In Concert – Martin Fröst, Roland Pöntinen & Sébastien Dubé @ Wigmore Hall: Night Passages – A Musical Mosaic

Martin Fröst (clarinet), Roland Pöntinen (piano), Sébastien Dubé (double bass)

Debussy Première rhapsodie (1909-10)
Chausson Andante and Allegro (1881)
Poulenc Sonata for clarinet and piano (1962)
Night Passages – A musical mosaic (with arrangements by the performers)
Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in D minor Kk32
Chick Corea Children’s Song no.15 (1978)
Rameau Les Indes galantes: Air pour les Sauvages (1735-6)
Purcell Incidental music for Oedipus, King of Thebes Z583: Music for a while (1692)
J.S. Bach Sinfonia no15 in B minor BWV801 (c1720)
Chick Corea Armando’s Rumba (1976)
Purcell Hornpipe in E minor Z685
Handel Menuet in G minor (1733)
Traditional Polska från Dorotea
Göran Fröst Klezmer Dance no.2 (2011)

Wigmore Hall, London
Wednesday 21 December 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

In 2019, Arcana was at the Wigmore Hall to see Martin Fröst and Roland Pöntinen give a concert of largely French music for clarinet and piano. Their encore hinted at an intriguing sequence of arrangements exploring connections between classical music and jazz. Three years on, that sequence has grown in stature, realised in recorded form as the Sony Classical album Night Passages, and given meaningful content by personal and world events.

Through lockdown, Fröst experienced intense bouts of Ménière’s disease, whose symptoms include unexpectedly severe bouts of vertigo and tinnitus. The clarinettist experienced one such bout while driving his car, which he thankfully negotiated without injury, but which bred a number of accompanying fever dreams. Expressed in the program notes, they lent a vivid written complement to the music.

Since 2019 the double bass of Sébastien Dubé has been added to the instrumental thinking, an essential musical component taking the arrangement style towards Jacques Loussier without ever resorting to parody. Unexpectedly, the group’s colourful arrangements did not always include the piano, allowing Fröst and Dubé the chance to explore the rewarding combination of clarinet and double bass through imaginative techniques and compelling improvisation.

The course of Night Passages led from a solemn sonata by Domenico Scarlatti to a Klezmer dance from Fröst’s brother Göran, by way of arrangements exploring the versatility of Baroque music. These were matched by jazz-inflected work from Chick Corea, with Armando’s Rumba presenting some vibrant syncopations, along with a celebration of the Swedish polska.

Frost’s artistry was almost beyond criticism, the clarinettist able to make even the most demanding technical passages appear nothing more than a walk in the park, airily improvising or running through sharply edged cadenzas. Dubé was no less impressive, and a remarkably wide range of colours issued from the double bass, whether bowed or plucked. His chemistry with Fröst was compelling, and the occasional use of vocals added to the mix. Roland Pöntinen also made the most of his chances to shine, providing the rhythmic verve to the dances but also a welcome, cleansing clarity which ran through the Baroque arrangements, tastefully and affectionately realised.

Prior to the interval we heard three short pieces by French composers for clarinet and piano. Debussy’s Première rhapsodie tells its story through a set of contrasting thoughts, initially set out in a humid atmosphere but becoming more outward facing as it gains in confidence. Fröst and Pöntinen had its many twists and turns instinctively under their fingers, finishing each other’s sentences as they did in the romantic, lyrical writing of Chausson’s Andante and Allegro, played with evident affection.

Yet it was Poulenc’s Sonata for clarinet and piano, completed in the year before his death, that made the most lasting impression. What a profound work this is, paying tribute to his friend and fellow composer Arthur Honegger. The slow movement holds the emotional centre of the work, with melancholy on occasion spilling over into outright sadness. Fröst’s quieter asides encouraged the audience to lean closer to the music, but these intimate thoughts were swept away by the exuberant finale, throwing caution to the winds. Fröst and Pöntinen played with great feeling throughout, typifying the approach of a concert that may not have been generous in length but which amply compensated through musical quality.

In Concert – Steven Osborne plays Debussy Études @ Wigmore Hall

Steven Osborne (piano)

Debussy
Études Book 1 (1915)
Berceuse héroïque (1914)
Étude retrouvée (1915)
Études Book 2 (1915)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 6 December 2022 (BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo (c) Ben Ealovega

Steven Osborne is in a ‘Debussy phase’. The renowned pianist has recently released an album of Early and late piano pieces for Hyperion, and commendably this concert added a further string to his bow with a collection of late works, principally the two books of Études. These substantial collections represented the end of a year of compositional famine for Debussy, his creativity reignited for the piano and as he began his late trio of published sonatas. Blighted by illness, he nonetheless found the focus to write increasingly economical but outwardly expressive music.

Typically Debussy did not write these pieces as downtrodden exercises for the classroom. Instead, as a recent biography by Stephen Walsh point out, he wrote ‘tests of the pianist’s ability to climb technical mountains while engaging with the musical scenery’. Osborne certainly achieved both objectives in this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert. His technical control was well-nigh flawless but at times daring, pushing these pieces to the limit while remaining sensitive to the natural phrasing of the cells of melody with which Debussy works.

He executed each piece with a compelling characterisation, allowing us to admire Debussy’s craft and texture but also creating remarkable images in spite of the discipline required within each study. Each of the two books of Études contains six pieces, and Osborne began with Book 1 in its entirety. The restless Pour les ‘cinq doigts’ (d’après Monsieur Czerny) began, immediately showing off the pianist’s control and natural affinity with Debussy’s melodic writing. Ending with a flourish, he moved to a picturesque Pour les tierces, portraying in aural terms the equivalent of focussing in on a particular part of a fast flowing stream. Pour les quartes moves the musical language in an Eastern direction, moving between evocative scenes, while Osborne enjoyed linking the character episodes of Pour les sixtes with fearsome playing. Pour les octaves was notable for its clarity and power, while the final Pour les huit doigts hurried forward, changing shape continuously like the centre of a lava lamp.

Book 2 was similarly impressive. The right hand in Pour les degrés chromatiques was like a strong wind, with room retained for its recurring melody, while the open textures of Pour les agréments reminded us just how forward looking these pieces are, Osborne giving the music plenty of room for expression. The circus was memorably evoked in the chase sequences of Pour les notes répétées, before Pour les sonorités opposes became a compelling study in musical perspective, its happenings near and far giving an exquisite sense of distance. The rippling figures of Pour les arpèges composes contrasted with trippy, playful syncopations, before finally we heard contrasts between the assertive and the deeply mysterious in a fully voiced account of Pour les accords.

Between Books 1 and 2 of the Études, Osborne found time for two more late pieces, beginning with the curious Berceuse héroïque, where a solemn left-hand figure grew into an imposing presence, then following with the Étude retrouvée from a year later. Here the suggestive chromatic intervals were persuasive, complemented by a ticklish figure in the right hand.

Completing this memorable concert was an encore of the early Rêverie, written in 1890. By showing us how far the composer had advanced in his musical style, Osborne also illustrated the seeds that were there at the beginning, in a piece whose sustaining calm cast a spell on audience and pianist alike.

In Concert – Pavel Haas Quartet @ Wigmore Hall: Haydn, Prokofiev & Haas

Pavel Haas Quartet [Veronika Jarůšková, Marek Zwiebel (violins), Karel Untermüller (viola), Peter Jarůšek (cello)

Haydn String Quartet in G major Op.76/1 (1979)
Prokofiev String Quartet no.2 in F major Op.92 (1941)
Haas String Quartet no.2 Op.7 ‘From The Monkey Mountains’ (1925)

Wigmore Hall, London
Thursday 24 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The Pavel Haas Quartet often cause a stir on their visits to the Wigmore Hall, and this concert was no exception for the Czech ensemble.

Many of Haydn’s mature string quartets begin with a trio of chords effectively designed to hush the audience and guide their ears towards the performance getting underway. The first in his crowning set of six quartets published as Op.76 is no exception, though in this red blooded account the Pavel Haas Quartet pinned the audience back in their seats, such was the vigour with which this performance began.

There were some ragged edges to their interpretation, and less evidence of the genial Haydn that makes himself known with the conversational melody of the first movement. We did however get more exposure to his experimental side, through an interpretation pointing the music forward towards middle period Beethoven. The quickstep third movement, very much a scherzo rather than a minuet, pointed up Haydn’s daring harmonic excursions and dalliances, as did the finale, based mostly in the minor key and featuring a number of brisk about-turns. Stemming the tide was the second movement Adagio, a reverent account with a solemn air to its central section in particular.

There followed a superbly played account of Prokofiev’s String Quartet no.2. This attractive work is not often heard in concert, which is a shame for it has a good deal of spice and charm through its investment in folk tunes from the Northern Caucausian region, where the composer was evacuated in 1941. Encouraged by his new neighbours, Prokofiev achieved a very satisfying blend of the original tunes with spiky good humour and scrunched up harmonic dissonances, always in thrall to the highly melodic content.

The first movement revelled in the abundance of good tunes, bringing the Pavel Haas Quartet’s Slavonic instincts into play. The mood softened for a heartfelt cello solo from Peter Jarůšek, setting a thoughtful and delicately nostalgic tone for the Adagio. Here more time was taken for reflection, with a noticeable chill running through Prokofiev’s writing.

Within the folk references it is possible to discern the worrisome mood of the time, with World War Two underway. The third movement however felt like a show of resolution in the face of this threat, laced with humour that in this performance could have been exploited to greater effect. It was however a fine performance, with terrific ensemble playing.

The main event of the concert was undoubtedly a performance of music from the quartet’s namesake. Pavel Haas, born in Moravia, studied with Janáček between 1920 and 1922, completing his String Quartet no.2 three years later. Tragically in 1941 he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, and died in Auschwitz three years later. Much of his work lay in neglect but has in the last thirty years enjoyed an extremely welcome renaissance, led by a number of enterprising recordings made in the 1990s, not least that of this work for Decca’s Entartete Musik imprint in the 1990s by the Hawthorne String Quartet. Since then the second quartet has gone on to gain a welcome foothold in the concert hall.

It would be difficult to contemplate a better performance than this one from the Pavel Haas Quartet. Led assertively by Veronika Jarůšková, they showed what an assured and imaginative piece it is, a travelogue giving the listener a tour of the sights and sounds of the famous Monkey Mountain range in Moravia.

The musical language is a curious but highly engaging hybrid of influences, drawing on the music of Dvořák and Smetana but in compressed melodic pockets of heightened intensity. Janáček, too, is an influential voice, but Haas’s unusual phrasing and distinctive rhythms make for a unique and enjoyable style.

The Pavel Haas Quartet enjoyed it greatly, the first two movements (Landscape and Coach, Coachman and Horse) enjoying the rarefied outdoor air and some crisply secured dance rhythms. The third movement, subtitled The Moon and I, was much colder to the touch, the muted strings taking time for introspection and creating some striking colours along the way. Their beautifully poised playing set up a riotous Wild Night finale where they were joined by percussionist Owen Gunnell (above), whose battery of instruments were expertly marshalled to bring the sounds of 1920s jazz into the fray.

The riotous closing pages brought the swaying Moravian dances and jazz rhythms to the foundations of the Wigmore Hall, brilliantly played and ideally balanced. So good was this section that the five performers gave us a quick reprisal as an encore, reminding us in the process of the fiercely original writing from a composer whose resurgence is to be greatly welcomed.  

In Concert – Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev Piano Sonatas @ Wigmore Hall

Prokofiev

Piano Sonata no.4 in C minor Op.29 (1917)
Piano Sonata no.2 in D minor Op.14 (1912)
Piano Sonata no.9 in C major Op.103 (1947)
Piano Sonata no.6 in A major Op.82 (1939-40)

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 31 October 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood; Photo of Olli Mustonen (c) Heikki Tuuli

Sergei Prokofiev is a composer whose music responds well to a ‘completist’ treatment. In the last decade London has seen cycles of his seven symphonies (from Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra) and his five piano concertos, given in a memorable Prom in 2015 with the London Symphony Orchestra supporting five different soloists. Now came the chance to look more closely at the composer’s writing for piano in a two-night performance of the nine solo sonatas, given by a specialist of the composer’s music.

Olli Mustonen has recorded the Prokofiev concertos but not yet committed his thoughts on the sonatas to disc. Should he do so the results will be fascinating, for he has a highly individual and uniquely compelling take on this composer’s music. His is an energetic approach, and even by the end of the first movement of the Piano Sonata no.4 he was mopping a fevered brow. Fourteen movements later he had delivered a revealing look at music whose power to reflect its time and place of composition is remarkably strong, carrying profound messages forward to the present day.

Born in what is now Ukraine, Prokofiev experienced great trials and separations throughout his life. Those tensions are felt in his music, where they are offset by a ready sense of humour, expressed through piano writing that emphasises athleticism but makes room for tender lyricism, backed by an instinct for concise yet developed frameworks in which the music can sit. As a result, pieces and movements rarely overstate their welcome.

Piano Sonata no.4 was a good choice with which to start, a collection of old jottings sometimes subtitled D’après des vieux cahiers (After Old Notebooks). Using material dating back to 1908, Prokofiev assembles a selection of inner thoughts and bittersweet memories. Mustonen expressed these first hand, taking liberties with the rhythm and note emphasis on occasion but wholly in the spirit of the music. The language, initially gruff, melted to an emotive and balletic slow movement with an expressive tune using the white notes on the keyboard. The bustling finale exhibiting a common language with the contemporaneous Piano Concerto no.3.

Like the fourth sonata, the Piano Sonata no.2 bears a dedication to Prokofiev’s friend from the St Petersburg Conservatory Maximilian Schmidthof, tragically lost to suicide in 1913. The language here is more obviously Romantic, with elements of Chopin and Scriabin, but the tart lyricism in the right hand could only be from Prokofiev, and Mustonen brought it out with often startling clarity. There was a whirlwind scherzo, like a devilish skaters’ dance, before a cold melancholy encased the slow movement, which sounded like a distant relative of The Old Castle from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. The helter-skelter finale, brilliantly played, took the audience on a fairground ride.

After the interval Mustonen gave a rare performance of the Piano Sonata no.9, an elusive work whose dedicatee, Sviatoslav Richter, confessed to finding it a difficult work to understand. Its music hints at a new simplicity, emphasised by the choice of C major as the ‘home’ key, but the awkward complexion of the music tells of a troubled mind, Prokofiev seemingly thrown by the end of the Second World War and yet another set of restrictions on musical style from the Russian authorities.

The faster figures in the first movement soon tired of their attempts to run away from this, but the macabre second movement suggested a restless toy shop after dark. Throughout the work, bursts of brittle melody threatened to extinguish the more songful elements of Prokofiev’s writing, though the forceful finale was typical of the composer in its power and obduracy. Mustonen did well to communicate what seemed to be a dip in the composer’s energy towards the close.

Finally we heard the Piano Sonata no.6, a work speaking directly to the wartime climate today. Written as the Second World War was raging, it is closely linked with the seventh and eighth sonatas, works that also tell of conflict, anger and desolation. The opening salvo of the Sixth was chilling indeed, but in Mustonen’s hands it became an outright assault, the treble notes biting through with such power that the ‘A’ on the piano lost its tuning as the sonata progressed. If anything this made the impact of Prokofiev’s writing even stronger, the scrunched-up harmonies raw and dissonant.

The Sixth is not a depressing work, however – as its stuttering Scherzo told, wrenched this way and that by a left-hand melody. The lyrical power of the third movement, initially subtle but then more overtly passionate, looked ahead towards the composer’s colourful ballet scores. Mustonen felt that connection, conducting himself whenever a hand was free, and sensing the orchestral connections for the voices in front of him. The finale had a curiously phrased but highly effective main theme, and when the artillery from the first movement returned it brought with it an even greater chill than before. The sonata ended in a cacophony of noise, powerfully wrought and given without quarter.

Taking the white heat out of the sonatas a little, Mustonen proceeded to charm with an encore of the Prelude Op.12/7, published in 1913 and often used as an encore by the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels. It was an unexpected treat, capping an evening of exceptional pianism.

You can hear Olli Mustonen’s recording of the Prelude, part of a Prokofiev miscellany recorded for Ondine, below:

In Concert – Silesian Quartet & Wojciech Świtała: Bacewicz, Weinberg & Zarębski

Wojciech Świtała (piano, below), Silesian Quartet [Szymon Krzeszowiec and Arkadiusz Kubica (violins), Łukasz Syrnicki (viola), Piotr Janosik (cello)]

Bacewicz String Quartet No. 4 (1951)
Weinberg String Quartet No. 3 in D minor, Op. 14 (1944)
Zarębski Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 34 (1885)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 October 2022

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

In existence now for 44 years and with only a change of leader during that time, the Silesian Quartet has amassed a broad repertoire taking in the extent of the Austro-German tradition along with that of its Polish heritage – as was evident from this latest Wigmore Hall recital.

The rapid upsurge of interest in women composers has been of real benefit to those such as Grażyna Bacewicz, whose sizable output of essentially abstract music went too long under the radar and not least a minor masterpiece as her Fourth Quartet – its first prize at the Liège Competition in 1951 vindicated. Its three movements are dominated by the first of these – a sombre Adagio introduction as variously infiltrates the lively ensuing Allegro, such that the coda essentially becomes a stretto between such contrasted expression. The central Andante finds this composer at her most lyrical, with the ‘giocoso’ marking of the final Allegro not necessarily implying any lessening of formal and emotional focus, as this builds toward an impetuous conclusion that clinches the unorthodox if methodical design of the whole work.

The Silesian gave a superb account of a piece it knows well – having recorded all Bacewicz’s quartets – as it did of Mieczysław Weinberg’s Third Quartet. On a similar scale, this also has a similarly overarching intensity – not least when attacca markings between movements were scrupulously observed as to give the overall design its unity within diversity. The unchecked energy of the initial Presto is by no means offset by the bittersweet poise of the Andante – its taciturn unease continued in an Allegretto affording only the most tenuous, even provisional closure. One reason, surely, why the composer restructured this piece when recasting it more than three decades later as his Second Chamber Symphony, which is hardly to deny the sheer fascination of the music at a crucial stage on the way to Weinberg’s mastery of this medium.

Had he died before writing his last work, Juliusz Zarębski would barely have been a footnote in musical history. His Piano Quintet confirms an acute feeling for Lisztian harmony, allied to a commanding formal sense as should have been the springboard into an eventful maturity and is not so far behind those by Brahms, Dvořák and Franck in being a major contribution to its medium. The Silesian had the measure of the first movement’s quirky take on sonata form – its vividly contrasted ideas merged in a tensile development then varied reprise and dynamic coda. The Adagio frames its lilting central section with a melody of rapt fervency, as is itself framed by music of ‘Forest murmurs’ aura, while the Scherzo likewise frames its wistful trio with music of an intently rhythmic propulsion. The final Presto is essentially a cyclical reprise of earlier ideas as this picks up where its predecessor left off, before pursuing a sonata-rondo trajectory such as culminates in a fervent recollection of the work’s opening theme. That this piece remains the summa of Zarębski’s creativity does not lessen the extent of its attainment.

The Silesian and Wojciech Świtała had prepared no encore, instead reprising the final pages of the Zarębski to close this programme in fine style. It is part-way through a recorded cycle of Weinberg’s quartets, another of which will hopefully feature in a future Wigmore recital.

For more information on the performers, click on the names to visit the websites of the Silesian Quartet and Wojciech Świtała – and for more on the composers, click on the names of Juliusz Zarębski, Mieczysław Weinberg and Grażyna Bacewicz