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:

Talking Heads: Ian Page

Arcana has an audience with Ian Page, conductor and artistic director of Classical Opera and The Mozartists. We are talking about Mozart’s stay in London, which the group have put under the microscope with a handsome release on Signum Classics last year. It is all part of Page’s ambitious Mozart 250 enterprise, an imaginative project bringing Mozart’s career to life not just through his own music but through that of his contemporaries.

Page recalls how the latest CD project began. “We had some of the programs from the actual concerts to work with, which was four and half concerts’ worth. There is so much stuff that he did when he was here that was very surprising, that we won’t have heard, but there were things that they did that ended up in the music library in Salzburg. It was such a wide range of music.”

Mozart lived in London for just over a year, from 23 April 1764 until 24 July 1765 – and was only eight when moving to the capital. Despite that, there is a surprising amount of music from his pen – and from his contemporaries. “I didn’t realise there was so much in London!” admits Page. “Loads of those were composers I had never heard of, and I’m supposed to be a specialist! There was one composer we didn’t feature, who was in the programmes but didn’t end up on the CD – an Italian guy called Mateo Ventor, who wrote an opera called La della fonte which Mozart would definitely have heard. We decided in the end that two CDs’ worth was right, and because they were all live concerts there was one CDs’ worth that you couldn’t discern if it was studio or not. For the second CD there were some minor blemishes. I thought it best to get over myself and get the repertoire out there, because there is so much worth hearing! It’s funny coming to it after doing the operas in studio recordings, where you have a choice of versions.”

Even now it is difficult to reconcile how Mozart was so young when he wrote what he did. Page has a theory. “I think it’s a testament also to the quality of stuff that was going on. He was such a magpie. You know the Abel Symphony that people thought was by Mozart? It’s an understandable mistake to make, because it’s genuinely a really top quality piece.”

It seems London will be the start of a Europe-wide venture. “I’m hoping to do a similar one for Mozart in Italy,” he explains, “because a lot of stuff survived that we know he heard when he was in Italy, and some degree of a score survived – complete operas this time. I haven’t had a chance yet to work out if they are any good or not, because it does rather rely on that, and not releasing things for the sake of it.”

I try to cast Ian’s mind back to the research he did before deciding to embark on Mozart 250, assuming it must have been an astonishing amount. “I genuinely can’t remember when I first had the idea”, he recalls, “but it was the sort of stuff we were doing with Classical Opera, so it made sense to package it. Part of it was a reaction against lazy programming, and having an anniversary for the sake of it. I remember when the 2006 anniversary happened, and I felt that nobody would want to hear Mozart in 2007 because of the exhaustive nature of the programming. It is a similar story with the Beethoven one coming up in 2020. It seems to me that the whole reason to celebrate something is to make it more part of our lives in the long term. The Mozart 250 came well after that, but I suddenly thought it would be a great way to mark it, and the temerity of it made me giggle because I’m not generally someone who plans things out. To be able to say we’re doing Idomeneo in 2031 is just something that makes me laugh!”

It has distinct advantages too. “It means every season you don’t start off with a blank canvas. Recently we did Haydn’s Applausus, and if we didn’t do it this year we would have missed the boat! I do find I have this growing sort of paranoia that I’m going to come across this neglected masterpiece that was written 251 years ago! It’s been a lot more research since having the idea. Even something like Applausus, where I knew about it and was interested in doing it, as soon as there was a rationale for doing it, it makes those choices. Similarly in 2016 we did the opera Apollo et Hyacinthus, it was because Mozart didn’t write much in that year. It worried me that it wasn’t going to be a great year, but all it means is that you dig a little bit deeper. I think 1769 is the other ‘weak’ year where there is very little Mozart and Haydn, one Gluck – and again it just means you look sideways a bit more.”

The reputations of Mozart’s fellow composers have been boosted. “I’ve been surprised by how much that contemporary stuff has taken off more at the moment than Mozart’s writing in a way. In January we did a retrospective at the Wigmore Hall of 1768 in general, and I’m still toying at late notice with a potential window in November where we might put in the whole of the Hasse opera we did an aria from, because it was done so well. It is a balancing act between long term planning and when you do find something that really merits unearthing.”

Our discussion shifts to the dangers of lazy programming – specifically how poor Haydn is often shunted to the start of a concert, rather than being made the main feature a lot of his work deserves. Page agrees. “Yes, and it’s always one of the symphonies with a nickname. There is so much else. For Applausus he wrote a wonderful letter with instructions on what he wanted them to do. He said if you tell me the date of the performance, I’ll try and dash off an overture for you, but if not all you need is an Allegro and Andante from a Symphony in C major, because the first movement grows out of it. So we did the first movement of the Symphony no.38, and the players and the audience just loved it! He just didn’t write bad music, it’s extraordinary. Most composers did, but what struck me with Applausus was the consistency of the writing.”

Is Mozart a little more variable? “Slightly,” he agrees. “We’ll definitely do all the operas, and all the concert arias, and I think the symphonies we will do most of. They were so much more flexible in those days, you could easily turn an opera overture into a symphony. There is a danger of getting a bit completist and worthy with the project, but there is also a lot of interesting stuff. What really plays into our hands I think is that because we have chosen to specialise so closely on a particular era, you feel how the players would have felt at the time. Of course our players branch out into all sorts of other repertoire, like Handel and Schubert, but for Mozart In London, we had a week of rehearsals and half way through we suddenly found that we were in the idiom. The stuff we did in days four and five we picked up immediately, because we were so immersed. That was really interesting to get a feel for what the players felt, because they had not had to jump from France or Italy, they were doing music from their own city where composers came, where there was no outside influence.”

What was the reason the Mozart family came over? “I think the Mozart family does get a bit of bad press here, but it is also swings and roundabouts, and I think Leopold (Mozart’s father) did cash in on it a bit. I do think when they left Salzburg it was not necessarily part of the plan. He knew they were going to go to Paris, but what they found was that everybody on the road said to them that they must go to London. They tagged it on, and then stayed for 15 months. The argument is that it wasn’t so much a musical education as a general one, a fermenting pot. Mozart’s dad brought a hi-tech microscope when he was in London, and brought it back to Salzburg. There was lots going on – the letters Leopold wrote talk about a Westminster pavement, and streetlights that stayed on all night, so he says this is the city that never sleeps – because they were not used to not having blackouts at night! Things like that are so interesting, and I love those sideways bits. Blackfriars Bridge was under construction, for instance. The letters are so colourful. His dad drank English beer, and complained about it, and then had to pay more money to buy Italian wine instead!”

“The other thing that is a ridiculously tiny detail was reading about the people that were around. Two things happened, one was that all the choral works tended to have all the same singers in them, so after work no.10 the same 20 singers would know all the stuff. Thomas Arne and John Beard, who were running the scene at the time, were known as Tommy and Johnny, which transforms them – Tommy Arne sounds like a wide boy! It gives the period so much more colour. Mozart’s dad wrote all these letters and kept a travel diary, so they went to the Tower of London, and visited the menagerie and the zoo, where Mozart was terrified of the lions. He couldn’t stand the noise! His sister writes of seeing these striped donkeys she’d never seen before! It was a really lovely time reading those. I started this word document with all the pieces we know were performed, at Covent Garden, Drury Lane and Haymarket, were listed. There were notes on the orchestration but for the English repertoire we had to orchestrate some from short score, pocket size. I probably rejected around 80% of the options!”

As you will have gathered, Page is a great storyteller, and agrees that the double album they have completed is as much a portrait of London as it is Mozart. “Yes, and it’s funny how these things dawn on you later. The Applausus that we did, about two months ago I thought I hadn’t come across a single piece of reference to its performance in the UK. I got in touch with the Handel and Haydn Society and they didn’t think it had been done either! There are often reasons but even then the contemplation of why some pieces survive – Bolero and Karelia Suite, where the composers wonder why are they listening to that, it’s not what I wanted to be remembered for! When we were doing the Mozart in London a couple of months after we did a concert of the full J.C.Bach opera Adriano in Siria, and that was fantastic music, really strong and beautifully crafted, like beautiful furniture, the work of a craftsman.”

Was it easy to get interest from record companies around the Mozart 250 project? “With Signum the initial agreement was to do a complete Mozart cycle which we had started two years previously with Linn. Signum were one of not many labels who would let us bring in our own team. If I said I wanted to work with Andrew Mellor they were fine, whereas most would have their own team. There is a freedom about it, and they loved the idea of Mozart 250, and loved the idea of planning to record one opera per year for the next 20 years, of which we are now seven in. That’s a strong background, and then the idea and hope is we will be able to do one other disc per year, so we’ve done discs with Sophie Bevan and Allan Clayton, which is a disc slightly linked to this with some John Beard stuff.”

Page remembers the audience reaction to the first Mozart 250 concerts. “It was very niche, our first time at Milton Court. The audiences were very small, and I know of only a few dozen who treated it as a whole weekend, where most chose the concerts they wanted to come to. There was an amazing sense among the people who were there, a wonderful feeling that they were grateful we were doing this repertoire. A couple of players have said to me in the last six months that the Mozart In London series was their favourite project, because of the immersion. I think it’s growing.”

“The ability to listen to everything in context is what it’s all about. I’ve just been conducting Beethoven’s Choral Symphony for our twentieth anniversary, and it has really whetted my appetite. I feel that with the Beethoven anniversary brewing, it doesn’t need wall to wall Beethoven, it needs something else and more context.”
Thinking ahead, he says, “It will be interesting to see if we’re having a similar conversation in five years’ time, because for Beethoven my brain is probably where it was for Mozart 250 two years before that. In my head my challenge is to come up with an acceptable program for each symphony, and sometimes it might be as simple as devising the program that was done when it was premiered. I would shy away from doing the famous example with the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and the Fourth Piano Concerto, but maybe do the one with the Fourth Symphony and the Violin Concerto which is interesting. As you say looking sideways is interesting. Another thing I am interested in is Beethoven playing the viola in Bonn for a number of years, and I think there is research going on to see what the repertoire was. They did operas there as well, and that would make a fascinating weekend of concerts I think, to explore what he was playing.”

“In the first half of the Beethoven 9 concert we did an aria with chorus from the Cantata for Leopold II, which is an amazing piece. There is a very good recording by the Corydon Singers and Orchestra with Matthew Best on Hyperion, and tracks four and five – a soprano aria leading to a chorus – just make sure you’re listening in a darkened room and turn those two tracks up. They will blow you away!”

Creative juices flowing, he thinks further ahead. “For the Pastoral Symphony, I’m thinking it would be great to explore the possibility of doing a first half of nature arias for the creation and seasons, or some of the other program symphonies that were being written at the time. It needs something else to package them together – rather than doing something like the last three Mozart symphonies together in a single concert. You know that it’s not what the composer had in mind.”

There are further clues from Beethoven on how the order of performance has changed over the centuries. “There is a Beethoven letter about which way round to do the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and he says that when you’ve got the real meat of the program you should do it in the first half when the audience is fresh, rather than in the second. That’s so interesting I think. The other thing they did a lot of I think is mixing genres, to have a solo piece and a symphonic piece together is quite refreshing.”

There is a hint of frustration in his voice, despite the accompanying smile. “Everything else we know about the composers shows them to be extraordinarily inventive minds, so why would we not be led by their best views to present a concert? It’s funny, the sliding scales we have – nobody would dream of playing the wrong note on purpose, but we’re quite cavalier about dynamics or scoring or seating.”

Back to the Mozart 250 project – and an important element of it being the commitment to young artists, keeping them part of the framework in which Page presents the music. “It is important, yes,” he agrees, “and imperceptibly, in recent years, we have started to say that we’re now quite often working with designated young artist’s projects. The Haydn that we performed, we had worked with some of the artists for three years, and some were making their first appearance with the company. Jacques Imbrailo is a singer we have worked with a lot over the years, and in fact he is on the most recent recording that we released in the Autumn, with a really intriguing Mozart piece called Grabmusik:

He wrote it just when he came back to Salzburg after his grand tour. The story behind it is that the Archbishop of Salzburg locked him in solitary confinement, because he thought this portfolio of compositions could not have been written without help from his dad, so he said, “You’re not to see anyone, and here’s a text – you set it – as a text!” We think this was the result, a cantata for bass and soprano. Jacques recorded that with us, and in my mind that, along with the first symphony, is what you want to wow someone with when you think of what Mozart did as a kid.”

Page is rightly proud of the young artists initiative, heartily endorsed as it is. “Jacques wrote a lovely testimonial for us recently, and he said about the first time he appeared with us, which was a Wigmore Hall concert, where he was sharing the stage with Philip Langridge, a hero of his. He said that nobody else was doing that where you can appear on level pegging with someone like that. And of course the Mozart is young music, it’s healthy in the same way that Handel is – the singers the composers were writing for had a life expectancy that was so much shorter. There are some staggering things, like the original Barbarina who as 12. Hamina was 17. What I find now we’ve been going long enough to reap the benefits of it. When we do have people like Allan Clayton or Jacques, it’s like an old friendship, and it might have been a couple of years but within five minutes there’s a shared language. It’s that much quicker to get to the nub of what we’re doing. If anything now we’re becoming more international and working with up and coming European talent.”

How does he discover the up and coming artists? “Sometimes I do hit a brick wall, especially if an opera is almost all cast, so it can be that the last role takes ages to fill up. When we did Figaro years ago we hadn’t cast the Figaro 6 months before, and I’d heard up to 20 people – and it was not until I flew to Sweden that we were able to fill it. To be fair now that we have a reputation a lot of the agents will come to us and suggest things. When we started out I went to every college opera but now I don’t have so much time. It’s quite lucky in a way not being Arts Council-funded, as we don’t have as much of an obligation. I’ll be quite selective about who I audition but when they do I will give them a good 45 minutes, and it’s not just about how they sing it’s about how intelligent they are, how they respond to direction. Ideally by the time we start rehearsals they are already those characters and that is usually a barometer.”

Their experiences are intriguing. “Sometimes it is a case of people having a sequence of bad experiences, not being treated very well! A good example is a tour we had to Italy around ten, twenty years back, where the bus didn’t turn up to take us to the venue. Instead of arriving there at 1 o’clock for lunch and a 2:30 rehearsal we arrived at 2:20. The orchestra went into this dark cloud, and nobody said anything! They had assumed they were not going to have any lunch that day because of the delay. It was such an eye opener that their assumption was that. Sometimes it is a bit of a battle to begin with because people are used to fighting their corner rather than collaborating. I do think the world is changing now though, with all the stuff coming out about bullying – it’s well overdue I think.”

Mozart is often highlighted as the most difficult composer to perform. Is that a statement to which Page would hold true? “Well Glyndebourne are doing this ‘Glyndebourne Cup’, every other year, and this time around they focussed on Mozart. They made a film called something like ‘Why Mozart is so difficult’ and I think that is immediately a disastrous starting point, you have to make it something positive to get away from the fear. I do love that Schnabel quote about Mozart about how it’s too easy for children and too difficult for adults. There is something not elusive but it’s a lifetime’s work. Every time I come back to the du Ponte operas there is always the feeling of how I did that last time, and was I really that stupid?!”

Is that the sign of a great work? “Yes, I think so”, he nods. “I remember when I first started out and for 18 months by chance I alternated for six months between Mozart and Britten operas. It was the most perfect complement, and with Verdi – it’s obviously great – but it’s so melody-led. With Mozart and Britten it is the synergy between text and emotion in the music which I love. There is something endlessly challenging about the Mozart operas but you need to think beyond them as difficult. The challenge is to be so immersed that you don’t realise how things are going. Bernstein talked about the act of performing as being the same as composing, and I think that is always the goal. We recorded Bastienne and I had already dismissed it, but when we recorded the dialogues we did something that made us laugh, and we thought we have to capture that on CD, or we lose the spirit of it! I haven’t had the first edit back yet but I’m hoping that comes across, the genuine feeling of people being happy and having fun. We’ve steered clear of the Mozart piano concertos so far, although we did well with Kristian Bezuidenhout last summer. I’ve got such a Perahia-like vision in my head so it is difficult to shift from that, but when you listen to Denis Mathews and Solomon it’s magical. It is not always a case of the more we evolve the closer we get to perfection!”

Wigmore Mondays – Alexander Gavrylyuk plays Prokofiev, Mozart & Rachmaninov

Alexander Gavrylyuk (piano)

Mozart Piano Sonata in C major K330 (c1783) (1:56-20:20 on the broadcast link below)
Rachmaninov Preludes: in G flat major Op.23/10 (1903), in G minor Op.23/5 (1903), in G sharp minor Op.32/12 (1910) (22:04-32:25)
Prokofiev Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1942) (34:12-51:06)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 7 January 2019

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

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

On his website, Ukrainian-Australian pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk makes the profound statement that ‘not many things in this world can unite people – no form of diplomacy could ever do that. I think that music comes the furthest in revealing that perhaps on a deeper level we are all quite similar’.

The quote is especially instructive given the work with which Gavrylyuk ended this concert, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7. Yet in these uncertain times his words are appropriate to any musical experience. Few have the purity of his Mozart, an account of the Piano Sonata in C major K330, the composer’s tenth published work in the form which was written just after he moved to Vienna. Published in his late twenties, it is very much a ‘white’ work – as in, written in the key whose scale uses all the white notes on the keyboard.

Yet, as a listen to this performance (from 1:56 on the broadcast link) will show, Mozart enjoys a good deal of chromatic movement, using the black notes to add considerable spice and intrigue to what initially seems like an extremely polite piece. Gavrylyuk plays with poise and elegance, enjoying the composer’s good manners but equally thriving on the diversions as they get more pronounced.

The slow movement (from 8:59) reveals much more of these tendencies, especially in its central minor key episode, a deeply personal piece of writing with tragic overtones (from 11:28). It casts a shadow from which the whole movement takes a while to recover, even when moving back into the safer intimacy of the major key (13:38). With a cutesy flourish the finale (15:22) returns us to happier music making, and seems to take on the influence of Scarlatti while looking forward to early Beethoven. Again Mozart enjoys more exotic melodies than the key suggests, keeping wit and positivity to the fore.

Rachmaninov’s big early success as a composer came through the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, its declamation a big hit with audiences. From this he was inspired to write 24 Preludes, one in each key, published in two subsequent books of 13 and 10 works respectively. The three heard here are fine pieces in their own right, beginning with the relatively confidential Prelude in G flat major Op.23/10 (22:04). This leads to the raw power of the Prelude in G minor Op.23/5 (25:24), one of Rachmaninov’s best-loved piano pieces, which builds into a march of real substance in Gavrylyuk’s performance. The Prelude In G sharp minor Op.32/12 (29:40) is an intriguing work, its bell-like sonorities hinting at the influence of the East and leaving quite an impression in this performance.

The reason Gavrylyuk’s statement is so pertinent to Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.7 is because the piece was written – as with so many Soviet pieces of its era – on two levels. Its crowd-facing elements were to please Stalin, to ensure Prokofiev stayed in his favour with works that left his audience in an ultimately positive frame of mind. How could they be otherwise, given the ferocity of the final movement? And yet the private elements are there for all who listen closely, for this is the central of Prokofiev’s three ‘War Sonatas’, completed in 1939. The first movement may be loud and brash (from 34:12) but it also has music of barely concealed turmoil, revealed clearly in the second theme two minutes later, where the virtuosity is completely absent.

Prokofiev is one of the most percussive of earlier 20th century composers for the piano, alongside Bartók and Stravinsky, and as the first movement proceeds there is an impressive rhythmic drive. All that is removed for the profound slow movement, however (42:11), where he quotes from Wehmut (Sadness), part of Schumann‘s Op.39 cycle Liederkreis, another private clue to his predicament.

In this performance Gavrylyuk has the sonata’s measure to a tee, investing a lot of feeling in the slower music while seemingly using the louder moments to banish evil from his sight. The last movement (47:57) is thrill-a-second, the repeated three note motif in the left hand taking over and driving to a hugely impressive finish, by which time the pianist was so far back he was almost horizontal!

Appropriately we had calming Schumann for an encore, providing a consoling link to the slow movement of the Prokofiev. This was Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of Foreign Lands and Peoples) from his 1838 collection Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) Op.15 (52:28).

Further listening

You can listen to the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below, including Alexander Gavrylyuk’s own recording of the Prokofiev:

The recording of the Prokofiev is part of an intriguing recital disc released in 2011, which includes works by fellow Russian composers Rachmaninov (his underrated Moments Musicaux Op.16) and Scriabin (his Piano Sonata no.5):

Meanwhile to further explore the Prokofiev piano sonatas, Denis Kozhukhin is an excellent guide. This album contains the other two sonatas in the so-called ‘war trilogy’ of works:

Live review – Benjamin Grosvenor, CBSO / Vassily Sinaisky – Mozart, Sibelius & Wagner

Benjamin Grosvenor (above, piano), City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraVassily Sinaisky (below)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 25 October 2018 (matinee concert)

Wagner Der fliegende Holländer – Overture (1841)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.21 in C major K467 (1785)
Sibelius Symphony no.1 in E minor Op.39 (1899)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It has often been remarked that concerts adhering to the once ‘standard’ format of overture, concerto and symphony are hardly frequent nowadays, so making this afternoon’s concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Vassily Sinaisky the more welcome.

Wagner has always made for an effective curtain-raiser, not least his overture to The Flying Dutchman. Earliest of his acknowledged operas, its eventful 10 minutes fairly encapsulate the salient incidents and principal themes – not least in this performance, Sinaisky confirming his operatic credentials (in which capacity he has been regrettably little heard in the UK) with an assured reading; most perceptive in its approach to Senta’s eloquent ballad near the beginning and in its Tristanesque return during the closing bars such as Wagner transformed in revision.

A scaled-down CBSO was equally responsive in Mozart‘s K467, happily no longer indelibly associated with one of the dreariest 1960s films. Often at his most perceptive in 19th-century music, Benjamin Grosvenor is no slouch in Mozart and his performance – as was that at this year’s Proms with the BBCSO and Sakari Oramo – was full of felicitous phrasing, even if the formal focus of the imposing first movement was likely of Sinaisky’s choosing. The Andante was affecting without affectation, Grosvenor embedding the solo part closely into that of the orchestra, then the final rondo conjured up effervescence at a not unduly headlong tempo. All credit to Grosvenor in choosing cadenzas by Robert Casadesus (whose Mozart recordings are required listening) and for a limpid reading of Rachmaninov‘s Lilacs as his encore.

Although his ambivalent relationship with the Austro-German symphonic tradition has often been noted, Sibelius’s Russian heritage is often downplayed – yet his first two symphonies would be inconceivable without Tchaikovsky’s input. The First of these has been compared with the Pathétique in its epic and ultimately tragic nature, but the influence of the Russian’s Fifth Symphony feels even more overt in its sombre clarinet-led introduction and an Allegro with its ingenious take on the sonata format. Sinaisky duly has the measure of its brooding power and surging energy, then opted for a flowing account of the Andante that brought out its pathos and quixotic changes of mood without it seeming turgid or episodic. The Scherzo, too, had the requisite dynamism and, in its trio, an appealing whimsy that was deftly drawn.

The highlight, though, was the finale – most often the movement which fails to ignite by dint of its discursive structure. Yet ‘Quasi una Fantasia’ need not imply rhapsodic and Sinaisky treated it accordingly, characterizing its dramatic then fervent themes with due appreciation of their formal integration towards an impassioned climax whose fateful outcome was never in doubt. It helped that orchestral playing was of unwavering commitment, with the CBSO giving of its collective best in a piece which it has played frequently over the past 86 years.

It set the seal on a concert which was a reminder one that even a mainstream programme can surprise and engage when the constituents are thoughtfully planned and performances never less than responsive. The enthusiastic reception of a sizable house was its own confirmation.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website