Wigmore Mondays – Alexander Melnikov: Early piano music by Clementi, Haydn & Mozart

Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 13 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Something of a history lesson from the versatile pianist Alexander Melnikov, who is capable of moving between modern piano music on a concert grand and 19th century music on the instrument for which it was written, the fortepiano. Essentially the instrument is a forerunner of the grand version we are used to nowadays, but it allows us to see the join between the harpsichord – the go-to keyboard of much of the 18th century – and the bigger and more modern instruments the likes of Beethoven began to write for. Here Melnikov played an instrument by Paul McNulty after Walter & Sohn from an original of 1805. Alexander Skeaping deserves credit as the tuner and supplier.

Melnikov’s program was brilliantly conceived, including music by Mozart and Haydn but linking them through one of the leading pianists and composers of the day, Muzio Clementi. Beethoven was one of his greatest advocates and often played his sonatas, while Clementi promoted his fellow-composer in London, where he arrived in the early 1770s. At this point the English capital was regarded as the centre for keyboard innovations, and in the music for this concert – superbly played and interpreted by Melnikov – you can feel the sense of freedom and exploration as the music looks outwards and forwards towards Beethoven.

The pianist begins with a musical impression of Haydn by Clementi, a brief Prelude from his Musical Characteristics album written as a guide for to give performers an idea of the style of other composers. This short number (from 3:04 on the broadcast link) starts with a broad C major chord, helping us get used to the piano sound. The mood is free and expansive, with a busy left hand. The pianist adds a short improvised section, where it proves difficult to spot the joins, but this serves to lead us straight to a Haydn work, the Piano Sonata in C sharp minor HXVI:36 (4:53).

This was a very rare key for Haydn to use – and rare for piano music, with Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata the next excursion some 20 years later. Melnikov’s performance captures the exploratory air of the piece, beginning with quite a stern statement but then playfully holding back with some of the clipped right hand notes to emphasise the composer’s wit. Melnikov’s affinity for the music is clear, with some beautifully played melodies. The piano sound is lovely, with none of the tinny textures often associated with the earlier instruments.

The second movement is a Scherzando (14:26), Melnikov playing a graceful dance with a really satisfying sense of ebb and flow. The third movement (18:21) is the slowest, a slow and solemn Menuetto moving to a thoughtful and serene final section (20:14) where Haydn moves to the major key. The playing here, using the ‘damper’ pedal, is really lovely.

The next pair of works begin with Clementi’s second ‘impression’ of Mozart (24:17), where a great deal of technical control is required! Me The two composers famously sparred in an improvisation session in Vienna in 1781, so knew a lot about each other – but from the reports did not perhaps see eye to eye.

Clementi’s tribute is keenly felt however, before Mozart‘s own exploratory Fantasia (25:55) receives a carefully thought yet natural performance. Though a short piece, this unfinished work varies greatly in mood and tempo, with quick cascades from on high contrasting with dark left-hand thoughts, before a sunnier closing section to sweep away the clouds. Melnikov gives the music plenty of room, sometimes exaggerating the pauses but always to the benefit of the music.

The concert finished with one of Clementi’s own sonatas, the substantial Piano Sonata in G minor published in 1795. Before it we heard another Prelude from the Musical Characteristics, this time a portrait of himself with a tumbling figure and some highly chromatic music (32:55). The Sonata itself begins at 34:27 with a stern introduction of two-part writing, but that soon cuts to a busy and bright first movement proper. There are a number of abrupt mood swings in this movement, anticipating Beethoven’s way of changing quickly between thoughts, and Clementi also employs some daring harmonies for the time. Melnikov responds brilliantly to these, again his performance given as though performing a characterised stage work, with a stormy closing section.

The second movement (42:40) is marked Un poco adagio (loosely translated as ‘a little bit slow’) and is subtly charming, like a slower dance, before the third movement (48:38), marked Molto allegro (quick and lively), actually hangs back a bit in this performance before going full throttle to a thrilling finish. Again Melnikov’s right hand contours are brilliantly realised.

This was a really enjoyable concert, and great to see the importance of Clementi’s role properly realised. He was one of the true pioneers of early piano music, and without his part it is unlikely Mozart or especially Beethoven would have made their own mark.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Preludio II alla Haydn in C major (publ.1787)
Haydn Piano Sonata in C sharp minor HXVI:36 (publ.1780)
Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Prelude I alla Mozart in A major (publ.1787)
Mozart Fantasia in D minor K397 (?1782)
Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Prelude I alla Clementi (publ.1787)
Piano Sonata in G minor Op.34/2 (publ.1795)

Further listening

Alexander Melnikov has not yet recorded any of the music in this concert, but the playlist below includes recorded versions on the fortepiano wherever possible.

Thirty years ago it would have been unthinkable to consider we would now have a huge resource of recordings made on the fortepiano. This is thankful in part to early protagonists such as Melvyn Tan, but one pianist to have recorded a vast amount of this repertoire is Ronald Brautigam. His recordings of Beethoven are rewarding, but in Haydn he sparkles – such as in this disc of five sonatas, including the one heard in this concert:

Melnikov’s own discography on more historical instruments is in its relatively early stages, but this disc of piano music through the ages from Schubert to Stravinsky is well worth hearing:

Finally from this time comes a thrilling cycle of Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin – pioneering music which Arcana will explore in greater detail as part of 2020 Beethoven. This version with Isabelle Faust is one of the very best:

Live review – CBSO / Riccardo Minasi: Haydn & Mozart

Oliver Janes (clarinet), Nikolaj Henriques (bassoon), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Riccardo Minasi (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 27 November 2019

Haydn Symphony no.88 in G major (1787)
Richard Strauss Duet-Concertino (1946)
Beethoven Coriolan Overture (1806)
Mozart Symphony no.39 in E flat major K543 (1788)

Written by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing concert for a dank November evening. This was a slightly stripped back version of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with their guest conductor Riccardo Minasi overseeing energetic accounts of Haydn and Mozart, a high octane Beethoven overture and a youthful take on the music of an elderly Richard Strauss.

The Haydn first, in the form of a strongly characterised account of his Symphony no.88, premiered in Paris in 1787. We still take Haydn’s astonishing output of 104 published symphonies for granted, for while they make effective concert openers they are full of invention, wit, and – especially in this case – drama.

After a poised first movement, Minasi lovingly shaping the phrases with tasteful rubato, the second movement Largo was laid bare as a strongly emotive utterance with dark twists and turns, interventions from brass and timpani sounding powerful warning notes. By contrast the Minuet was a light hearted dance, its trio section employing bagpipe-like drone effects that anticipate the Brahms Serenades. Minasi and the players clearly love this music, and their effervescence carried over into the finale, the conductor dancing on the podium as upper and lower strings egged each other on.

Richard Strauss was looking intently at the Classical period when he wrote his penultimate orchestral work at the age of 83. The Duett-Concertino is an unusual piece, bringing forward clarinet and bassoon soloists to shine in front of a decorative chamber orchestra. This is recognisably late music in its assured and economical treatment of form, and in some unexpectedly spicy harmonic twists, but the soloists captured its ‘Indian summer’ profile.

Oliver Janes and Nikolaj Henriques were superb, plucked from the orchestra and fully enjoying their moment in the spotlight in front of their colleagues, who responded with rustic string accompaniment and beautifully rendered harp (Katherine Thomas). Janes’ clarinet tone was delightful, with Henriques’ bassoon cajoling and prompting in response. Both came into their own with some dazzling acrobatics in the finale. The light hearted approach spilled over into a brilliantly designed encore, a selection of Mozart themes arranged for the two solo instruments to often comic effect.

The second half began with high theatre, an account of Beethoven‘s Coriolan overture that crackled with atmosphere and descriptive content. The opening chords bore the effect of powerful slamming doors, such was the crisp ensemble, and as the overture gradually opened up so did a vivid response to Heinrich von Collin’s tale. As the story unfolded there was no doubt on its tragic ending, and here Minasi’s management of the quiet string dynamics looked forward to equivalent drama in the first movement of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony.

Even in the context of this concert the best was saved for last in an account of Mozart‘s Symphony no.39 that positively fizzed with good spirits. When he composed the piece in 1788 Mozart was writing without commission, a relative rarity for him, and this was the first of three symphonic works that were to redefine the form, effectively preparing the way for Beethoven and Schubert.

The atmosphere crackled in a fulsome introduction to the first movement, which took on a waltz-like form, Minasi’s prowess as an opera conductor clear for all to see through his dramatic instincts and more tasteful rubato. The slow movement was perfectly judged, initially and deceptively straightforward but with stern interventions from the woodwind. These highlighted the lyricism of the main subject, once again beautifully phrased. A warmly coloured Minuet followed before the finale sprang out of the traps, violins easily handling the considerable demands placed on them in rushing scales and rapid string crossing. Minasi was if anything even more energetic than he had been at the start of the concert, prompting the wonderful syncopations and interplay of Mozart’s inspiration which were brought right to the front.

So good was this concert it was a shame when we entered the closing bars of the symphony, but we did so with great positivity, Mozart – and Minasi – inspiring us through their wonderful craft.

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, made up of some leading recordings of the works played.

On record – Clare Hammond, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan: Mysliveček: Complete Music for Keyboard (BIS)

Clare Hammond (piano), Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Nicholas McGegan

Josef Mysliveček (1737-1781)
Keyboard Concerto no.1 in B flat major (late 1770s)
Six Easy Divertimenti for Harpsichord or Piano-forte (1777)
Keyboard Concerto no.2 in F major (late 1770s)
Six Easy Lessons for the Harpsichord: Sonatas 1-6 (1780)

BIS BIS-2393 [74’22”]

Producer and Engineer Thore Brinkmann

Recorded March 2018 at the Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Not many composers could claim to have influenced one of the greatest composers to have lived, but Il Boemo (The Bohemian) could do just that. Josef Mysliveček, to whom the nickname was applied, was a Czech composer of rare standing and a mentor to Mozart in the 1770s. He had a life of eyebrow-raising but ultimately tragic events, culminating with his death in great poverty in Rome in 1781, having nearly lost his nose a couple of years earlier to a botched operation.

Clare Hammond’s interview for this site puts more musical detail onto his fascinating tale. More importantly this disc for BIS serves notice of Mysliveček’s standing as an important musical figure and prodigiously talented composer. If you like Mozart, his music is a natural but essential step for further exploration.

What’s the music like?

Really enjoyable. The Piano Concerto no.1, where Hammond is joined by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Nicholas McGegan, has a sparky personality, with plenty of vigour in its fast outer movements and elegance in the softly voiced central slow movement. There is an economy of thought, too – it finishes quickly with the minimum of fuss.

Clare Hammond clearly loves this music, and she plays with poise but also enjoys the instinctive nature of Mysliveček’s writing. The solo works are notable for their compressed construction, never threatening to outstay their welcome and on occasion producing unexpectedly dark undercurrents.

She is alive to these and handles the technical challenges really well. The Six Easy Divertimenti sound anything but unless they are in her hands! She makes the most of their tendencies to surprise, as in the mysterious pauses on some pretty exotic chords in the fifth piece.

The Piano Concerto no.2 has some notable syncopations in its first movement, as well as some adventurous harmonic diversions, before slipping into the minor key for a profound slow movement. Some of the music is contrary, staying away from big technical displays when you might expect them, but the third movement has a spring in its step nonetheless.

The Six Easy Lessons (again sounding pretty difficult!) bring parallels with the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti, and receive crisp and characterful performances. The second movement of the First Lesson reminds of the Czech composer’s tendency to spice up his melodies with chromatic movement, and this is one of many good tunes to be found throughout these spirited pieces.

Does it all work?

Yes. The structure of Mysliveček’s output from Hammond gives an ideally balanced disc, with the concertos complemented by the solo works. The clarity of her performance ensures it can be heard in the best possible light, and recording from the BIS engineering team is ideal.

Is it recommended?

Yes, and it fills a gap in the 18th century discography. Here is an important figure on whom the spotlight so rarely shines – and we are grateful to Hammond and McGegan for directing it to the right place.

Stream

Buy

You can buy this release directly from the BIS website

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: