Wigmore Mondays – Juilliard Quartet play Lembit Beecher & Dvořák ‘American’ string quartets

Juilliard String Quartet: Areta Zhulla, Ronald Copes (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Astrid Schween (cello) (photo: Claudia Papapietro)

Lembit Beecher One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time (2018) (2:25-23:52 on the link to BBC Sounds below)
Dvořák String Quartet in F major Op.96 ‘American’ (1893) (26:42-54:11)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 14 January 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The Juilliard String Quartet are a very different proposition now to when they were formed in 1946. In the analogue recording years string quartets were almost wholly formed of white male players, and it has been very satisfying to see the trend broadening in the last couple of decades. The Juilliards themselves appear to have hit on a perfect blend of youth and experience, with first violinist Areta Zhulla joining their ranks for the 2018/19 season. On this evidence it has given them a real shot in the arm, helped by their willingness to bring with them a new work from Lembit Beecher. This gave their Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert a symmetrical feel, for Beecher’s new work for string quartet draws from Europe and more specifically Estonia – while Dvořák’s most celebrated ‘American’ String Quartet finds him writing in America but using a melodic style common to both the USA and the Czech Republic.

Beecher first, and the European premiere of One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time. The intriguing title takes as its lead an Estonian melody, a waltz written by Beecher’s grand uncle Ilmar Kiiss, now in his mid-90s. This meaningful piece of music puts its head above the parapet in the first two of the three movements making up the quartet, before fully revealing itself in the third. The movements themselves represent different generations and their telling of the same story, which becomes less detailed as one generation passes to the next. As a result the first contains more definitive incidents, the second is more shadowy and less focussed in detail but poignant in mood, and the third, while recalling the attractive waltz in charming detail, is slower in its movements.

In concert this is a very effective piece of music not just to listen to but to watch. The busy conversations of the first movement (2:25 on the broadcast link) feel as though Beecher had set words to music, removing them just before performance, and making the first violin the loudest voice. This reaches a natural apex through Zhulla’s faultless higher register playing (from 5:10), before subsiding in volume and intensity, to some unusually emotional figures around 7:15 that simply dies on the string.

The second movement (from 11:51) uses subtle but effective techniques such as harmonics to create the shadowy effects, while from 14:51 a sudden injection of pace and volume gets an excitable conversation going again. The tender waltz theme would seem to be from 16:58 on the viola, before the violin ascends to the heights.

The third movement (from 18:39) has mottled textures and a slight lethargy, as though the memories are more difficult to place. Again the violin’s voice is loudest, but the shady movements of the others and the closing tremolos (from around 22:25) give a fragile and autumnal air to proceedings. All these elements were superbly marshalled in performance by the Juilliard Quartet, and made you want to hear more of Beecher’s music.

The Juilliard’s performance of the Dvořák, meanwhile, was a joy. This much-played work – one of the most popular string quartets there is, together with the Debussy and the Ravel works – rediscovers its freshness here. This is thanks in part to Zhulla’s clear affection for the piece. After Roger Tapping’s viola gives a silvery exposition of the first tune, she leads with a beautiful tone once again (26:57), enjoying the outdoor nature of the pentatonic melodies – which, as Gerald Larner’s programme note helpfully point out, seem to be equal parts Bohemia and Iowa. (The pentatonic scale, as its name implies, is made up of just five notes – in this case F (the home key), G, A, C and D). Although Dvořák was on a lengthy vacation when he wrote the string quartet, and was doubtless influenced by the melodies he heard in America, there is never the feeling that his Czech heritage is far away. The sentimental second theme (28:21) bears this out.

Meanwhile Zhulla and cellist Astrid Schween capture the bittersweet main melody of the slow movement to perfection (37:18) and (38:03), the rocking motion of its accompaniment acting as a lullaby. The ensemble enjoys the scampering figures of the Scherzo (44:47) before a brief Trio section (46:58) brings forward what the composer believed to be the song of the scarlet tanager in the first violin. The Scherzo resumes shortly after at 47:44.

The finale (48:52) is bold and positive in this performance, the quartet enjoying the abundance of tunes available to them – most of them taking in the pentatonic scale once again, with a rustic, outdoor feel.

With the bonus of a Haydn encore in the same key and mood (the Minuet from his Op.77/2 quartet at 56:06), this was the ideal January concert, an inspiring and optimistic pairing of works that celebrate the diversity of culture but also look at the heritage of each and bring them together. A lesson for the future in this country, perhaps?

Further Listening

Lembit Beecher’s One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time is not currently available online; however you can listen below to his previous work for string quartet, Small Infinities:

The Juilliard String Quartet recorded Dvořák’s American string quartet all the way back in 1968 – yet that version does not appear to have yet reached Spotify. The below link is to a recent disc from the Škampa Quartet, coupling the quartet with the String Quintet in E flat major published immediately after. It is similarly free-spirited:

Further Reading

Lembit Beecher’s composer website contains detailed information on his output, with a healthy dose of videos and audio tracks. Meanwhile you can read more about the Juilliard String Quartet at their website. For a biography of Antonin Dvořák, this dedicated site to the composer is recommended.

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics II: Brahms, Mendelssohn & Schumann

Nash Ensemble: Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), Lawrence Power, Timothy Ridout (violas), Adrian Brendel (cello), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford, Marie Lloyd (clarinets), Ursula Leveaux (bassoon), Richard Watkins (horn) / Martyn Brabbins (conductor, Brahms Serenade)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2018 7.30pm

Schumann Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (1853)
Brahms String Quintet no.2 in G major Op.111 (1890)
Mendelssohn Song Without Words in D major Op.109 (1845)
Brahms, reconstructed Alan Boustead Serenade no.1 in D major Op.11 (1857/58)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The second of the day’s concerts in the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall presented some of the finest 19th century chamber music to come from the country, picking up where the earlier concert of music by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn left off.

We began with late Robert Schumann, his Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (Fairy Tales), written for the appealing combination of clarinet, viola and piano that Mozart had pioneered in his own Kegelstatt trio of 1786. Schumann’s approach was formally less rigid, preferring to give his trio a quartet of character pieces, unlabelled in meaning but clear in tempo. Richard Hosford, Lawrence Power and Ian Brown were the perfect foil for these pieces, where the second especially stood out for its questioning harmony. The first and third pieces were songlike and romantic, while the fourth felt like one of Schumann’s celebrations of life itself. It is difficult to imagine a better performance than this one, the beauty of tone from clarinet and viola in particular a joy.

BrahmsString Quintet no.2, his last of seven chamber works for strings, is if anything even more positive and life affirming. While writing the piece in 1890 Brahms thought it would be his last work altogether, before going on to enjoy an unexpected Indian summer thanks to the inspiration of clarinettist Richard Mühlfield. The opening bars of the quintet are some of the very best in chamber music, and the tricky theme here was tackled heroically by cellist Adrian Brendel, the melody rising through the heady accompaniment of the others. The second theme of this movement was beautifully and soulfully rendered, setting the tone in the process for the second movement, an Adagio of heartfelt and profound utterance. The third movement, a silvery Intermezzo, was light on its feet while the finale recaptured the positive spirits of the first movement and pressed forward with impressive urgency. The Nash played brilliantly, communicating Brahms’ congested textures with apparent ease and enjoying the exchanges of ideas right to the end.

The second half of the concert, given to a packed Wigmore Hall, began with one of Mendelssohn’s most enjoyable trifles. His last work for cello and piano, the Song Without Words has at its heart a wonderful tune, which Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown clearly enjoyed. Brendel’s tone and forcefulness in the contrasting middle section were ideal.

This made an ideal prelude for early Brahms, the Serenade no.1. This wonderfully positive piece is usually heard in orchestral form, but here we heard Alan Boustead’s recreation of the original instrumentation of the piece, for nine solo instruments. With the combination of flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, we were taken into the sound world of Beethoven’s Septet, written for a similar combination. Musically we were not far off either, and Martyn Brabbins joined the Nash Ensemble to conduct a highly spirited performance. Richard Watkins’ horn was the star of the show, projecting Brahms’s outdoorsy tunes with rustic charm, but in reality all nine players were superb, enjoying the relative lightness of texture and abundance of melody. The slow movement was placed second – not third, as the program said it would be – but this was an effective placement with some gorgeous textures. While this music was more thoughtful the Minuets and Scherzo returned us to the open air, while the Finale positively threw open the shutters for another winsome horn tune. This was Brahms at his most carefree, and Brabbins ensured the Nash Ensemble were too.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall visit their website

Further listening

The below Spotify playlist compiles the music used in both of the evening’s German Romantics series from the Nash Ensemble, using their recordings where possible:

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics I: Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn

Nash Ensemble: Stephanie Gonley (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), Ian Brown (piano)

Clara Schumann 3 Romances for violin and piano Op.22 (1853)
Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes for cello and piano Op.17 (1829)
Fanny Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor Op.11 (1847)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2019 (5.30pm)

Review by Ben Hogwood

As part of the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics season at the Wigmore Hall, it was gratifying indeed to find a concert paying tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as composers in their own right rather than simply inspiration for their more frequently performed husbands.

Clara was the muse for Robert Schumann, and even after his death sacrificed her own career as a composer to ensure his music was best heard. Here we heard her last published work, the 3 Romances of 1853, written when Robert was still alive. Using a method of presentation her husband often employed in chamber music, she wrote these three attractive pieces for great violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom Clara gave the first performance in Germany. Stephanie Gonley and Ian Brown gave a thoughtful and rather beautiful account here, Gonley’s tone and phrasing ideally suited to the longer romantic melodies. The first piece was tender and expressive, the second thoughtful but with glimpses of sunshine, and the third a flowing account with an attractive, long-phrased melody.

There followed the Variations concertantes Op.19, the first of several works by Felix Mendelssohn for cello and piano. Written for his younger brother Paul, they are a virtuoso collection of far reaching interpretations of a theme, and were brilliantly played here by Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown, whose eager dialogue caught the energetic approach of the early Mendelssohn. The music moved from affirmative major key to tempestuous minor, but its return was a beautifully realised shift in mood.

We then heard Fanny Mendelssohn’s final published work, a Piano Trio to place alongside – if not even slightly ahead of – the two great works in the form by her brother. With the unison opening from violin and cello, presented above flowing piano figurations, she immediately ensures the audience are held in the drama of a piece that picks you up from the outset and doesn’t let you go.

Gonley, Brendel and Brown were ideal vehicles to present the piece, revelling in the exchanges of the first movement and the warmly romantic themes when the music became more affirmative. The middle two movements, effectively Songs Without Words in the Mendelssohn tradition, were beautifully presented with lyricism and charm, the third becoming distinctly chilly towards its close, leading to a cadenza from Brown to resume the drama in the final movement. The considerable struggles here were played out with thrilling virtuosity, distilling even the most complicated counterpoint before a glorious closing section that swept all before it.

It is to be hoped Clara Schumann’s 200th anniversary year – together with festival’s such as Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place – will raise the profile of women composers, which it has to be said could hardly have been lower in previous years. Concerts such as this help immensely, bringing forward the quality evident from both Clara and Fanny, with the pertinent reminder that neither Schumann nor Mendelssohn – nor indeed Brahms – could have achieved their musical goals without these creative forces.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble and their German Romantics series, visit their website

Further listening

You can listen to the music from both concerts of the latest German Romantics evening on the Spotify playlist below:

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:

Live review – RTÉ Contempo Quartet & members of Ad Libitum & Arcadia Quartets: Enescu & Bartók

RTÉ Contempo Quartet [Bogdan Sofei & Ingrid Nicola (violins), Andreea Banciu (viola), Adrian Mantu (cello)]; members of the Ad Libitum Quartet [Remus Azoitei (violin) and Filip Papa (cello)] and Arcadia Quartet [Rasvan Dumitri (violin) and Traian Boala (viola)]

Wigmore Hall, London
Sunday 30 December 2018, 11:30am
Given in association with the Romanian Cultural Institute, London and RTÉ

Bartók (arr. Naughtin) Romanian Folk Dances BB68 (1915)
Enescu Octet in C major Op.7 (1900)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This last of the Sunday Morning Concerts for 2018 at Wigmore Hall proved a culmination in every respect – a performance of the Octet for strings with which the teenage Enescu saw in the twentieth century, and which remains among his most innovative and impressive works.

Completed in 1900, the Octet then had to wait almost a decade for its first public hearing and subsequent performances were more likely from string orchestras; even when this piece was given as intended, the eight instruments were often coordinated by a conductor – testament to a contrapuntal intricacy and emotional intensity that ensembles have only recently felt able to take in their collective stride. Such was undoubtedly true of the present reading, in which the RTÉ Contempo Quartet was partnered by members of the Arcadia and Ad Libitum Quartets.

In his own Octet the teenage Mendelssohn had 75 years earlier hinted at an overall unity, via long-term thematic links, which Enescu takes much further by designing his first movement an extended exposition that is ‘developed’ across two successors before the finale brings an intensified reprise and climactic apotheosis. Not that this account took risks with the work’s formal or expressive audacities; rather its numerous insights were unassumingly drawn into an ongoing continuity which proceeded from an alternately febrile and languorous Scherzo, then raptly eloquent slow movement, to a finale whose heady rhetoric was vividly channeled into the culmination – a fervent augmentation of the work’s opening theme, propelled by an elemental waltz motion, that the young Enescu arguably never surpassed for sheer panache.

A technical as well as interpretative challenge, then, that was triumphantly brought off – any flaws in intonation or ensemble far outweighed by the cumulative impact of this performance. Not its least notable aspect was the tangible interplay between musicians responsive not only to their own parts but also to those of their colleagues, so rendering superfluous any need for a conductor. Certainly, the near-capacity audience responded with real enthusiasm to a piece that, if they were unfamiliar with beforehand, they had evidently taken to heart by the close.

An as entree into the main work, the RTÉ Contempo gave a fluent and atmospheric reading of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances – here in an idiomatic while texturally slightly too fussy arrangement by Matt Naughtin as set the scene for what followed in suitably bracing terms.

For more information on the RTÉ Contempo Quartet, visit their website. A Spotify playlist of the music given in this concert is included below, with the Romanian Dances in the more frequently heard version for string orchestra: