Wigmore Mondays – Jeremy Denk plays Bach & Schubert

Jeremy Denk (piano)

J.S. Bach Partita no.5 in G major BWV829 (1726-1730) (1:35 – 16:37)
Schubert 4 Impromptus D935 (1827) (19:16 – 54:07)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 18 March 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

If you know anybody who is sceptical of the music of J.S. Bach, point them in the direction of the link above, and Jeremy Denk’s account of his Partita no.5. This sparkling display of virtuosity showed beyond doubt the composer’s ability to write instinctively with humour, a playful Partita where the only regret was the pianist’s decision not to use all the written repeats applied to the dance-based movements.

The reason for this would almost certainly have been time constraints, with Denk’s wish to combine the Bach with the Four Impromptus Schubert completed in 1827, his last full year. The two made a very satisfying coupling, giving listeners in the Wigmore Hall and to BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert an hour of fluidly written and brilliantly played pieces.

The Bach first, beginning at 1:35 on the broadcast link with a lively Praeambulum, then moving almost without a break into the traditional sequence of dance movements the composer reserved for pieces such as this. With the mood defined Bach presents an elegant Allemande (3:54), a light footed Corrente (7:35) and then a slower Sarabande (8:52), which features attractive doubling of the melody.

These slower dances always present a pause for thought within Bach, an intake of breath before more dancing – which here includes a Minuetta (11:34) where Bach puts a delightful ‘two against three’ set of rhythms together, the dance stumbling attractively. It’s over all too soon unfortunately, but the straight faced Passepied (12:38) has a stately feel, before the triple-time Gigue (13:48), with its centrepiece, a fugue that Denk masters most impressively, building the momentum to a thrilling conclusion.

Angela Hewitt has spoken of how the key of G major ‘always seems to inspire Bach to write music of great radiance, joy, gentleness and technical display’ – and that is on view throughout Denk’s spring-like account. He delighted in asides to the audience throughout, letting them in on his enjoyment of the music.

The Schubert presented a very different range of emotions. Published as a set of four pieces in 1839, twelve years after composition, the Impromptus work in isolation and also as a quartet, their themes crossing over but not as rigidly as a sonata might demand. This spirit of relative freedom runs through the four pieces.

The first Impromptu, in F minor (19:16 on the link) is a substantial piece that immediately brings Beethoven to mind with its call to arms – Schubert’s contemporary having not long died. The second theme of this impromptu (20:51) is soft and hymn-like, reflective yet with strength in depth when repeated and magnified, in development. This intense passage is cleverly worked, coming back around to the relatively stern main theme at 24:25, though Denk enjoys the more optimistic strains of the major key as it soon takes over. The ‘hymn’ recurs in this key at 26:08 – but as befits the uncertainty of this music, Schubert can’t resist more harmonic movement right through to the turbulent end.

The second Impromptu (29:43) is in F minor’s ‘relative’ key, A flat major, and starts in wonderful stillness. This main theme is restated on a number of occasions, resisting any of the louder interventions trying to derail it. A central section (from 33:05) is faster and flowing, but once again takes a turn for darker waters as Schubert alternates between major and minor key. This only heightens the soft contentment of the main music when it returns at 35:17, wonderfully handled by Denk.

The third Impromptu is similarly light and shade, but this time much more in favour of brighter thoughts. From its opening (37:27) it sets out a theme very similar to a famous melody from Schubert’s Rosamunde stage music, which the composer proceeds to take as a base for several variations – just as he did in an earlier String Quartet in A minor. This unfolds beautifully – with impeccable technique from Denk, and impressive depth in the minor key fourth variation (41:44). The twinkling figure of the final variation (45:30) looks to finish the piece in high spirits, but a final statement returns us to quiet thought.

Finally the fourth Impromptu (47:49) returns us to the F minor world of the first, though here Schubert is in the mood for a dance, evoking the Hungarian cimbalom with spicy harmonies and some daring passagework for the right hand. This finishes the piece acrobatically in the run up to 54:07, a feat superbly realised by Denk here.

As a completely irreverent encore, breaking Schubert’s spell but proving a superbly entertaining sign-off, we had the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser well and truly sent through the boogie-woogie and blues wringer by Donald Lambert (from 55:55 – 58:21)

Further reading and listening

If you enjoyed Jeremy Denk’s Bach playing, there is a disc of Partitas he released back in 2011 for Azica Records. You can hear it on Spotify here:

Denk’s latest release is an intriguing exploration of music from 1300 to the present day. You can hear it here:

Meanwhile to explore more Schubert Impromptus and pieces, the peerless Alfred Brendel is strongly recommended. This album includes all the Impromptus for solo piano as well as some attractive German Dances, the elusive but compelling 6 Moments Musicaux and the darkly tinged 3 Klavierstücke:

Wigmore Mondays – Belcea Quartet: Recollections of Hans Keller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belcea Quartet [Corina Belcea, Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (cello)] Photo (c) Marco Borggreve

Haydn String Quartet in D minor Op.76/2 ‘Fifths’ (1797) (4:27 – 25:22 on the broadcast link)
Britten String Quartet no.3 Op.94 (1975) (28:18 – 56:35)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 11 March 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Hans Keller was one of the great musicologists and musical writers of the 20th century, and this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at the Wigmore Hall marked the occasion of what would have been his 100th birthday.

Despite his obvious talents as a writer and analyst Keller was a divisive figure, his forthright views often creating controversy, but the notes for the program accompanying this concert reflected a deeply passionate listener who simply loved the music of Haydn and Britten.

For Keller, Haydn was ‘musical history’s greatest thematic economist’ – a point borne out by the String Quartet in D minor Op.76/2. The nicknames applied to some of Haydn’s best-loved works are evocative, even if they do relegate some more deserving works to the sidelines. The ‘Fifths’ for this quartet refer not just to the melodic intervals in the first theme of the first movement (from 4:27 on the broadcast), where Corina Belcea’s first violin took an authoritative lead in this performance, but to the second theme too.

The discourse of the first movement was extremely satisfying in this performance, the Belcea Quartet lingering on one particularly spicy chord () while providing energy and passion. The second movement Andante (11:45), more a graceful minuet than a slow movement, had some lovely moments of radiance from all four players, with a lightness of touch carrying the whole way through.

In complete contrast the Menuetto itself (17:42) wore a stern expression, dramatically poised as its canon played out between upper and lower parts. It did relent a little however for its trio section (18:58), Haydn slipping into the major key for a rustic dance. Here the Belcea Quartet judged the speeds just right, leaning on the down beat perfectly, before the gruff Minuetto theme returned (20:16).

The finale, marked Vivace assai (21:11), began with a hushed urgency, the main theme a little flighty in Corina Belcea’s hands, but by the time Haydn transported the music into the major key the quartet had an assertive grip on the performance.

Hans Keller, as captured by his wife, the artist Milein Cosman

Benjamin Britten loved the music of Haydn, declaring ‘If I feel down when I go to bed, I take a Haydn quartet with me. It’s all in there.’ His own contributions to the string quartet have proved to be long lasting, but the third – dedicated to Hans Keller who had been persisting that Britten write it – is an extraordinary piece.

Britten conceived it in five movements which might look unconventional on paper, but which translate to an extremely clever interpretation of the traditional sonata form, impressing his friend Keller greatly. However the technical achievements are not at the expense of emotion, as the Belcea Quartet showed here. The first movement, Duets (28:18) pairs second violin with viola – Axel Schacher and Krzysztof Chorzelski beginning authoritatively – before first violin and cello add their thoughts (Belcea and Antoine Lederlin in similar unity of voice).

A scabrous Ostinato movement follows (34:24), the quartet stretched to their limits by Britten’s ‘multiple stopping’ (several notes played at once on each instrument) and on the edge emotionally, but brilliantly played here.

It felt like time ceased to exist for the Solo movement (38:04), Belcea finding a radiant calm in a hall so silent that even a passing tube train could be heard underneath. This was a deeply felt but incredibly free account from the violinist, its central section like a swift on the wing with no restrictions of movement or direction until pure stillness from 42:31.

Following this the forthright Burlesque (43:38), with its elements of Shostakovich, came as something of a shock – but led inevitably into the final Recitative and Passacaglia, subtitled La Serenissima (46:23). The shafts of bright light at the opening are unmistakeably linked to Aldeburgh, and here the quartet found yet another higher plain, Britten’s last substantial work playing out his last days but taking his leave in music of great restraint and beauty.

The reassuring rising motif of the Passacaglia (from 49:22) sets a firm base, from which Britten spins a number of variations. It ends openly (56:08), on a remarkable chord – as Keller says ‘a non-end’, Britten effectively declaring ‘I’m not dead yet’. It is a calling card for his music, restraint packed with hidden emotion – and the Belcea Quartet found its heart unerringly.

Further reading and listening

For more on Britten’s String Quartet no.3, you can visit this entry on the Good Morning Britten blog – an anniversary tribute to the composer from 2013 from yours truly.

Meanwhile the music played in this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below, including the Belcea Quartet’s own recording of the Britten:

The six works making up Haydn’s Op.76 represent the pinnacle of his writing for string quartet, and can be heard below in one of several fine available versions, this one from the Hungarian Takács String Quartet:

Britten’s contribution to the string quartet repertoire is hardly negligible itself, mind, and Keller was in great awe of the String Quartet no.2 in particular. Here is a link to the Belcea Quartet’s recordings of that, the extrovert D major String Quartet no.1 and the youthful but assured 3 Divertimenti:

Wigmore Mondays – Mariam Batsashvili plays Bach, Haydn & Liszt

Mariam Batsashvili (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903 (c1720) (1:45 – 13:19 on the broadcast link below)

Haydn Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (1780) (13:59-24:20)

Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C sharp minor S244/12 (25:39-35:15)

Liszt, edited Busoni & Leslie Howard: Fantasy on themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni S697 (1842) (36:40-55:20)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 February 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Mariam Batsashvili has made a name for herself as a specialist in the music of one of the most masculine of piano composers. Franz Liszt is regarded very much as a showman, his music often thought to be for virtuosos only who will play it with as much blood and thunder.

However as the Georgian pianist Batsashvili showed here that does not always have to be the case. Her Liszt has its fair share of drama and power, for sure – no let-up there – but hers is a very musical approach, getting beneath the surface to show Liszt’s other compositional talents.

Before Liszt, the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue from J.S. Bach – one of his pieces that does if anything look forward towards the free form Liszt and his contemporaries would use. Played on a piano it has a strong, instinctive flow – something Batsashvili gets into immediately as the Fantasy plays. With ideal use of the sustain pedal and enough sense of freedom, she delivers an un-showy but very strong musical performance, with a fugue notable for its clarity and expression from 8:14, gathering intensity as it progresses.

Having reached the sunny key of D major by the end of the Bach, Batsashvili stayed out on stage and in the same key while changing composer. Joseph Haydn wrote a large number of piano sonatas, the early examples of which were for friends. This good natured Piano Sonata in D major HXVI:37 (from 13:59) was for the sisters Franziska and Maria Katherina von Auenbrugger, who judging by this were positive souls with a sense of humour and strong technique.

Haydn’s own wit is there in the main theme from the start, and the busy figuration suggests the sisters had pretty nimble fingers too. The slow movement (marked Largo, from 18:22) takes a pensive turn in the minor key, with spicy harmonies suggesting some discomfort. That is removed by the finale (marked Presto ma non troppo, from 21:15), which takes us near to the spirited mood of the first movement if not fully shaking off the doubts recently aired.

Liszt wrote a total of 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, celebrating his home country in music of great passion and virtuosity, and often incorporating folk tunes into the mix. The Hungarian Rhapsody no.12 in C#minor S244/12 (25:39) starts with suitable drama and contrasts jagged left hand playing with more delicate tunes in the treble, particularly the twinkling, skipping dance at 31:14 when the harmonies turn from minor key to major. Batsashvili finds an exquisite delicacy in this music, sweet but not overly bearing and beautifully played.

Liszt also wrote a number of some incredible fantasies based on existing opera themes. The tour de force heard here, which he premiered in Berlin in 1843, takes themes from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni as the starting point, working them into a big-boned piece. This was reworked by Busoni, but left incomplete. Leslie Howard, who has recorded the entire piano works of Liszt for Hyperion, added the missing pieces to the jigsaw using the thematic material Liszt was dealing with, and staying true to his spirit and style.

Coincidentally or not, all the themes are from arias dealing with the ‘dangers of philandering’, as Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch puts it – suggesting there is far more to Liszt’s arrangements than might initially meet the eye.

Batsashvali skips through the opening breezily, but the warning notes in the left hand are there to check progress – before we move into a delightfully played slower selection. Her pacing of the drama feels just right, especially the lead-up to 49:16 and another new theme. The principal material for the piece comes from Cherubino’s aria Voi che sapete and Figaro’s Non più andrai (both from Le nozze di Figaro) and the minuet scene from Don Giovanni. These themes are interwoven and developed to make a substantial whole, with the real big guns coming out for the coda, which Batsashvili plays with considerable panache up to 55:20.

As an encore she gave us two more Liszt arrangements on a much smaller scale. These were two of Chopin’s Polish SongsThe Ring and Bacchanal – and are included below.

Further Listening

Mariam Batsashvili has recorded Liszt’s operatic fantasy, but not the other works in this program – so the playlist below comprises recommended versions of the Bach, Haydn and Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody:

Liszt made a number of transcriptions of the music of Bach – and in particular his Preludes and Fugues. Artur Pizarro collected a good deal of these together for an album for Collins Classics:

Haydn’s piano sonatas do not always get the credit they deserve – so to hear more, listen to this wonderful collection from Alfred Brendel:

Wigmore Mondays – Quatuor Arod & Timothy Ridout play Mozart

Quatuor Arod (above) [Jordan Victoria, Alexandre Vu (violins), Tanguy Parisot (viola), Samy Rachid (cello)], Timothy Ridout (viola)

Mozart
Divertimento in D major K136 (1772) (1:46-14:37 on the broadcast link below)
String Quintet in G minor K516 (1787) (17:02-50:49)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 25 February 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

This BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert showed us Mozart young and ‘old’ – that is, a work each from his teenage years and from his fourth decade. It was given by the Quatuor Arod, a French-based quartet on the BBC New Generation Artists scheme, and their ranks were boosted by viola player Timothy Ridout, himself on the YCAT scheme.

The Arod Quartet’s performance of the Divertimento in D major K136 (from 1:46 on the broadcast) shows what a sunny piece of music this is – although it could be argued they take the first movement a bit too fast, perhaps displaying a bit too much nervous energy. Either way they play it very well and with affection, the simple theme carrying a long way.

The second movement, marked Andante (5:57), feels just right, the four parts integrating in a way that brings home the simple pleasures to be taken from playing this music together. The third movement (12:16) scurries out of the blocks with a hint of mischief, the interplay between the four taking on a more competitive edge but with the first violin of Jordan Victoria ultimately triumphant, and technically excellent.

The String Quintet in G minor K516 operates at the other end of the emotional scale, being the dark to the Divertimento’s light for much of its half hour duration. It is a magnificent piece, profound from the very first theme, where first violinist Victoria mastered the longer phrasing and the increased stretch of the melody when the second main theme of the first movement came around. The sound is very different with two violas, and the greater prominence for Mozart’s own instrument seems to have inspired him to write with especially great feeling. This is the second of four mature string quintets (there are two younger works of smaller form), and these are pieces that are substantial in their dimensions, their feeling and also their melodic invention.

While the piece does start in questioning mood (from 17:02), the five players here portrayed its nervousness while bringing shafts of light into the writing. Vibrato was sparingly used if at all, but was a stronger expressive tool as a result. The first movement’s two main themes are strikingly played, its structure clearly mastered, and the overall sound with Ridout’s viola added is very attractive.

The Minuet is normally a light hearted affair in Mozart chamber music, but here was anything but (from 27:31). Any attempts to come up with a lasting tune are broken by the sliced chords of the quintet playing together, so that what aspires to be a charming dance never has a chance to get fully into its rhythm. Some respite comes from the Trio section, where the composer will usually contrast what has gone in the Minuet. Here, from 29:22, Mozart slips from the minor key to the major for the first time, and the tension eases notably – especially in this performance where sunnier thoughts make themselves known for the first time. This, however, is short lived, for the Minuet returns in even sterner form (31:22)

The slow movement Adagio (32:43) is even more alarming than the Minuet. This is an unexpected move, for the music is in E flat major, which normally finds composers writing stronger music, and it requires the players to use their mutes the whole way through. With no vibrato from the Arod the textures are stark and the sounds lean, especially when the quintet breaks into smaller sections as it frequently does. In the middle the clouds darken further as Mozart moves into the distant keys of B flat minor (34:28) and E flat minor (38:07), where the extra viola (Timothy Ridout) makes a personal outcry of pain. There is hope however, the first violin taking us to sunnier climbs before we return to what feels like a stronger repeat of the music from the start of the movement.

The final movement (41:15) keeps the prevailing mood, slow and solemn from the outset – but then moves towards the major key, and finally shifts up a gear at 44:00 with music of much greater optimism. Let off the leash, Jordan Victoria enjoys the effervescent music he now has, and the tunes flow beautifully, the stern music of the first three movements now receding into the memory.

Further Listening

Mozart’s late chamber works contain some of the most rewarding music in all of his output. The four mature String Quintets stand at the peak of his achievements, with the work performed at this concert complemented by three other masterpieces. In their key make-up they match Mozart’s last four symphonies, and these versions by the Grumiaux Trio and guests (on CDs 2 and 3) make for a wholly satisfying listening experience:

The Quatuor Arod are relative newcomers to the recording scene – but their first disc of string quartets by Mendelssohn is a nice departure point from the Mozart played here:

Finally Mozart’s 3 Divertimenti for strings – best heard in their quartet form – give some of the most carefree classical listening you could wish to enjoy. This collection from the Hagen Quartett brings them together with the perennial favourite, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik:

Wigmore Mondays – Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper: From the Pens of Women

Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano, above), Simon Lepper (piano, below)

Jonathan Dove All the Future Days (Autobiography; Penelope; The Siren) (2004) (2:11-13:27 on the broadcast link below)
Vaughan Williams 4 Last Songs (1954-8) (13:58-23:27)
Judith Cloud Night Dreams (Variations on the Word Sleep) (2006) (24:58-28:12)
Lori Laitman Orange Afternoon Lover (I Was Reading a Scientific Article) (2006) (28:15-32:24)
Argento From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (Anxiety) (1974) (32:27-34:25)
Rebecca Clarke Lethe (1941) (35:58-39:00)
Juliana Hall Letters from Edna (To Harriet Monroe; To Mother) (1993) (39:05-43:15)
Jonathan Dove Nights Not Spent Alone (2015) (43:34-52:42)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 18 February 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing hour of music.

With no criticism intended, Mondays at the Wigmore Hall, where BBC Radio 3 hold a lunchtime concert every week, are a reliable way in which to start the week with quality music. They show off some of the very best in chamber, piano and vocal music, often in imaginative programs, but understandably catering for the audience with relatively well-thumbed pieces of music often included.

Not so on this occasion. Mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately always ensures she has an equal balance of male and female composers in her programs, and likes to sing about the stories of both sexes. From the Pens of Women, then, presented an opportunity to sing songs written by women – which in classical music is still not much as a proportion of the whole. She was joined by her regular recital partner Simon Lepper.

Autobiography (2:11 on the broadcast link) was a brave start, Whately straight into the high notes as she flew like the eagle in the text above the rapidly circling figurations of Lepper’s piano. Jonathan Dove’s sound world is fascinating here, clearly on the wing – and then coming down to earth a little for Penelope (4:46), which has a right hand piano figure not dissimilar to Britten, calling out in the right hand before the vocalist brings softer thoughts, then rising to soar with great feeling.

Then, from 8:04, another striking setting – this time The Siren, where Lepper worked overtime to bring a distinctive, treble-rich piano part that dives from the heights as though into a pool of water before cutting off quite suddenly at 13:27 on the broadcast.

Ursula Vaughan Williams‘ text, as set by her husband Ralph, is a very different story. One of her husband’s last works, the Four Last Songs would inevitably invite comparisons with the more famous works of the same name by Richard Strauss, but they are totally different. Vaughan Williams was less obviously heart-on-sleeve with his feelings, but look deeper and they are still there.

The first, Procris (13:58) is a little restless and decides against following the black humour of the story, while Tired (16:32) is a wonderful song, softly rocking its listener as a lullaby. Whately gave an appropriately understated reading here. Hands, Eyes and Heart (18:32) is a short song but then Menelaus (19:42), the most substantial of the four, finishes the brief cycle in a poignant mood.

Three settings of Margaret Attwood follow, with Judith Cloud’s Night Dreams (24:58) a beautifully observed setting of how the author ‘would like to watch you sleeping’. The song is dappled in half light and is shot through with the intimacy of the sleeping hours, while Lori Laitman’s Orange Afternoon Lover (I Was Reading A Scientific Article) (28:15) is similarly personal, set to a flowing accompaniment. Dominick Argento’s setting of Anxiety from From the Diary of Virginia Woolf (32:27) is propelled by the urgent piano part and keeps a high level of agitation throughout.

The text of Edna St Vincent Millay (above) provided the inspiration for the last third of the concert, a remarkable group of song settings. Rebecca Clarke’s Lethe is the very definition of bleakness, the underworld river supplying no comfort but only sorrow and menace (35:58), particularly in its ominous piano part at the end.

Juliana Hall’s settings of Letters from Edna provide some much-needed light relief, Millay asking humorously for payment from her publisher (39:05-40:22), declaring herself ‘awfully broke’, before passionately declaring her love and admiration To Mother (40:25).

Three settings make up Jonathan Dove’s mini-cycle Nights Not Spent Alone – the down to earth text of Recuerdo (43:34), with a quasi-orchestral piano part brilliantly managed by Lepper, the heady What lips my lips have kissed (47:41) and the passionate I too beneath your moon (50:18).

As an encore Whately and Lepper gave another Dove song, All These Dismal Looks (54:13-56:00), the fourth of five songs making up his Five Am’rous Sighs. The humourous song put the seal on an outstanding hour of music making, full of new discoveries and surprises and passionately delivered. The music and verse will I’m sure provide a springboard for listeners to the broadcast to look further afield. Talking of which…

Further listening

Kitty Whately has recorded the Jonathan Dove songs as part of a disc devoted to the composer’s music, including All The Future Days in its entirety, as well as Nights Not Spent Alone:

The below playlist contains all the music heard in this concert in available versions:

Meanwhile you can hear all the songs of Rebecca Clarke on this disc from Patricia Wright, Jonathan Rees and Kathron Sturrock: