Wigmore Mondays: Apollon Musagète Quartet play Grieg, Puccini & Sibelius

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

Sibelius Andante Festivo (1922) (1:55 – 6:00 on the broadcast link below)
Puccini I Crisantemi (1890) (6:25 – 13:45)
Grieg String Quartet in G minor Op.27 (1877) (16:00 – 52:46)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29 January 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was a well thought out and brilliantly played concert from the Apollon Musagète Quartet, bringing together three composers not normally associated with the idiom of the string quartet, and making a very strong case for their efforts.

The Andante Festivo dates from a period when Sibelius was struggling, inspiration arriving at the Finnish composer’s house only fitfully. This piece was written on one such day, with the same luminous scoring that would characterise the Sixth Symphony. Here it was given an appropriate, ceremonial air – apt given that it was written for the 25th anniversary of the Säynätsalo sawmills. The full chords were deeply resonant here, hinting at a suitability realised by the composer’s later arrangement for string orchestra.

Puccini‘s I crisantemi is if anything more familiar in the composer’s arrangement for larger forces, but it was also very affecting here. The recurring harmonies have a strong, nostalgic tug at the heart strings, and again the Apollon Musagète were as one, skilfully putting deep feeling over sentimentality.

Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor is, in my opinion, a neglected masterpiece. That is a phrase you will of course read all too often in reviews, but in my defence I have no less a figure than the composer Franz Liszt to back me up!

“It is a long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg.”

In this performance (from 16:00) on the broadcast link) the bold, solemn introduction quickly yielded to a fast movement that meant business and was already digging deep. Frequently the string writing is beefed up, and the impressive volume of this performance was balanced by a cleanliness of ensemble and attack. At 23:44, a brief pause between a big, sweeping statement and a very small response felt like the start of a new movement, so pronounced were the four players in their response.

From 28:56 the charming second movement Romanze made great appeal, with a lovely warm solo from cellist Piotr Skweres. The third movement Intermezzo (36:45) returned to the bold, assertive outlines of the first movement, resolutely sticking to a minor key – until, that is, its rustic second theme gave a jaunty alternative. This introduced a tension to the performance, as though Grieg himself was flitting between the two moods and unable to settle.

This battle of wills continued into the finale (from 43:59), the twisting lines of its brief introduction led by first violinist Paweł Zalejski until a nervy fast theme took hold. The quartet made much of Grieg’s daring harmonies, with some surprisingly bold dissonances, until finally the refuge of a major key was reached (from 51:46) Now the struggle – for performers as well as composer! – was more emphatically won, putting the seal on a really fine account of a piece that should be heard far more often.

As an encore the Apollon Musagète gave us a string quartet arrangement of Osvaldo Fresedo’s Vida mía (from 54:39), one of the Argentinian composer’s best-loved tangos.

Further listening

You can listen to recordings of the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Grieg’s String Quartet had a profound influence on Debussy, when he came to write his only work in the form sixteen years later. It is paired in a playlist here with Sibelius’ best known work in the form, his quartet known as Voces intimae:

Wigmore Mondays: Inon Barnatan plays Bach, Franck & Barber

Inon Barnatan (piano, above)

J.S. Bach Toccata in E minor BWV914 (c1710) (6 minutes)
Franck Prelude, Choral et Fugue (1885) (18 minutes)
Barber Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op.26 (1949) (20 minutes)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

This was a fascinating hour in the company of American-Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, exploring the role of the fugue in piano music while showing off considerable artistry and technical control of his instrument.

He began with Bach, and one of the lesser heard Toccatas for keyboard. This fell into three parts (starting at 4:06 on the broadcast) and initially took on quite a serious tone before relaxing for the fugue (which begins at 5:04). Barnatan signed off expansively, in a sense preparing for what was to come.

This proved to be Franck’s three-movement Prélude, Choral et Fugue, surely written in homage to organ pieces such as Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, but working particularly well on the piano. Barnatan gave a performance of impressive stature, really getting to the nub of the deep and almost religious expression the Belgian composer achieves.

An expansive Prélude (from 12:40) was followed by a reverent statement of the Chorale in hushed tones (at 18:18), before this grew inexorably in stature, leading to a superbly controlled peak at 21:10. The Fugue was confidently delivered, gaining intensity from its initial statement (23:50) until the final peal of bells signalled its triumphant switch from B minor to B major (30:11).

The Barber Sonata was simply superb, and a timely reminder that this is a composer worth so much more than simply the Adagio for Strings. Good though that piece is, the Sonata explores much more aggressive and twisted musical thoughts, perhaps a surprising response to a commission from Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, in honour of the League of Composers’ twenty-fifth anniversary. As announcer Clemency Burton-Hill says in the radio introduction it is a formidable work, perhaps not surprisingly given its dedicatee, Vladimir Horowitz.

It is difficult to imagine a better performance than Barnatan gave here, setting the tone immediately with the jagged outlines of the first movement’s main material (marked Allegro energico, from 32:40). There was considerable drama as this tumultuous piece of music unfolded, with bits of occasional lyrical repose but ultimately big outbursts in the form of the inspiration behind the piece, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Piano Sonata.

All were given with the utmost clarity by Barnatan, who softened the mood for the second movement Scherzo (40:39), then the intimate slow movement (Adagio mesto, from 42:52) which nonetheless reached a hair raising climax some three minutes or so later. Barnatan was totally inside the music, this passage described by Barber’s biographer as ‘the most tragic’ of the composer’s slow movements. Finally a terrific final movement Fuga, brilliantly played and with some complex figurations made to look easy!

The encore (from 54:00) was wholly appropriate, Busoni’s transcription for piano of the J.S. Bach choral prelude Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, in which a sense of stillness returned.

Further listening

The music from this concert can be heard on the Spotify playlist below. Inon Barnatan has not recorded any of this repertoire to date, so the versions chosen here are by established pianists Glenn Gould, Jorge Bolet and Joanna MacGregor:

You can also see for yourself what the fuss is about by watching Inon Barnatan playing the first movement of Schubert’s C minor Piano Sonata below:

Meanwhile if you want an introduction to the music of Samuel Barber, starting with the Adagio for Strings, look no further!

Wigmore Mondays: Fatma Said sings Schumann, Mendelssohn, Poulenc & Sherif Mohie El Din with James Vaughan

Fatma Said (soprano, above), James Vaughan (piano, below)

Schumann 6 Gesänge Op. 89 (1850); Singet nicht in Trauertönen Op.98a/7, Liebeslied Op.51/5 (both 1849), Requiem Op.90/7 (1850)
Mendelssohn Die Liebende schreibt Op.86/3 (1831), Ach, um deine feuchten Schwinge (Suleika) Op.34/4 (1837), Hexenlied Op.8/8 (1827)
Poulenc Les chemins de l’amour, from Léocadia (1940), 2 poèmes de Louis Aragon (1943)
Sherif Mohie El Din Three Poems by Amal Donqul (1989)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 15 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

As a demonstration of artistry, this was quite some Wigmore Hall debut for soprano Fatma Said, a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. The Egyptian singer used four languages in the course of an hour, and showed an aptitude for contrasting musical styles in a cleverly constructed programme.

It was good to hear less familiar Schumann songs as a starting group (from 1:32 on the broadcast) The set of six, published as Op.89, were written in the composer’s second ‘year of song’, the productive 1850. They set words by Wilfriend von der Nenn (a pseudonym for Wilhelm Schöpf), and show off an economy and intensity of word setting, with none lasting more than two minutes.

Said caught the agitation running through Es stürmet am Abendhimmel (There are storms in the evening sky) (1:32), set up by a wonderfully turbulent introduction from the excellent James Vaughan. A flowing Heimliches Verschwinden (Stealthy departure) (3:07) led to the yearning harmonies of Herbstlied (Autumn song) (5:12), then the softer hearted Abschied vom Walde (Farewell to the forest) (7:38). Both performers threw wide the curtains for a bracing Ins Freie (Out in the open) (9:45), before Röselein, Röselein! (Rose, little rose) (11:54) began with a striking solo, setting its dreamy mood.

A group of three more Schumann songs followed, the bright and carefree Singet nicht in Trauertönen (Do not sing in mournful tones) (15:20) leading to Liebeslied (Love Song), where there was a nice rapport from both performers in the song’s ebb and flow (17:38). Requiem (19:46) had a restrained and respectful air.

Mendelssohn’s songs are less-often heard, but carry melodic invention along with often incredibly challenging piano parts! A thoughtful Die Liebende schreibt (The beloved writes) (24:55) and the more urgent Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen (Ah, West Wind, how I envy you) (27:51) were nicely done, but the Hexenlied (Witches’ song) (30:34) was something else, the high notes nailed impressively by Said while Vaughan handled the flurry of notes with apparent ease.

The pair then turned to Poulenc, whose songs are the jewel in the crown of his musical output. We heard three brief but meaningful numbers, Les chemins de l’amour (The paths of love) (34:44) caught the efforts to stay cheerful despite the approach of World War II in 1940, while C (38:51) dealt with the immediate and horrific aftermath. Fêtes galantes (41:40) was a bit too breathless, but maybe that was the point as it raised a laugh!

Said then turned to ‘home away from home’, introducing three songs by Egyptian composer Sherif Mohie El Din, a welcome move that introduced a new sound world to the Wigmore Hall as well as showing the soprano’s clear passion for music and words of her first language.

The musical depiction of The Rain (from 44:22) was vivid and featured well-placed silences, the piano part enhancing the effect of raindrops. Could the river flow forever (46:50) had darker shading, while the final Against whom?  (49:57) was a tortuous and anguished study of feelings felt during surgery.

The performers generously gave us two encores – a further Egyptian song, Daughter of the Sultan by Gamal Abdel-Rahim (54:41) and then, after the radio went off air, Old Sir Faulk by Sir William Walton, with accompanying gestures from the soprano.

This emphasised how at home she is on the stage, and capped an extremely impressive and enjoyable recital, where a blend of musicianship and communication of the messages behind the text was always the primary goal. Both performers succeeded comfortably.

Further listening

You can listen to recorded versions of the repertoire in this concert on this Spotify playlist, apart from the Sherif Mohie Eldin songs which are not on the streaming service:

Meanwhile here is a link to the Sherif Mohie Eldin official YouTube page, including the three poems performed in the concert:

Wigmore Mondays: Isabelle van Keulen & Ronald Brautigam play Beethoven, Fauré & Szymanowski

Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Ronald Brautigam (piano)

Beethoven Sonata for piano and violin in G major Op.30/3 (1801-2) (from 1:37 on the broadcast)
Szymanowski The Fountain of Arethusa from Myths Op.30 (1915) (from 19:51)
Fauré Violin Sonata no.1 in A major Op.13 (1875-6) (from 26:34)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 8 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Full marks to the Wigmore Hall for their choice of established recital partners and an invigorating program to start the 2018 BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert series. Isabelle van Keulen and Ronald Brautigam were clearly brought in to blow away the January blues and dispel any ‘back to school’ feelings among the audience, and they did so with freshly minted interpretations of Beethoven, Szymanowski and Fauré.

Beethoven’s eighth published Sonata for piano and violin, the third of his Op.30 set, began the concert (from 1:37 on the broadcast link). This spring-like work flew off its perch with a flourish, and once a few minor tuning issues at the outset were settled van Keulen and Brautigam enjoyed the close-knit ensemble playing in the first movement.

The second movement, a slow Minuet (from 8:00), was delivered as a passionate song and dance, a little quicker than expected, while the third movement (from 15:00) threw open the doors once again, van Keulen enjoying its folk dance associations.

The first of Polish composer Karel Szymanowski’s 3 Myths, also Op.30, had added electricity. Heralding a new sound world for the composer, The Fountain of Arethusa began with a watery cascade of notes from Brautigam (from 19:51), matched by tensile high register playing from van Keulen, both vividly portraying the fountain but also exploiting the sensual harmonies and rich textures. Hopefully van Keulen will go on to record the composer’s works for violin and piano.

The concert finished with one of the sunniest of works for the combination. Fauré’s Violin Sonata no.1, his first work in the form, surged forwards from the outset (from 26:34), the longer melodic phrases beautifully measured on the violin, while Brautigam’s sensitivity in balancing a busy piano part was a notable achievement.

The second movement (from 35:35) introduced darker, shaded thoughts and grew to a passionate climax of real stature. The third movement Scherzo (from 41:55) was a delight, showing off the qualities that secured an encore at the work’s first performance in Paris in 1877. The finale (45:45), initially elusive, brought all these elements and more together, and finished with an impressive sweep.

There was room at the end for an appropriate encore, giving homage to centenary composer Lili Boulanger. She died in 1918, aged just 24, and her Nocturne (from 52:13 on the broadcast), beautifully shaded here, was an atmospheric example of her unfulfilled potential.

Further listening

You can listen to recorded versions of the repertoire in this concert on this Spotify playlist. Meanwhile if you enjoyed the Fauré and Szymanowski in particular, this lovely disc from Augustin Dumay and Maria João Pires shows the depth of European repertoire from the 20th century for violin and piano.

Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble – Stravinsky, Ustvolskaya & Shostakovich

Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival Ensemble: Elena Bashkirova (piano, above), Marina Prudenskaya (soprano), Pascal Moragués (clarinet), Sergej Krylov (violin), Alexander Knyazev (cello)

Stravinsky Suite from The Soldier’s Tale (for violin, clarinet and piano) (1918-19)
Ustvolskaya Piano Sonata no.5
Shostakovich Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127 (1967)
Ustvolskaya Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1849)
Shostakovich Piano Trio no.2 in E minor Op.67 (1944)

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 14 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

Pianist Elena Bashkirova founded the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival in 1998, and this celebration at the Wigmore Hall was part of a desire to continually expand the festival beyond Israel’s borders. Here we had a well-conceived program of Russian music, if a little unremitting in its darkly coloured focus.

It was especially gratifying to see the prominence given to Galina Ustvolskaya’s music. A pupil of Shostakovich, she has a small but potent legacy of works, which show a style already thinking well ahead of its time. In the first half of the concert we heard the Piano Sonata no.5, a remarkably concentrated piece of music lasting only half the 20 minutes it does on record. The suspicion was that Bashkirova did not follow some of the instructed repeats, or that her performance was simply much faster than those before it. Either way it left a powerful imprint, its refusal to budge from a central Db anchoring the music becoming a really strong musical device in spite of all the activity around it.

Arguably even more accomplished was the Trio for clarinet, violin and piano with which the concert’s second half began. This too left a lasting impression, thanks largely to the sensitivity with which Pascal Moragués and Sergej Krylov played the quiet music, and to the probing and penetrating tone of Bashkirova’s right hand. As Paul Griffiths’ booklet note pointed out, this music sounds more like late Shostakovich – but its composition date of 1949 shows just how originally Ustvolskaya was thinking.

From Shostakovich we heard two works, the late Seven Poems of Alexander Blok, Op.127, and the Piano Trio no.2 in E minor, Op.67. Both are hugely effective concert pieces, but it was the Blok poems that cut to the core at the end of the first half. Soprano Marina Prudenskaya, a late stand-in for Anna Samuil, got right to the heart of Blok’s verse, nowhere more so than in the savage destruction of Burya (The Storm). From this a wispy cello line emerged, Alexander Knyazev responding with a moving plaintive tone, after which the trio joined for the first time in accompanying Prudenskaya for the final song. It capped a tightly structured performance, the string players finding just the right tone if not always the exact intonation, while Bashkirova’s piano probed the lower reaches of the bass sound.

This was also the case in the Second Trio, which was occasionally a bit unkempt technically but which unerringly found the heart and focus of Shostakovich’s music. From the ghostly harmonics at the start, Krylov and Knyazev were clearly on the same emotional page, and with Bashkirova the three players achieved an impressive variety of volume and colour. Shostakovich’s powerplay scherzo and middle of the last movement were incredibly strong and lasting statements, but as ever with his music the greater meaning could be found in the moments of intimacy where the listener can hear a pin drop. The last movement thus became the focus of attention, music of sorrow, paranoia and anger – with just a little respite at the end.

The evening began with Stravinsky’s suite from A Soldier’s Tale, distilled into short movements for clarinet, violin and piano. Melodic and spiky, this performance was enjoyable and included just the right amount of humour, before taking a darker turn for the final Triumphal March of the Devil, where Krylov took over.

An excellent and thought provoking concert, particularly in the light of the various programmes marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution this year.

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below: