In concert – Aris Quartet play Schulhoff, Kurtág & Mendelssohn @ Wigmore Hall

Aris 5

Schulhoff 5 Pieces for String Quartet (1924)
Kurtág Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky Op.28 (1988-9)
Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 3 in D major Op.44/1 (1838)

Aris Quartet (above, photograph (c) Sophie Walter) [Anna Katharina Wildermuth, Noémi Zipperling (violins), Caspar Vinzens (viola), Lukas Sieber (cello)]

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 October 2021, 1pm

Written by Ben Hogwood (reviewed live from online stream below)

The Aris Quartet are part of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, and this was their first appearance at the Wigmore Hall. They presented themselves as a lively ensemble who clearly enjoy their music, and they played with sensitivity and panache

Also revealed was a strong instinct for programming. Schulhoff’s 5 Pieces for String Quartet are beginning to make themselves known more in the concert hall, presenting as they do a number of sides of this unique musical personality. The Czech composer was arrested in Prague before he could be issued with a visa to emigrate to Moscow in the Second World War, and died at the Wülzburg concentration camp at the age of 48. His music is still relatively young in its exposure because of this, only really coming through in the 1990s. Initial criticism from those sceptical at his integration of jazz and dance forms is giving way to more outright respect, and – as could be seen here – the 5 Pieces make a great start to a concert.

The Aris Quartet gave a vibrant account of the first movement, marked Alla Valse viennese, but soon a chill was forming as the Alla Serenata progressed, its ghostly presence reminiscent of early Shostakovich. The muted instruments danced over a distracted drone from the cello before biting hard in a sequence that was almost anti-lyrical. There was an impressive cut and thrust to the Alla Czeca, bringing out the composer’s heritage, then an attractive sway to the Alla Tango milonga, beautifully played but with an unexpectedly ominous finish. Finally the buzz of the lively Alla Tarantella set a strong unison violin melody against brisk viola and cello.

Officium breve by György Kurtág was next, a requiem to fellow Hungarian composer Andreae Szervánszky. By his standards it is a lengthy piece indeed, but with 15 sections in barely 12 minutes it was packed with compressed melodies of great intensity. Kurtág is a master in obtaining deep expression from the shortest of phrases, achieving this through carefully pointed melodies and highly imaginative quartet textures. Such a thorough knowledge of string quartet capabilities informs the many sides of grief felt here, and the Aris Quartet reveled in the nuances of the piece. The gripping account took hold from the distracted opening, where cellist Lukas Sieber effectively set out the pitches of the open strings of hit instrument, to savage chords wrought with pure anger later on. The composer’s use of microtones was deeply expressive, as were the ‘double stopping’ passages, the quartet playing as one instrument with eight or more voices. It was a moving and mind-expanding performance.

A wholesale change of mood took us to Mendelssohn, and the joyous outpouring of the first in his trio of quartets published as Op.44. Anna Katharina Wildermuth’s songful first violin was key here, but so were the quartet textures, with lots going on but impressive clarity to reveal the dialogue between the instruments. This was a lovely, fluid performance, with a sunny first movement giving way to a less excitable but equally persuasive Menuetto, showing off its rhythms and soft-hearted theme. Feelings ran deep in the slow movement, especially in the minor key episode, where Wildermuth probed deeper with her phrasing. The finale recaptured the mood of the first movement, good spirits bubbling over to cap an affectionate and energetic performance.

It was great to see an ensemble playing as one with such obvious enthusiasm and commitment for the music, and based on this evidence the Aris Quartet have a bright future indeed. Watch the concert stream and see for yourself!

You can also listen to the repertoire from the Aris Quartet’s concert on this Spotify playlist:

For more information on the Aris Quartet visit their website

In concert – Boris Giltburg plays Ravel, Schumann & Prokofiev @ Wigmore Hall

boris-giltburg

Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.6 in A major Op.82 (1939-40)
Ravel Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911)
Schumann Carnaval Op.9 (1834-5)
Ravel La valse (1920)

Boris Giltburg (piano, above)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 4 October 2021

Written by Ben Hogwood

This review marks your correspondent’s first visit to the Wigmore Hall for 18 months – after weekly coverage of the hall’s wonderful Monday lunchtime series. It was so good to be back! In that time it seems the core audience has changed, dropping by a couple of decades at least. This could be due to understandable caution on the part of the older members of the audience to get back to the post-Coronavirus version of concert life, but it is more likely to be the regular streaming of concerts that has lured in a much younger generation. This concert was streamed (you can watch below) and, for the record, the audience were enthusiastic and immaculately behaved – in fact there was a celebratory atmosphere.

Boris Giltburg fully inhabited the positivity. The pianist was beginning a new, two-year look at the piano music of Ravel, and if this first instalment was anything to go by, we are in for a treat. Giltburg’s first selection concentrated on the waltz in its many forms – with two very different approaches to triple time from Ravel, complemented by Schumann and Prokofiev.

It was with the coruscating tones of the latter’s Piano Sonata no.6 in A major that Giltburg began, something of a shock to unaccustomed ears with its discordant language. This underrated work is first in a trilogy of sonatas written during World War Two. The impact was immediate and confrontational, delivered with impressive force but also control. The serrated edges of the first movement were complemented by a poetic second theme, and the tension relaxed a little further for the second movement’s witty march. The right hand of the piano drew parallels with the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, as the left hand ascended with a probing melody. The slow movement had a softer, yearning heart, though the dissonant harmonies lingered around the edges, before the runaway theme of the finale took hold. This could easily be a silent film soundtrack, but its cat and mouse nature was challenged and ultimately caught by the reappearance of the first movement’s angular melody. Giltburg staged a profound drama between these elements before bringing the sonata to a shattering conclusion.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales was next, providing a relatively controlled contrast to the Prokofiev’s unwieldly ways. Giltburg enjoyed the music greatly, swaying to the rhythms as he played. His control was immaculate but the rhythmic profile of the waltzes was instinctive, holding back or pressing forward as appropriate. A tender, intimate second waltz (marked Assez lent – avec une expression intense) brought the audience in closer, while the fourth waltz (Assez animé) twinkled in the night air. Giltburg could be forceful when needed, as in the first (Modéré) and seventh (Moins vif) waltzes, and his Épilogue was exquisitely voiced.

The second half began with Schumann’s Carnaval, a tableau of portraits and personal insights completed in the composer’s mid-twenties. Schumann’s ability to paint vivid pictures at the piano is rightly celebrated, and the sketches here were rich in colour and implied detail. Giltburg relished the extravert Florestan as much as he did the reserved poetry of Eusebius, both sections portraying the personality of Schumann himself. The nagging ‘answer’ motif of Pierrot left its mark, as did the repeated notes of Reconaissance. Meanwhile Papillons quoted from one of Schumann’s first piano pieces with a slightly shy countenance. Schumann’s portraits of Chopin and Paganini were once again fascinating in their insights, while finally the triumphant Marche des Davidsbündler contre les Philistins carried all before it in a triumphant account.

As did Ravel’s La valse, which followed, though here there was a very different outcome. La valse describes the destruction wrought by the First World War, its closing bars collapsing in vivid imagery, but it could just as easily describe elements of our civilization over the last few years. Giltburg seemed to inhabit that possibility, the warm-hearted dance dropping in temperature as his account progressed, until the end when it was rumbling throughout the piano in a self-destructive whirlpool. This is a fiendishly difficult transcription, but Giltburg made it seem effortless as he inhabited each and every twist and turn, hurling out the final pages with formidable power.

After this alarming turn of events we returned to the solace of Giltburg’s first encore, a limpid Intermezzo in A major Op.118/2 by Brahms, then marvelled at the passion in his second choice, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G# minor Op.32/12. A memorable recital, and an auspicious start to what promises to be a great series. Best experienced in person rather than online though!

You can listen to the repertoire from Boris Giltburg’s concert on this Spotify playlist, which includes the pianist’s recordings of the Prokofiev, Schumann and Rachmaninov:

For more information on Boris Giltburg you can visit his website

In concert – Gould Piano Trio @ Wigmore Hall

Gould Piano Trio [Lucy Gould (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)]

Mozart Piano Trio in G major K564 (1788)
Clarke Piano Trio in E flat minor (1921)
Ravel Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London, 29 October 2020

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This latest event in the Wigmore Hall season saw a welcome recital by the Gould Trio, now well into its third decade and whose frequent appearances at this venue have always featured music from right across the medium of the piano trio; with tonight’s programme no exception.

A medium to which Mozart came relatively late in his career, producing five such works in little more than two years. Last in this sequence, K564 has rather remained in the shadow of its predecessors; unfairly so, as motivic interplay across and between its three movements is comparable to any of his more imposing pieces of this time. Such was affirmed in a reading which brought out the muscular interplay of its Allegro, the wistful elegance of its Andante then the relaxed nonchalance of a final Allegretto as ranks among Mozart’s most endearing.

Would that Rebecca Clarke had followed up her solitary contribution; the Piano Trio belonging to a clutch of pieces that should have laid the basis for a composing career but were destined to remain the peak of her achievement. The influence of Debussy and Ravel is often cited, but the vehemence of Bartók’s music from this period is equally evident – witness the emotional volatility of the first movement (which predates the similarly conceived opening movement of the Hungarian composer’s First Violin Sonata), fraught eloquence of the central Andante then driving impetus of the final Allegro; its powerful culmination subsiding into a resigned coda whose defiant ending feels almost in spite of itself. A fine performance by an ensemble which was championing this piece well before it attained the recognition it now justly enjoys.

If Ravel’s Piano Trio has never lacked for advocacy over the century and more since it was first performed, it remains a tough challenge both technically and interpretively. The present account was perhaps a shade under-characterized in the simmering dance rhythms of the first movement, with the Scherzo’s deft syncopations similarly downplayed at least until the sheer effervescence of its closing bars. No doubts, though, as to the ensuing Passacaglia – building methodically yet irresistibly to its baleful climax before winding down into the depths of the piano, from whence the finale steals in. The latter movement has been criticized for exuding near-orchestral sonorities, but Ravel’s handling of this is astutely judged – not least in a coda whose hard-won triumph in the face of encroaching adversity was powerfully conveyed here.

It certainly made for an impressive conclusion to this recital, just the sort of programme that feels necessary at such a time as this. Hopefully, these next few weeks will bring no cessation on the part of Wigmore Hall or the Gould Trio – their activities necessary now more than ever.

This concert can be streamed again until 29 November via the YouTube link above, or through the Wigmore Hall website here

These Wigmore Hall concerts are free to view but the venue is relying on the generosity of its audience to make them possible. If you do watch the concert, please consider making a donation, either at the Wigmore Hall website or via PayPal

Online music recommendations – Wigmore Hall’s new season

The Last Night of the Proms is a defining point in the musical calendar; once it has past summer literally becomes autumn where classical music venues are concerned, bringing with it a whole new set of possibilities.

Except this is 2020 of course, and the rulebook for live events has not just been completely rewritten but is subject to endless revisions, as the Coronavirus pandemic regulations change and as the government resets its guidelines.

In the midst of this confusion and with (sadly) a lack of constructive action and urgency from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, the Wigmore Hall’s unveiling of a packed new season of concerts is all the more impressive.

The hall led the return to live classical music back in June, which already seems a long time ago – and the sight of Stephen Hough playing to an empty venue might have been bittersweet but was also unexpectedly moving. Building on the success of that venture, the new season is even more ambitious.

Starting tonight, with Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber performing Berg and Schubert, the season runs right the way through to 22 December. During September each weekday will have two concerts, with an hour’s lunchtime recital at 1pm, broadcast by BBC Radio 3, and the evening concert at 7.30pm. All will be streamed on the Wigmore Hall channel and on YouTube.

Happily there are too many highlights for Arcana to list here – but during September you would be well advised to keep near a screen! The first lunchtime recital, on Monday 14 September, will see Alban Gerhardt and Markus Becker playing Shostakovich, Schumann and Beethoven – while other highlights of the first week include a concert from Rachel Podger and Kristian Bezuidenhout on Tuesday 15 September, with Bach and Froberger, and a richly imaginative song recital from Dame Sarah Connolly and Malcolm Martineau, the next lunchtime.

Later we have a characteristically imaginative recital from guitarist Sean Shibe (Friday 18), an all-Bach masterclass from pianist Angela Hewitt (Saturday 19), Quatuor Danel continuing their Shostakovich and Weinberg series (Wednesday 23) and a fascinating juxtaposition of Ravel and Couperin from pianist Cédric Tiberghien (Thursday 24). The following evening sees a combination of French and American songs from baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake.

And that’s just the first week! With so many riches in store, head to the Wigmore Hall website – where you can get planning. If you’re lucky enough to live closer to London you might be considering attending in socially distanced person, but if not then the online concerts will be rich and stimulating indeed.

In order to watch the Wigmore Hall’s online content, you need to head to their website and create a free account here. Once set up, you’re ready to roll! Alternatively you can watch at the Wigmore’s own YouTube channel

In concert – Steven Isserlis & Mishka Rushdie Momen @ Wigmore Hall

It must have been extremely special for Steven Isserlis to be playing the music of three of his favourite composers at the Wigmore Hall on this day – even more so as the date fell on the birthday of one of them, Robert Schumann.

He is one of the cellist’s greatest musical loves, and the sense persists that Isserlis is still discovering more things that make it so. One of Schumann’s many strengths is the versatility of his music, meaning pieces such as the 3 Romances Op.94, originally written for oboe and piano and given to his wife Clara as a Christmas present in 1849, can easily be performed with violin or, indeed, the cello.

Schumann’s birthday was marked by a performance of unaffected romantic beauty from Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, very much on an equal footing playing the composer’s first instrument. The pair caught the doleful and slightly inquiring nature of the first romance beautifully, while the surge of feeling in the central music of the second was a strong cumulative wave. The third, its theme given in a darker shade, was briefly introspective in its unison phrases but then more overtly passionate.

Before Schumann came another ‘birthday’ composer. Beethoven’s 250th is not likely to receive quite so much live coverage as it would have done in a year without a pandemic, but what it lacks in quantity it will surely make up for in quality. The Sonata for piano and cello no.1 in F major, the first of a pair published as the composer’s Op.5, is the ideal concert opener. It begins in slight trepidation of what it is about to discover, but then, on establishing what is effectively a new form of writing for the cello and piano together, throws itself headlong into the rapids.

The Allegro that comes after that first sense of discovery was joyous indeed, with lovely dialogue in play between the two protagonists. Isserlis smiled frequently, as though revelling in the combination of favourite music and venue once again, while Momen’s clear phrasing dovetailed neatly with the cello’s, owning some of the really tricky right hand runs with fearless accuracy.

The second movement had a terrific burst of energy, the sun breaking through at every possible opportunity when its catchy theme made several reappearances. The pair also gave a nice air of mystery when Beethoven suddenly departed from ‘home’ and ended up in a number of seemingly unrelated tonal centres, before reassuring us with the warmth of the home key once again.

As he introduced his favourite 20th century cello sonata, there was a sense of Isserlis’ heart almost bursting with the chance to play music live again. He described his discovery of Fauré’s late music as ‘being outside a door but then passing through and wondering why on earth I had been outside’, before the pair played the Cello Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.108, the first of two such works from the Frenchman.

This was a very fine performance indeed, Isserlis and Momen watchful and urgent at the start, its music wracked with uncertainty but nonetheless pushing forward with great conviction. The Andante slow movement began lost in thought, the bell-like toll of the piano matched by Isserlis’ rich legato tone, before reaching heights of passion that the final movement also delivered, the performers now glorying in the major key and Fauré’s bursts of sunshine, the strong resolve of the first movement bringing its ultimate reward.

The pair finished with a profound account of Isserlis’ own transcription of a Bach chorale prelude, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, in which – as the cellist noted – Bach says it all.