Wigmore Mondays – Annelien Van Wauwe & Nino Gvetadze play Debussy, Poulenc & Brahms

Annelien Van Wauwe (clarinet, above) and Nino Gvetadze (piano, below)

Debussy Première rapsodie (1909-10)

Poulenc Clarinet Sonata (1962)

Schumann Arabeske in C major, Op 18 (1838-9)

Brahms Clarinet Sonata in E flat, Op 120 No 2 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 20 March, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The soft, languid tones of Annelien Van Wauwe’s clarinet were perfectly judged at the hushed start of Debussy’s Première rapsodie, the first piece in a nicely chosen set of music for clarinet and piano.

This piece is an elusive ten-minute train of thought, with two distinct ideas – the slow, sleepy opening paragraph (from 1:40 on the broadcast link) and another, spiky idea (around 3:42), begging for a jazz accompaniment. Gradually the two get closer together and the cumulative energy builds. Nino Gvetadze’s colourful piano accompaniment showed just how suitable the piece is for orchestra – which Debussy realised with a subsequent arrangement.

Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata is one of his last published works, written in homage to fellow composer Arthur Honegger. Central to its success is the yearning theme of the central Romanza (16:36), where Van Wauwe’s tone and phrasing was beautifully observed. The first movement (beginning at 11:24) could have been a bit more mischievous, perhaps, but the brisk and largely upbeat finale (21:22) certainly hit the spot.

Following this was a chance for Gvetadze to take centre stage in Schumann’s lilting Arabeske (25:40), where wife Clara explicitly asked him to avoid making musical references to her. I’m not convinced he kept that bargain, because the music is very affectionate, and Gvetadze portrayed that too.

We then heard Brahms’ last published chamber work, the last part of an Indian summer instigated by the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, whose quality of tone directly inspired four pieces from the composer. This included a pair of sonatas published in 1894 as Brahms’s Op.120. These are lovely autumnal works, and both performers shaded the E flat work, the more positive of the two, with appropriate care. More authority could perhaps have been given to the second movement (marked Allegro appassionato, from 43:26 on the broadcast) but the outer movements had plenty to admire. The first movement (from 35:09) was largely contented, while the last, a theme and variations (48:50), was more changeable in mood and brilliantly played here, Brahms’ inspiration as keen as ever.

A final thought – what will Brexit mean for the non-English contingent the BBC choose for their excellent New Generations scheme? One of many questions classical music and the arts will face in the coming months and years.

Further listening

Brahms’s last works for clarinet are collected in the playlist below. They are autumnal in nature but have some wonderful lyrical writing for the instrument.

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 – David Greilsammer plays Scarlatti and Cage

david-greilsammerDavid Greilsammer (piano)

Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas: in D minor (Kk213), in D minor (Kk141) (12:11), in E (Kk531) (17:57), in B minor (Kk27) (23:58), in B minor (Kk87) (28:33), in A minor (Kk175) (35:25), in E (Kk380) (42:01), in D (Kk492)

interspersed with

Cage Sonatas for prepared piano: nos. 14 (8:47), 13 (15:20), 11 (21:31), 1 (26:23), 12 (32:38), 16 (38:55) & 5 (46:42)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 27 February, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

John Cage is a composer whose music transcends eras. That bold statement was made into reality by David Greilsammer’s imaginatively conceived recital of piano music at the Wigmore Hall, where innovations of the 18th century from Domenico Scarlatti rubbed shoulders with Cage’s music for ‘prepared’ piano.

The prepared piano is a heavily tampered instrument, beginning as a normal grand piano but ending up festooned with dampers, screws, nuts, bolts and even a rubber eraser. Hearing it in person is a real shock, because the resultant sounds are so far removed from a conventional piano tone that the listener has to instinctively check that it is a keyboard being used. The immediate reaction of raised eyebrows gives way to amazement that the instrument with which we are so familiar can make so many different timbres, clicks and beats.

Cage is often derided for these amendments, but hearing this concert from Greilsammer showed just how original his thinking was. The pure imagination of Scarlatti was also revealed, for his 550 sonatas were initially cast aside, with few published in his lifetime. Subsequently they have been shown to contain music of great freedom, expression and colour, so much so that the first sonata of the recital, no.213 in Ralph Kirkpatrick’s catalogue, (1:44 on the live broadcast link) – could almost have been by Cage. It helped that Greilsammer exaggerated its sparse contours and slow tempo, but it was a striking way to begin.

Cage’s evocations of the gamelan in his Sonatas made an immediate impact, helped by the fact Greilsammer was literally spinning between the normal piano for the Scarlatti and the prepared piano with little to no time difference. We passed through periods of energy but also reflection, always enjoying the shock of the new and some familiar contours of the old. With each switch it felt like we were being taken into another world.

The energetic Scarlatti pieces were stressed as such by Greilsammer – a punchy Kk141 especially – while on the Cage side the moods could be equally energetic. The contrasts were beautifully chosen, and so were the tonal centres – the rippling Scarlatti Sonata in E major, Kk531 (17:57), went straight into the treble-rich Sonata no.11 (21:31), and a more thoughtful Sonata in B minor Kk27 (23:58) segued into the more percussive Sonata no.12 (26:20) with barely a join in the notes. The same effect could be experienced at 32:38, where a pensive Scarlatti and a free, improvised Cage Sonata no. 12 were effectively joined together, the latter becoming gradually more aggressive as it moved forward.

The final three sonatas in the group were perhaps the most effective, a military-style march of Scarlatti in E major (42:01) cutting to the most evocative gamelan picture from Cage (46:42) and then to the final D major work of the Italian (48:18).

As a brilliantly conceived encore, Greilsammer offered a vision of his own nightmare, playing the right piece on the ‘wrong’ piano. This was the last Scarlatti sonata (53:50) – only on the prepared piano rather than the untampered one. It served to show just how surprisingly close the sound worlds of these two composers can be, and how music can effortlessly transcend gaps of three centuries.

Thought provoking and eyebrow-raising, this was a wholly stimulating concert and should be heard again!

Further listening

David Greilsammer’s album of Scarlatti and Cage is available to stream on Spotify:

JACK Quartet – Xenakis day at the Wigmore Hall

jack-quartet

JACK Quartet [(Christoper Otto, Austin Wulliman (violins), John Pickford Richards (viola), Jay Campbell (cello)]

Saturday, 25 February 2017, Wigmore Hall

Written by Ben Hogwood

Xenakis: Ergma (1994), Embellie (1981), Mikka (1971), Kottos (1977), Hunem-Iduhey (1996), ST/4-1, 080262 (1956-62)

As part of its enterprising commitment to contemporary music, the Wigmore Hall ‘composer days’ are key, giving audiences a chance either to try something new or to further an admiration of an established figure.

Xenakis day, honouring the Greek composer, architect, civil engineer and burgeoning computer programmer Iannis Xenakis, concentrated on his works for strings on a small scale. The lunchtime concert, an hour in length but packed with six intriguingly titled pieces, showed just how adventurous Xenakis was in stretching the boundaries of the instruments he wrote for.

That said, the opening Ergma was a little more conventional in its grouping of the conventional string quartet – two violins, viola and cello. However it stipulated they should concentrate on chords containing the major seventh (nearly a perfect octave but not quite) and this created music of ear-bending tension. The JACK Quartet played with great freedom but also keen virtuosity, responding like athletes that had been set a physical challenge. Xenakis’ powerful and often confrontational sound world had been set.

The contrasting solo pieces that followed were effectively programmed, showing the great lengths Xenakis went to in finding new and interesting sounds for familiar instruments. Embellie, a substantial piece for solo viola, was brilliantly played by John Pickford Richards, who found unexpected if brief moments of contemplation amongst the abrasive chords he was asked to play. The use of microtones – notes in between the conventional twelve of a conventional Western scale – created once again the unique brand of tension Xenakis’ music holds.

Following this was the elusive Mikka – elusive because Christopher Otto’s violin line slid all over the place restlessly, like a fast moving fish evading capture. The sounds were genuinely funny at times, possibly not an intention of the composer but again showing how original sounds from familiar sources can get a reaction, whether a laugh or a frown. Both reactions were clear here!

The cello had its moment too, in the form of the brilliantly played Kottos, Jay Campbell at the absolute peak of his technical craft. This was the most accessible piece, using harmonics and a technique of bowing the actual bridge of the instrument itself to create eerie sounds. Xenakis uses sustained drones on the instrument, and these effectively accompanied the melodies, and they took on a religious connotation in their profile. Later on, folk tunes came to the fore and the energy of the piece built, Campbell finishing with a flourish.

The brief and rather caustic march Hunem-Iduhey (its title a reverse of the name Yehudi Menuhin) was an obstinate aside, before we heard one of the first pieces written as the result of a computer program. ST/4-1, 080262 – a deliberately non-catchy title – was ‘written’ after Xenakis mastered a program on what was thought to be the only IBM computer available in France. Scored for string quartet, the piece was filled with randomly generated incident to begin with, as though the computer had been trying too hard to fill in every possible outcome from the four instruments, but as the piece progressed the music became more spacious and easier to digest. There was no sense of ‘home’ here particularly, save some repeated, bell-like notes plucked by Austin Wulliman’s second violin, but that gave the listener a feeling of distance from the music itself, making an appreciation of the performance the main reaction.

There was abundant proof in this concert that Xenakis was one of the most original composers of the second half of last century, and as an introduction to his music it was perfectly weighted. There is a sense that we have not yet fully appreciated the Greek composer’s genius and originality, partly due to the confrontational nature of his music, but it was great to have it brought to the fore here. The JACK Quartet performed athletically and passionately, and it made a lasting impact.

Wigmore Mondays – Van Kuijk Quartet: Schubert & Ravel

van-kuijk-quartetVan Kuijk Quartet [Nicolas Van Kuijk, Sylvain Favre-Bulle (violins), Emmanuel François (viola), François Robin (cello)]

Schubert String Quartet in E flat major D87 (1813)

Ravel String Quartet in F major (1902-3)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

There are a great many young string quartets on the concert circuit, but from this evidence the Van Kuijk Quartet, winners of the 2015 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition, are among the finest.

Formed in Paris, the quartet are members of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Scheme, which gives them a regular platform at some of the UK’s finest venues. For their Wigmore Hall lunchtime debut they brought Schubert and Ravel to life with playing of enthusiasm, wit and panache.

Starting with early Schubert was a good move. Even by his sixteenth birthday the composer had racked up nine string quartets, and for his tenth he drew heavily on the ability to write charming and humourous music.

The Van Kuijk Quartet brought into that fully, enjoying the abundance of good tunes from the outset (1:54 on the broadcast link) while also relishing the bursts of energy and snappy rhythms felt in the second movement scherzo (12:50). This they countered with a darker, contrasting theme. The Adagio (15:11) was affectionately played, while the finale, marked Allegro (from 21:45) threw back the curtains and drew parallels with the energy of Beethoven’s early string quartets, written twelve years before.

Ravel’s single published String Quartet has claims to be the most popular of all in the form. Even though it is heard a lot, the Van Kuijk Quartet gave it fresh impetus here, setting the springlike mood with the opening phrase (from 32:22). The second theme was not so successful, for despite the beauty of the tune itself from violin and viola the cello was very low in the mix. The second movement sprang forward though (41:49), with its distinctive, vigorous pizzicato (plucking).

By contrast the slow movement was a dreamy lullaby (49:03), especially enjoyable for the muted viola tone played so beautifully by Emmanuel François. And so to the finale (58:42), misunderstood by its dedicatee Fauré but full of energy here, each syncopation and complexity of harmony revealed by a quartet playing in complete unity.

To complete an excellent concert the Van Kuijk Quartet gave an arrangement of Les Chemins de l’amour, a song by Poulenc, as their encore.

Further listening

The Van Kuijk Quartet have recently released an album of Mozart String Quartets, which can be heard on Spotify and previewed on YouTube below:

For more Ravel, this superb album from Chantal Juillet, Truls Mørk and Pascal Rogé includes pieces for violin and piano alongside the vibrant Sonata for Violin and Cello: