Wigmore Mondays – Carducci Quartet play Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt & Dvořák

Carducci Quartet (above, © Andy Holdsworth) (Matthew Denton, Michelle Fleming (violins), Eoin Schmidt-Martin (viola), Emma Denton (cello)

Philip Glass String Quartet no.3, Mishima (1985)

Arvo Pärt Summa (1992)

Dvořák String Quartet in F major, Op.96 American (1893)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 19 June, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

A fascinating concert presenting Dvořák’s American String Quartet in a very different context to the one we normally see. The Carducci Quartet approached this lovely, tuneful work from the direction of Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt, and their different takes on minimalism. By doing this we got to compare the way each composer works and how they write for string quartet, and then had a chance to enjoy the way Dvořák repeats a lot of the themes in his own piece.

Philip Glass first, and his String Quartet no.3, written as part of his music for Paul Schrader’s film about Yukio Mishima. Some of the soundtrack has music for full orchestra but the string quartet are used for childhood flashbacks, and form an intriguing and character-building whole.

Glass took the five such movements and made them into a string quartet, in music of unexpected tenderness and sensitivity. That said, the first movement, 1957: Award montage, feels like a smaller string orchestra given the full bodied scoring (from 1:28 on the broadcast) November 25: Ichigaya (5:59) is a slow, reflective passage that sounds uncannily like the slow movement of the Dvořák to come. Grandmother and Kimitake (from 7:39) is a forceful, sharply defined piece of writing, brilliantly played here, while 1962: Body building (10:58) starts slower, using the mid to lower ranges of the quartet, before picking up again. Blood oath (12:49) has furtive arpeggios that gather power, while Mishima – Closing (16:13) is warmly reflective of what has gone before.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become one of the most popular living composers. His musical style draws from his experience of chant music and bells, and is referred to as ‘tintinnabuli’, drawing from the Latin for bell. One of the first works to use this approach was Summa, written for string orchestra but equally at home in its string quartet setting (from 22:00). Its five minutes pass in blissful simplicity.

And so to the American Quartet (28:04), the perfect piece for a summer’s day. The Carducci immediately find the warmth of Dvořák’s tunes, which may have been written in America but are full of longing for his home country of Czechoslovakia. Most of them use a ‘pentatonic’ scale, which is a scale with five notes rather than the octave’s eight (explained here

The first movement, marked Allegro ma non troppo (meaning fast but not too fast, from 28:04) is full of the fresh outdoors and has some very hummable tunes. Contrasting the mood a little is the Lento slow movement (from 35:23), which gives more prominence to the cello for its gorgeous slow theme. It is sensitively played here by Emma Denton, especially when it returns at 41:13.

The third movement, marked Molto vivace (lively) is quite mischievous (from 42:47) and a little slower than quartets tend to take it in this performance. The sunny outlook remains, the quartet really enjoying themselves – though there are shadows in the central section. The finale (from 47:02) is marked Vivace ma non troppo (lively but not too fast), and zips along with yet more melodic inspiration. The Carduccis give this an ideal performance, thoroughly enjoying the lively and rustic melodies.

Further listening

The works in this concert are on Spotify and can be heard below:

If you want to hear more Glass then the Carducci have recorded his other quartets, and they are softly hypnotic:

Meanwhile a very appealing two-disc collection by the Chilingirian Quartet puts Arvo Pärt’s Summa in context with works by his contemporary John Tavener:

Wigmore Mondays – Phantasm and Elizabeth Kenny play dance music of the 17th century

Phantasm (above), Elizabeth Kenny (theorbo)

Lawes Royal Consort No.10 (c mid-1630s)

Locke Consort of 4 Parts No 5 (c mid-1650s)

Lawes Royall Consort No 5 (c mid-1630s)

Locke The Flatt Consort ‘for my cousin Kemble’ (c mid-1650s)

Lawes Royall Consort No 6 (c mid-1630s)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 22 May, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Want to know what dance music sounded like 400 years ago?

Well the answer to that question – in England at least – lay at the heart of this fascinating lunchtime in the company of Phantasm. The group are a viol consort, a kind of early form of string quartet, playing authentic viols – two trebles, a tenor, and a bass. The trebles are violin equivalents but are played like very small cellos, the instrument held in the lap. The tenor is an elegant looking instrument, around two-thirds the size of a cello and played in the same way, while the bass is essentially an ancestor of the modern cello, without the spike to keep it from slipping. Joining the four was Elizabeth Kenny, playing the distinctive lute relative, the theorbo.

They made a lovely sound in the music of William Lawes and Matthew Locke, two Englishmen of the early to mid-17th century. The contrasting styles were effective – we heard three Royal Consorts from Lawes, intended for the court of Charles I, and two Consorts from Locke. The pieces were built around dance forms, but as the entertaining note from leader Laurence Dreyfus pointed out, this is not music that would have been easy to dance to. Most dance music – in the West at least – is written in units of four, so that us luddites know when to change steps, but Lawes would write in blocks of seven, nine or eleven. The music is attractive and sunny, reflecting the daylight that streamed in through the Wigmore Hall roof.

We began with the Royal Consort no.10 of Lawes (from 4:32 on the broadcast link), an elegant collection of six short dance movements headed by a brightly voiced Pavan, then two each of Allemandes (8:02 and 11:09) and Courantes (9:40 and 12:51) before finishing with an unusually chirpy Saraband (13:57). The Allemande is a dance of German origin, the Courante and Saraband from France.

Then we moved on to Locke’s much more worrisome Consort of 4 Parts no.5 in G minor, abruptly changing mood from unexpectedly bleak to fiery exchanges in the Fantasy movement (16:23), then enjoying a stately Courante (20:22), a thoughtful Air (21:35) and brighter Saraband (23:12), which had a strange, abrupt finish. These were brilliantly characterised by the five players.

Returning to Lawes, we heard the Royal Consort no.5, beginning with pair of Airs at once serene (26:21) and lively (29:30). Then there was a short Allemande (31:06) and a pair of Courantes (32:16 and 33:53) before the highlight, a wonderful echo effect during the rustic Morriss (35:07) and an almost otherworldly Saraband (35:47). All were played with poise and flair, prompted by Elizabeth Kenny’s subtle theorbo playing.

Once more we took a darker turn for Locke’s The Flatt Consort ‘for my cousin Kemble’, so-called because of its minor key. The music, beginning at 38:55, was once again very changeable, moving between slow and fast, quiet and loud. The three contrasting sections with which it ended wore a gruff face (45:21), or a poised, elegant one (45:56), and finally resorted to a driving, brusque tempo from 47:24.

Finally we returned to Lawes for another cheery Royal Consort – no.6 – comprised of an Air (50:22), Allemande (51:55), Courante (53:44) and a brisk, energetic Morriss from 55:40 to finish, Kenny’s theorbo using a distinctive twang.

As an encore the group offered two numbers from the Royall Consort no.4 (58:01 and 59:28), again bright and breezy.

This was a superb concert, given with great enthusiasm, drive and poise, featuring five performers at the top of their game but playing very much as a group, and mastering the quirky tuning of their instruments to make a wonderful sound. I will definitely be catching it again on the iPlayer!

Further listening

You can hear the Lawes suites on the Spotify link below…from where you can access more from the composer.

Locke is more difficult to pin down…but the link below will take you to his dramatic incidental music for The Tempest:

Wigmore Mondays – Véronique Gens & Susan Manoff in French song

Véronique Gens (soprano, above, © Franck Juery) & Susan Manoff (piano, below)

Hahn Néère; Trois jours de vendange

Duparc Chanson triste; Romance de Mignon

Chausson Le Charme; Les Papillons; Hébé

Hahn Quand je fus pris au pavillon; Le Rossignol des lilas; A Chloris

Chausson Le Chanson bien douce; Le Temps des lilas

Hahn Études latines – Lydé; Tyndaris; Pholoé; Phyllis; Le Printemps

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 May, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This Wigmore Hall concert proved an ideal opportunity for listeners to venture off the beaten track in the richly rewarding world of French art song. It also seemed doubly appropriate in the wake of the presidential election the previous day that Véronique Gens should be on hand, for she is one of the best French singers around. In Susan Manoff she had a more than able partner to match her every move, and the two based their program on a recent Gramophone award-winning recital disc.

The concert was bookended by songs from Reynaldo Hahn, including excerpts from his Études latines. The serious Néère (from 4:02 on the broadcast) searched for a lost love, Gens a yearning presence, but Trois jours de vendange (Three days of vintaging) was a bigger celebration.

Attention turned to Henri Duparc, whose incredibly small musical output is led by his fine songs. Few are better than Chanson triste (11:01), which was powerfully delivered by Gens, set in the moonlight portrayed so vividly by Manoff’s piano. Romance de Mignon (14:00) offered a little more daylight, another passionate utterance in thrall to his hero Wagner.

It was a short stylistic shift to the songs of Ernest Chausson, Gens choosing a really wonderful selection that should be far better known. The partnership with Manoff was at its best here, the piano fluttering relentlessly in Les papillons (21:35) without settling, while Gens’ playful lines danced above. Le charme (20:00) and Hébé (23:05), two other songs from the same early set, were equally winsome. These were balanced by three more Hahn songs, and while the perky Quand je fus pris au pavillon (25:52) and melodious nightingale (Le rossignol des lilas, 27:15) were nicely done they were always going to be in the shadow of Á Chloris (29:17), its imitation of a Bach aria absolutely on the money in this performance.

Two more Chausson songs followed – the urgent Le Chanson bien douce (32:30) and softly majestic Le Temps des lilas (35:14) – and then we moved on to a quintet of Hahn works to finish. Four of these were from the Études latines (from 41:02), while Le Printemps (The Spring) literally flung wide the doors of the hall at (49:41). The quartet of studies were lyrically quite amusing while musically thoughtful, often finding the singer in a rather dishevelled state – especially the thoughtful Pholoé (45:19) and Phyllis (46:46). The closing Le Printemps celebrated the season which until now seems rather reluctant to arrive in the UK!

A generous selection of encores completed a memorable recital. We were treated to Les roses d’Ispahan, a lovely song by Gabriel Fauré (52:20), then an Offenbach song Le Corbeau et le Renard (56:20), and finally PoulencLes Chemins de l’amour (The pathways of love) (59:28)

Further listening

You can hear the album Gens and Manoff made with much of this material on Spotify:

For further French song listening, bringing in the worlds of Debussy and Fauré, try this wonderful selection with pianist Roger Vignoles:

Wigmore Mondays – Louis Lortie plays Chopin

Louis Lortie (piano)

George Benjamin Shadowlines (6 Canonic Preludes) (2001)

Chopin 24 Preludes Op.28 (1839)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 24 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Louis Lortie has a long-held affinity with the music of Chopin, and that was abundantly clear in the affection with which he played the composer’s 24 Preludes.

Completed in 1839, they are an extraordinary set of pieces that travel through each of the conventional Western tonal centres in the course of just 40 minutes. Chopin structures them cleverly, pairing them up so that each prelude appearing in a major key (for instance the first one in C major) is followed by its closest relative in a minor key (in this case A minor). The series proceeds using the ancient ‘cycle of fifths’, so that after ‘C’ we move to ‘G’, then ‘D’, and so on until a complete circuit is reached.

Previous exponents of this sort of cycle include Bach, whose famous ‘48’ also uses all the keys, but moves in a stepwise movement from C to C sharp, then D. In visiting the form Chopin was clearly aware of Bach’s efforts in the previous century, for he took the music with him on holiday to Majorca, where some of the preludes were written.

Lortie brought the cycle to life (from 18:06 on the broadcast link provided), with some of the shorter pieces reeled off at dazzling speed. The quick ones, for instance those in G major (21:02) or a particularly stormy affair in F sharp minor (27:29) were on occasion a bit too swift for the phrasing to be abundantly clear, but when he spent time over the melancholic no.4 in E minor (21:57), or the serious no.6 in B minor (24:37), the melodies were beautifully shaped, the depth of feeling immediately evident.

The natural centrepiece of the cycle is no.15 in D flat major, known as the Raindrop (from 36:27). It is at least twice as long as any of the others but also contains at its heart a very strong reference to plainchant, the speculation being that Chopin was capturing a haunted abbey in his writing. It looks forward to Debussy in this sense, and Lortie played it with the grandeur it deserved. Following it with the whirlwind B flat minor prelude (41:50) was the storm after the calm, the whirlwind superbly energised.

A beautifully crafted finish included the delicacy of the F major prelude from 51:35) and the stern countenance of the final D minor prelude (52:25), carrying its head high to put a cap on a superb performance of 24 strongly characterised pieces.

A little less effective were the 6 Canonic Preludes by George Benjamin, written so that whatever is played in one part has to be shadowed by the other. Some of the pieces were effective characterisations, not a million miles from Schoenberg’s mysterious piano pieces, but others felt emptier emotionally. Lortie played them superbly, but perhaps repeated hearing on the broadcast will bring them to life.

Further listening

Lortie is in the process of recording the complete piano works of Chopin, and his first album in the series for Chandos is a great next step after the Preludes, containing as it does the great Piano Sonata no.2.

Wigmore Mondays – Apollon Musagète Quartet play Haydn & Arensky

Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski & Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in D major Op.64/5 Lark (1790)

Arensky String Quartet in A minor Op.35 (1894)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 3 April, 2017

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you want a piece of chamber music for a bright spring day, look no further than Haydn’s utterly charming Lark quartet. The fifth in a set of six written for Johann Tost, a violin player from Haydn’s court orchestra, the ‘Lark’ is bright and very breezy. The first violin takes on the role of the bird, soaring above the other three instruments in the first movement () and then enjoying the role of a vocal soloist in the second movement (10:55), essentially an aria.

In this performance the Apollon Musagète Quartet allowed Haydn’s melodies all the room they needed, except for the end of the first movement which became a bit too fast. In the third movement Minuet – a predecessor of Beethoven’s scherzo (16:14) they dug in a little more. For the last movement, a brilliantly played torrent of notes issued forth from Paweł Zalejski’s violin, rushing the whole way through as the other instruments battled manfully to keep up.

The sudden change of mood for Arensky’s String Quartet no.2 was palpable. Arensky was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov and a close friend of Tchaikovsky, and although his music has never enjoyed the popularity of these two Russian heavyweights, at its best it has great appeal. Rimsky wrote him off as a composer, but this String Quartet is one of his finest works. A darker piece, it was originally written for violin, viola and two cellos, but in this performance the Apollon Musagete used the conventional quartet make-up.

The first movement was dark, its solemn intonations speaking of Russian liturgy rather than intimate chamber music, serving as a memorial for Tchaikovsky. The quartet captured its brooding thoughts (23:13) but allowed more light to seep into the outlook as the piece progressed.

The second movement (34:03), a set of variations on Tchaikovsky’s Legend, is often played separately in an arrangement for string orchestra, and the Apollon Musagète showed how these big, bold variations could easily be projected for the bigger form. They demonstrated great aptitude for the quick fire variations (36:23) and (close to 39:24) but showed the slow theme and its other slower, minor key counterparts plenty of time, especially in the final variation from 46:25. The music may have been downbeat on these occasions but still had the power to console.

The finale is a strange comparison of dark liturgical intonation (48:01) and a sudden burst of folk song (49:30), which eventually wins the day. When it did here at the Wigmore, the effect was thoroughly convincing and consolation had ultimately been found in this fine performance.

Further listening

In summing up Arensky’s best achievements as a composer the Wigmore Hall note omitted to mention his wonderful Piano Trio no.1, part of a Spotify playlist including piano music and the Quartet played here.