Wigmore Mondays – Imogen Cooper plays Brahms & Liszt

Imogen Cooper (piano)

Brahms Intermezzi Op.117 nos.1 & 2 (1892) (1:23 – 11:13)
Liszt Gretchen (Second movement of A Faust Symphony) (1854, arranged 1874) (11:52 – 30:05)
Brahms 7 Fantasien Op.116 (1892) (31:31 – 53:24)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 8 July 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

Brahms’ late piano music occupies a special place in 19th century repertoire. Rather like late Beethoven he makes use of the piano for some extremely confidential writing that starts to push at the boundaries of tonality and conventional rhythm. While Beethoven complemented his late piano works with a renewed inspiration for the string quartet, Brahms found the clarinet was his ideal ‘other’ vehicle in the early 1890s. Yet in the solo piano writing, here is a level of intimacy rarely found in the music of his time.

Imogen Cooper began her Wigmore Hall recital with two of the three late Brahms Intermezzi Op.117 – an example of where the composer would give a deliberately ambiguous title to a short piece, allowing himself the greatest possible freedom of form and expression. That said, the first – in E flat major – is simplicity itself, a much loved melody that Brahms used as consolation from the recent losses in his life. For this he drew inspiration from the Scottish ballad Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament, and the piece benefits from Imogen Cooper’s unhurried approach in this performance (from 1:23 on the broadcast). The second piece in B flat minor is more flowing but also more directly troubled as it progresses (from 6:37), finishing in the lower recesses of the piano.

Published adjacently to the Op.117 Intermezzi are seven piano pieces Brahms called Fantasies – separate entities that work best as an overall whole. There are three Capriccio pieces, placed 1, 3 and 7 in the group, complemented with 4 Intermezzi, Brahms again keeping ambiguous labels for artistic freedom. Immediately however there is more heart on sleeve here, the first Capriccio in D minor (31:31) full of power and passion. The second piece, an Intermezzo in A minor, turns inwards, lost in thought (33:54), though there are brief glimpses of light in the central section.

The third piece, a Capriccio in G minor (37:42), has grand designs but still glints with a metallic darkness, using a falling melody whose outline is common to a number of late Brahms piano works, falling in melodic intervals of a third. A solemn central section is more hopeful before this music returns at 40:03. The fourth piece (40:55) is the first of three centred on the pitch of E, which seem to exist between major and minor keys. It is quite ambiguous, with a questioning harmony and uncertain rhythm – but finds calmer acceptance in its brief central section.

The fifth piece – another Intermezzo, now in E minor (45:06) is more mysterious still, its rhythm elusive, as though Brahms is in a dream state. Moving to E major for the sixth piece (47:58) we return towards earth, though the composer – and performer – are still in deep thought. A sudden jolt arrives with the final piece, another Capriccio in D minor (50:59), Brahms suddenly alert and on the front foot, and ending unexpectedly – and exultantly – in the major key. It is an ending hard won, but also slightly false, as it proves difficult to erase the deeply profound thoughts from earlier pieces.

The Liszt piece is a long slow movement taken from the composer’s orchestral / choral epic, A Faust Symphony. This is a portrait of Gretchen that transcribes particularly well for piano, Liszt’s gifts adapting his music and that of others between forms at its very best here. This is after all a composer who thought nothing of transcribing all nine Beethoven symphonies for solo piano.

Gretchen is tender and romantic, unfolding from the very start in a loving and flowing manner as played here by Imogen Cooper. Gradually the music becomes deeply passionate, Liszt building towards a series of weighty climaxes – the first around 19:10 and then again at 23:45. It can be heard as almost one unbroken phrase, and Cooper keeps a very natural feel to her phrasing, until the main theme returns at 24:14, where there is a very natural return to the mood and tenderness of the opening – before more extended dialogue. The period from 27:45 represents the coda, where a settled mood takes hold.

Throughout this concert Imogen Cooper let the music do the talking, as she always has done – not playing to the audience but producing beautifully rendered and carefully thought performances, with very impressive technical command – especially in the big-boned Brahms pieces. Of equal importance was her use of ‘rubato’, which is essentially breathing naturally in a musical sense so the rhythms sound more like phrases of a spoken or sung sentence. Everything came together wonderfully here, as it did in an encore of more Brahms – a beautifully observed account of the Waltz in A flat major Op.39/15, not heard on the broadcast.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard below, in leading available versions. Imogen Cooper has yet to record late Brahms, so the playlist includes timeless versions of the pieces from Radu Lupu and Emil Gilels, along with Cooper’s recently recorded Liszt:

Cooper’s Liszt is part of an intriguing disc of piano music by Liszt and his contemporary and close relative Wagner, recorded for Chandos:

Another Imogen Cooper recommendation brings together piano music by Robert and Clara Schumann – a family affair with the former’s stormy Piano Sonata no.1 and Humoreske, nicely complemented with two of Clara’s Pièces caractéristiques:

Wigmore Mondays – Colin Currie Quartet in music by Pereira, Volans, Stockhausen & Reich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colin Currie Quartet (Colin Currie, Sam Walton, Adrian Spillett, Owen Gunnell (percussion)

Pereira Mallet Quartet (2013 (1:36 – 10:08 on the broadcast link below)
Volans 4 Marimbas (2016) (12:38 – 33:21)
Stockhausen Vibra-Elufa (2003) (35:40 – 41:27)
Reich Drumming Part 1 (1970-71) (44:30 – 59:59)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 1 July 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing change to have percussion taking centre stage for a Monday lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall. Not only that but two of the four pieces had that ‘just off the shelf’ feeling, with the Joseph Pereira and Kevin Volans pieces written for Colin Currie’s ensemble. As an added bonus, South African composer Volans – 70 this year – was in the audience.

Pereira, principal percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave us bright metallic sounds from the start (1:36 on the broadcast). Crisp unison blocks of sound were broken up by quicker figures that gave the Mallet Quartet energy. With a broad range of timbres and pitches, the bursts of activity were often followed by pauses, giving a stop-start feel but ultimately heightening the drama. At 7:30 the quartet converged on a single pitch, D, the high point of the piece at which point the music takes a natural breather. Then the pitches regroup from the depths, returning to a treble pitch from which we tumble down what feels like a waterfall. Pereira’s music pictorial to the close.

Kevin Volans4 Marimbas (from 12:38) exhibited a warmer sound, the players using softer sticks to create a fluid and soothing experience, like running water. As it developed the players negotiated twists and turns skillfully, interpreting the piece an experience of ambient yet positive energy. Around the 19-minute mark the pitch rose, concentrating the mind, but then the sonorous tones of the marimbas’ lower ranges came in again.

Then at 21:45 the performers noticeably reined in the dynamic range, their sticks closer to the instruments as the sound shrunk before our ears. This is a tactic Volans has used on several occasions, working especially well here as percussion is not normally known for quiet performance! The audience subconsciously leant forward in the Wigmore Hall before the reassurance of the full marimba timbre came in again around a minute later. Towards the end it happened again and stayed quiet, proving even more effective second time around.

Stockhausen’s Vibra-Elufa, a short piece (from 35:40), was notable for its intensity and sinuous lines. Performed by Currie alone on marimba, it had moments of tender beauty but also shrill edges, especially when high in the treble range. It left an otherworldly, enchanting impression in the manner of the large-scale stage piece from which it is drawn and arranged, Freitag aus Licht.

Then we were on to Drumming, Steve Reich’s breakthrough masterpiece of 1971 that confirmed minimalism as a community-based musical form (from 44:30). It was a visit to Ghana in 1970 that convinced Reich he was on the right track with what has turned out to be his longest instrumental piece to date. Over time Drumming has evolved, and can even be divided into constituent parts, as here – with Part 1 concentrating on tuned bongos. The technical challenges remain, even over 15 minutes, with improvisational skills and a strong sense of form brought into play. Listen to the broadcast from 44:30 and you will hear how the quartet unite in big strokes of sound but gradually tumble out of phase, picking up kinetic energy as they do so, before aligning again for another commanding statement.

The players were superb, with clear visual communication the secret to a performance notable for its drive, accuracy and flair. Listen to it and lose yourself in the rhythms!
Each of the four pieces in this concert received technically brilliant performances. Currie was the natural leader but Walton, Spillett and Gunnell all stepped forward when required, emphasising the communal approach they have to their music and especially their new commissions. On the way out of the Wigmore Hall I overheard a regular saying it was one of the best lunchtime concerts he had ever been to in the venue, and I am inclined to agree!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert is not available online, with the exception of Drumming – which exists in a recording made by Steve Reich, Synergy Vocals and the Colin Currie Group. It’s as close to authentic as you could wish for!

Since that recording Currie and Reich have made a live disc from the Foundation Louis Vitton, with a broad range of Reich’s work that includes the classic Clapping Music, the choral piece Proverb, the Mallet Quartet, Pulse and Music for Pieces of Wood. Typically functional titles from the composer there!

There is not a great deal of Kevin Volans’ music on Spotify, but one very good way into his music is via the string quartet – which is where a disc from 1994 from the Balanescu Quartet comes in. Hunting, Gathering, his second string quartet, is particularly evocative:

Wigmore Mondays – Nicolas Altstaedt plays Bach & Dutilleux

Nicolas Altstaedt (cello)

Dutilleux 3 Strophes sur le nom de SACHER (1976) (1:36 on the broadcast link below)
J.S. Bach Cello Suite No 1 in G major BWV1007 (c1717-23) (12:54)
Cello Suite No 5 In C minor BWV1011 (c1717-23) (32:13)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 17 June 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

The Wigmore Hall is an ideal venue for solo cello, as Nicolas Altstaedt showed in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert. Yet before we heard his solo Bach he switched the order of the program slightly, placing the Dutilleux piece first. I must admit I had thought it would be even more effective in between the two Bach suites, but with playing of this insight and quality it soon seemed harsh to quibble.

Along with eleven other composers, Henri Dutilleux wrote a piece to celebrate the 70th birthday of the Swiss conductor and patron Paul Sacher. The brief was to construct a solo cello work using the intials of the conductor’s name (Eb – A – C – B – E – R). Dutilleux was in exalted company – Britten, Boulez, Lutoslawski and Ginastera were some of the other names involved – but he constructed 3 Stophes sur le nom de SACHER, three short but deeply expressive pieces.

Altstaedt played them passionately, immediately enjoying Dutilleux’s ways of exploiting the instrument’s colour through pizzicato, harmonics and a detuned ‘C’ string. The first piece (from 1:36 on the broadcast link) created a heady atmosphere but with plenty of nervous energy, before retreating to a distance. The second piece (4:45) brooded in the cello’s lower register before ascending to a lonely-sounding melody on high. The third (7:20) went at a terrific rate, scurrying figures down the cello punctuated by plucking, then reaching dizzy heights with harmonics that could almost have been from another planet, before swooping down and finishing with aplomb.

Moving to J.S. Bach, the mood eased for a wonderful performance of the Cello Suite no.1. Altstaedt played at a lower ‘baroque pitch’, with very little vibrato and with relatively little flamboyance, happy to let the music do the talking. With an airy Prelude (12:54) followed by a softly voiced Allemande (15:29) and light footed Courante (20:35), notable for its tasteful ornamentation, he was allowing Bach’s dance movements every chance to express their graceful side.

When it came to the slow Sarabande (22:56), he resisted the temptation to do what a lot of cellists do and overplay the double stopped chords, again letting the music speak in quiet, thoughtful tones.

He decided against using the Minuet repeat – a minor shame, as it is such good music! – but the light and shade with the trio section (25:48 and then 26:33) was exquisitely judged, before the Gigue (28:19) danced its way into the distance.

Altstaedt’s choice of suites was very much light and shade, for there is little in Bach with a darker colour than the Solo Cello Suite no.5. The Prelude (32:13) of this suite is austere in the extreme, and again a slightly reserved approach dynamically played to the music’s strengths. The Allemande (37:40) and Courante (43:32) were stern, each dance movement given the appropriate room but very darkly coloured, the rich chords beautifully judged.

The famous Sarabande (45:27), which some have compared to the falling of tears, was suspended in mid-air, time almost stopping as the feather light notes traced their bare outlines. After this a slight pick me up came in the shape of the first Bourrée (49:18), but the second was wispy and elusive (50:48). The concluding Gigue (52:35) gave us more closure but retained the serious air of the suite.

After these performances the lack of an encore was completely understandable, heightening the impact of the music we had heard. It was a very fine concert, and one would hope when he is ready Altstaedt will commit his striking Bach interpretations to disc.

Further reading and listening

You can watch Nicolas Altstaedt play the Dutilleux Strophes here:

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

Altstaedt has not yet committed any of the Bach suites to record yet, but he has released a disc of the Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord, with Jonathan Cohen. They can be heard on Spotify here:

The Bach Cello Suites are wide open to interpretation, not just from cellists but from the wider electronic music community. Peter Gregson has a foot in both camps, and last year’s addition to Deutsche Grammophon’s ‘Recomposed’ series was both imaginative and respectful:

Wigmore Mondays – Ilya Gringolts & Peter Laul: Stravinsky for violin and piano

Ilya Gringolts (violin), Peter Laul (piano)

Stravinsky
Suite italienne (1925) (1:17-16:57 on the broadcast link below)
Three movements from The Firebird (1926-32) (19:18-29:58)
Ballade from The Fairy’s Kiss (1947) (31:58-35:15)
Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss (1934) (35:22-55:21)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 3 June 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

Stravinsky had a chequered relationship with stringed instruments, once describing them as ‘much too evocative’ in tone, but ultimately writing for them with the same level of skill he applied to the rest of the orchestra. Most of his writing for the violin in a solo capacity had Samuel Dushkin in mind.

Dushkin was introduced to Stravinsky by his German publisher in 1930, and Stravinsky wrote a concerto for him, before turning to smaller scale works for the pair to tour together. Many of these are smaller pieces taking stage works as their inspiration – and this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert from the Wigmore Hall programmed music from three such works.

The Suite italienne actually predates the Dushkin collaborations. To give it its full title, the Suite d’apres des themes, fragments et morceaux de Giambatista Pergolesi, brings together an Introduction and four dance movements from the Pulcinella ballet, retaining their lyricism but adding a certain spikiness in the new format.

Ilya Gringolts and Peter Laul play them with great character here, from the breezy and catchy Introduzione (1:17), through the Serenata (3:26), to a Tarantella in a hurry (6:16). While the Introduzione sees Gringolts still finding his feet, the Gavotte con due variazioni (8:22) is really nicely done, as are the Scherzino () and Minetto e finale (12:28), where Stravinsky can’t resist the odd sardonic touch.

The three movements from The Firebird are more substantial, beginning with a Prélude et ronde des princesses (19:18) which has a cold shiver in tale. The Berceuse () has a thick, heady atmosphere, while the Scherzo (27:32) feels like it has to be somewhere in a hurry and is a thrilling chase between the two instruments, brilliantly played.

The Divertimento known as The Fairy’s Kiss was Stravinsky’s homage to his biggest Russian inspiration, Tchaikovsky. It is an exciting and winsome orchestral ballet, one of his more romantic creations based as it is on a selection of the senior composer’s songs and piano pieces. The arrangements here work well in the more intimate confines, and again Gringolts and Laul have their measure. The Ballade (31:58) is at times languid but then quite restless, while the Sinfonia (35:22) employs typical Stravinsky textures of bare octaves occasionally audible.

Otherwise the violin writing is perhaps surprisingly ardent, then we progress to a busy section of brusque statements before returning to the slower music. The Danse suisses have some fun figures and exchanges, Stravinsky unable to resist a toe-tapping march with a rustic feel (41:20) before the lively Scherzo (46:01). The searching melodies of the Pas de deux (48:57) lead to a feathery scherzo (52:08) then a brisk Coda, the rustic mood returning (53:19)

BBC Radio 3 went off air before there was a chance for listeners to hear the bracing encore from Gringolts and Laul. Their Danse russe, arranged from Petrushka, was a fitting end to a very well executed recital.

Further reading and listening

Ilya Gringolts and Peter Laul have completed two discs of the complete Stravinsky works for violin and piano. The selection making up this concert and its encore can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Meanwhile the below collection brings together Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and also the three ballets from which the music for this concert derives, The Firebird, Pulcinella and The Fairy’s Kiss:

Wigmore Mondays – Gould Piano Trio play Kirchner & Brahms

Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)

Kirchner Excerpts from Bunte Blätter Op.83 (1888) (1:48-16:40 on the broadcast link below)
Brahms Piano Trio no.1 in B major Op.8 (1854, revised 1888) (18:53-54:50)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 13 May 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

It was refreshing to hear the music of Theodor Kirchner in this concert, especially in the context of his friendship with the infinitely better known Johannes Brahms. Kirchner was a friend not just of Brahms but of Robert and Clara Schumann. His relative lack of lasting success is regrettable, due in part it seems to an addiction to gambling, yet his output includes a large amount of piano music. He has notably arranged both Brahms String Sextets for the piano trio combination, which suits his music well.

The Bunte Blätter (Coloured Leaves) is a collection of attractive miniatures that work well in concert, and the Gould Piano Trio chose seven of the twelve available for this concert. The first, Zwiegesang (from 1:48 on the broadcast link), is notable for the sweetly romantic notions of its duet between violin and cello. A Novellette (no.5, 3:49) takes a more playful air, while Mädchenlied (no.10, 6:30) is graceful and open. The Humoreske (no.2, 9:30) is bright, especially from the piano, but the Barcarola (no.7, 10:10) is much less charming than a normal example in this form would be – a real straight-faced affair.

Finally the Scherzino (no.4, 13:15) is a charming affair and the last piece, Abendmusik (14:13) has more obvious, heart on sleeve passion to complete a lovely set of miniatures, beautifully performed.

The short forms contrasted nicely with Brahms’ Piano Trio no.1 in B major Op.8, a much more substantial affair. Lasting 36 minutes in this performance, with a judicious use of repeats in the score, it is one of several powerhouses the composer published early on in his life. He returned to it nearly 35 years after composition, applying some extensive editing to all the movements save the second.

The first few bars (from 18:53) give an immediate impression of Brahms’s scope and ambition – and it is worth bearing in mind that this version is still truncated from what he originally wrote. Richard Lester’s expressive cello melody is beautifully phrased, and the ardent writing is handled with an ideal balance of romance and poise. The aching second theme (21:23) offers a nice contrast, after which the music becomes fraught, before the trio’s entire first section is repeated. Elements of mystery come into the middle section, where Brahms develops his melodic ideas, before a return to the theme brings stability (29:25 onwards). Pianist Benjamin Frith should be praised here for his combination of technical control and full expression.

The second movement, a Scherzo, has a detached theme first heard low down in the register (33:48). Contrasting with this are sweeping contours for the flowing ‘trio’ section, its long phrases responding well to the strings’ unison (36:57), though the tuning is tricky here. There is a lovely blend of light and shade at the end, a respite from the heady music of the first movement.

The slow movement (40:44) is intimate and heartfelt, with some particularly touching moments from the strings, from the cello melody with which it begins. Set in the ‘home’ key of B major, it unfolds with a natural grace, but also hints at the romantic thoughts of the young composer. It is a movement in which to completely lose yourself before the drama of the finale begins at 48:25.

This movement is a little unconventional for its time, Brahms reverting to the minor key in music notable for its stormy passion. Despite the heaviness of texture at times, Frith’s lightness of touch again helps focus the phrasing of the melodies and the substantial counterpoint that underpins them. By the end there is a powerful feeling of a victory hard won, the emphatic closing chords sealing the deal.

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert can be heard here, in the available versions:

The full Kirchner collection of pieces can be heard here:

Meanwhile the original version of the Brahms Piano Trio no.1 can be heard on this album below from Trio Opus 8, seemingly named after the piece itself:

Early Brahms is notable for its stature and heroic passion – and the playlist below brings together some of the works falling into this category, including the Piano Sonatas nos.1 & 3, the String Sextet no.1 in B flat major & the wonderful Serenade no.1 in D major for orchestra: