – though not wholly positive – we return to the relative calm of the opening music, violin and viola back in close harmony.

Martinů

13:10 – the first madrigal is typical of Martinů, bustling into action with busy figurations from both instruments. There is energy aplenty, and it sounds as though both instruments are engaged in deep and earnest conversation. Martinů throws in some unexpected harmonic diversions to keep the listener on their toes. There is no let up, the music rushing towards a bright conclusion at 17:03.

17:27 – a complete change of mood for the second madrigal, a mysterious and enchanting piece that often sounds like the rustle of wind in branches. Martinů uses double stopping and trills here to give a fuller sound. Gradually the music becomes more positive and full in texture, Martinů working around to the same key of the first madrigal. The close harmony mirrors the brother-sister relationship of the dedicatees. The trills return at the end but are now settled.

23:51 – the third and final madrigal, an open-air burst of positivity! Again the music is busy, and here as elsewhere Martinů seems to be thinking of the dances of his home country. The trills return briefly at 27:41, before Martinů launches back into his main idea. In this performance the tempo is quick!

Brahms

32:33 – the first movement begins, marked Andante (at a walking pace). This is a slow walk at the beginning, with serious thoughts at a subdued volume. Soon the music becomes more animated, supported by a characteristically full-bodied and flowing piano part. In this version the violin and viola are close in harmony and dynamic; when the horn is involved it takes a greater lead. At 36:14 the viola introduces a halting second idea.

Around 37:00 the tone darkens, anticipating the sombre mood of the third movement, but this does not last too long – and at 39:02 Brahms can be heard at his most passionate before the movement ends.

40:09 – the second movement, a Scherzo. The restless piano establishes the triple time while the strings pull against the rhythm with syncopations – all typical Brahms qualities. The theme appears again at 41:41, then receives a stern development. At 42:45 Brahms effects a transition into the Trio section, which is slower, darker and reflective – and then at 44:26 the Scherzo returns.

47:29 – the mood darkens considerably for one of Brahms’s most profound utterances. This is the only instance in his music where Brahms uses the term Adagio mesto (slow and sad), and the heavy tread of the piano, and the instance at 49:19 where the stringed instruments are alone, are both instances that tell of the grief felt at losing his mother. It is not all doom and gloom however, for there are shafts of light at 52:08 – before the heavy heart is laid bare again towards the end.

54:26 – in which Brahms swiftly clears away his grief to write a wonderfully positive finale with a spring in its step, the three instruments seemingly chasing each other in flight. Nothing more to be said, except enjoy the wonderful music!

Further listening

There are not many opportunities to hear horn, violin and piano together – and since that combination is the original trio Brahms wrote for, the recommendation is for that version in a recording made for the Swedish record company BIS, by Marie-Luise Neunecker, Antje Weithaas and Silke Avenhaus.

Also on that recording is the trio for the same combination by Ligeti, which makes a vivid and intriguing contrast – titled as it is Hommage a Brahms:

Elias String Quartet and Simon Crawford Phillips – Messages Old and New

Messages old and new – the Elias Quartet give an Emily Howard world premiere, and are then joined by Simon Crawford Phillips for Schumann’s Piano Quintet

elias-quartet

Elias Quartet (Sara Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violins), Martin Saving (viola), Marie Bitlloch (cello), Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 4 May 2015.

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05qypn8

on the iPlayer until 9 June

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a link to a recording of the Schumann (Howard’s pieces is a world premiere so not yet recorded). The Schumann is played here by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin String Quartet:

Spotify

What’s the music?

Emily Howard Afference (2015) (22 minutes)

Schumann – Piano Quintet (1842) (32 minutes)

What about the music?

Emily Howard’s new piece Afference, a substantial work for string quartet, is based on a physiological term to describe the way in which the brain processes our experiences of the world. Howard herself has a degree in maths and computer science, something that might lead an audience to expect a very calculated approach to composing music. This is not entirely the case though, as the biography on Howard’s own website suggests.

Afference appears to be her first work for string quartet, commissioned by the Elias Quartet themselves. It joins a canon of pieces that range from large-scale orchestral works (Axon and a symphony called Magnetite) to smaller scale compositions for clarinet and piano.

Schumann’s Piano Quintet was written in 1842, when he was still giddy with love for wife Clara. She was the dedicatee of this work, but as the BBC Radio 3 announcer Georgia Mann details it was first performed with none other than the composer Felix Mendelssohn at the piano.

Performance verdict

A fine concert, with concentrated playing from the Elias Quartet of what is on two listens an engaging new work for string quartet. Emily Howard writes in a distinctive style that the Elias Quartet understand, and the colours she achieves are consistently interesting and imaginative. It helps to know the program for the piece, as there do indeed seem to be a lot of messages transmitted in 22 minutes. Some of them are very nervy, though ultimately the piece feels of a positive nature.

The Schumann receives an excellent performance, the happiness of the first, third and final movements a joy to behold – while the second movement, if a tiny bit slow in its central section perhaps, is uneasy and in need of consolation this ultimately provides. Simon Crawford-Phillips plays brilliantly, with authority but also ensuring the strings are heard at all times. His nimble finger work in the third movement scherzo is especially impressive.

What should I listen out for?

Emily Howard

1:20 – a busy start with all four instruments playing frenetically then cuts to a section with a very small voice, doing battle with the quartet.

5:55 – the instruments all take a melodic line that uses portamento (sliding from one pitch to another) before a more intimate phrase starts to dominate. At this point the instruments are close together in pitch.

8:09 – a much slower section, with an intense violin pitch that grows into what sounds like a sorrowful lament, while the other three instruments give softly breathed harmonies. This leads on to some feverish activity, Howard’s nervous messages transmitted at great intensity.

13:17 – As the second movement starts there is a large gap between the instruments – violins on high and cello down below. The lack of a key centre brings to mind some of the quartet writing of Schoenberg, though Howard’s writing has more pitch-related implications in the cello’s continual return to its low ‘D’.

16:50 – a striking passage for violin with upwards phrases, in which Howard seems to be reaching for higher plains

18:51 – the instruments stick closer together again, but at 19:53 the violin shoots out a much higher phrase. The harmonies still make the music sound quite uneasy, as if in a state of dread.

22:20 – a piercing line on the violin returns to the pitch of D, before the rest of the quartet finish the piece with a short series of comments.

Schumann

26:23 – the first movement begins with a wonderfully positive outpouring of music from piano and strings together. The theme itself is a surprisingly catchy one

27:35 – a lovely tune makes itself known on the cello, Schumann at his most romantic with the music flowing beautifully onwards. This tune is then picked up with a counter melody from the violin.

32:03 – now in the centre of the development section, the music gets more turbulent, the piano lines swirling around those of the string quartet, but then we switch to a triumphant reprise of the opening music at 32:45.

35:33 – the subdued second movement begins. This is a form of funeral march and it has a halting tune, played by both strings and piano with short notes. This is complemented by a much sweeter episode of music that begins at 37:19, still in the spirit of remembrance but with a positive approach. The sombre first theme returns once again at 38:56.

40:10 – a faster episode begins, led by the piano, the strings with much heavier lines alongside – but still the tune persists from the viola at 41:00, picked up by the violin – and the sweeter theme also makes a reappearance (41:49).

44:16 – the third movement, a Scherzo, begins with fizzing interplay led by the piano. Schumann again finds music of great positivity and energy. At 45:34 a second section begins, in the far-removed key of F sharp major, before the main scherzo returns with just as much irrepressible energy at 46:16. At 46:58 a new section is introduced, again with plenty of energy! The main theme returns at 48:02, carrying through to an emphatic finish at 48:57.

49:04 – the last of the four movements begins, and again the energy levels are up – though here we begin in a minor key that briefly recalls the second movement march. Quickly the music moves to E flat major – the ‘home’ key of the piece. The music then becomes more reserved and secretive.

51:24 – the first theme comes back, though the music is still in a minor key and still feels a long way from ‘home’. Gradually though the music gets greater presence in the ‘home’ key, and by the time we get to 54:16 it is rooted here, and sweeps to a decisive finish by way of a fugue, instigated by the piano at 54:41 and rounding off at 56:28.

Want to hear more?

Following the contrasting nature of the two pieces in this concert, the suggested further listening looks to progress from the Howard with Schoenberg’s String Quartet no.2. This famously has a last movement that sets the text ‘I feel the air from another planet…’, sung by a soprano and said to consciously signal the composer’s move away from writing in a particular key (tonality). Here the words are sung by Susan Narucki, in conjunction with the Schoenberg Quartet.

After the Schumann a rewarding next port of call is the Piano Quintet by Dvořák, his second in the form – and once again played by Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet. The playlist can be found on Spotify here:

For more concerts click here