Writer appreciation: Daniel Heartz

written by Ben Hogwood

This is the first in an occasional series of posts where I would like to draw attention to writers on music, classical or pop, whose work I love and respect.

Yesterday Arcana’s Listening to Beethoven series reached the Second Symphony – the last work discussed by Daniel Heartz in the third volume of an epic series looking at music of the 18th century.

I wanted to draw attention to Daniel’s writing because this series of books is quite simply invaluable. When I first considered purchasing it I baulked at the price per instalment (roughly £45, even at second hand) but I can honestly say it has provided me with incredible value for money.

Heartz’s strengths are many, but his ability to talk through technical aspects of music without losing the reader in jargon is unusually strong. However even that quality is second to his knack of placing the music in historical context, which he does so throughout the books. I warmed to this quality in the third volume (Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven 1781-1802) just as much in the second (Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School: 1740-1780). Going back further, the equally sizable volume of Music In European Capitals: The Galant Style, 1720-1780 ensures lesser-known and appreciated composers such as Boccherini, J.C. Bach and Stamitz get the detail and respect they fully deserve.

Heartz is great at telling a story, applying the same detailed and pictorial approach to each composer or historical figure, and at every turn it is clear that a remarkable depth of research has been applied to his work. There is very little speculation needed, but where it is made he is never fanciful or exaggerated.

Very sadly Professor Heartz died in 2019. I must admit, rather selfishly, that I was hoping his exploration of Beethoven would continue beyond the year 1802, but on learning the sad news I can only say I am very grateful to him for illuminating the classical period of music history with such high quality, informed writing. His books will give pleasure and more information, no doubt, for many years to come.

A tribute to Daniel can be found here on the University of California website. The three books referred to above are published by W.W. Norton.

BBC Proms – Víkingur Ólafsson, Philharmonia / Paavo Järvi: Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev & Shostakovich

olafsson-jarvi

Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Paavo Järvi

Prokofiev Symphony no.1 in D major Op.25 ‘Classical’ (1916-17)
J.S. Bach Keyboard Concerto in F minor BWV1056 (c1738-9)
Mozart Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor K491 (1786)
Shostakovich Symphony no. 9 in E flat major Op.70 (1945)

Royal Albert Hall, London
Saturday 14 August 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Tonight’s Prom brought change of conductor, the always reliable Paavo Järvi stepping in for Santtu-Matias Rouvali in what would have been the latter’s Proms debut, but not of soloist – Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson duly making his first appearance at these concerts with concertos which, for the most part, played to his strengths.

The number of times that Bach’s keyboard concertos have been heard here on piano in recent decades can be counted on the fingers on one hand (Tatiana Nikolayeva’s D minor resonates in the memory), but that in F minor was a good choice in terms of its succinctness – the outer movements pitting soloist and (sizable body of) strings against each other with a trenchancy as was vividly conveyed here, with the central Andante an oasis of serenity that was not without its plangent asides.

Placing this piece before the interval, however, made for a distinctly short first half – given the relative length of Mozart’s C minor Concerto after the interval. There were many good things in this latter, Ólafsson keeping the first movement on a tight yet never inflexible rein so that its inclination to pathos – if not always its portentous undertones – came through in ample measure; not least in a coda that had been cannily prepared by the soloist’s cadenza. The central Larghetto was none the less the highlight – Ólafsson varying his tone such that piano melded into the woodwind for an early and defining instance of timbral colouration, with its limpid elegance never undersold. Maybe the finale was a little staid in the overall unfolding of its variations, but the coda’s strangely ambiguous poise was tangibly realized.

An auspicious debut, then, for Ólafsson, who underlined his prowess with affecting readings of the slow movement of Bach’s Fourth Organ Sonata (BWV526) in August Stradal’s chaste transcription and Liszt’s not unduly mawkish version of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (K617). These further extended the disparity between each half – the first of which had commenced with Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony, not in the least small of scale or mimsyish as Järvi heard it; witness his acerbic and impetuous take on the initial Allegro, trumpets and timpani to the fore, then a Larghetto whose swift underlying tempo left little room for any harmonic piquancy to emerge. The Gavotte was slightly marred by several mannered agogics which tended to impede its rhythmic profile, but the Finale lacked little in sparkle or insouciance.

Among the most travelled and recorded conductors of today, Järvi can seem detached or even aloof in manner – but there was no such reticence evident in Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony as ended this programme. After a tensile and assertive Allegro, which audibly benefitted from the sizable forces onstage, the Moderato recalled Efrem Kurtz’s classic recording as to overall restraint and a dark-hued introspection rising to anguish in its twin climaxes. Playing without pause, the other movements were of a piece with the foregoing – a driving and almost manic Presto subsiding into a Largo, whose ruminative bassoon soliloquys were eloquently taken by Emily Hultmark, then an Allegretto whose capriciousness was acutely gauged through to its bitingly sardonic climax and breathless final payoff. Undoubtedly a performance to savour.

You can find more information on the BBC Proms at the festival’s homepage

Listening to Beethoven #173 – 7 Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ WoO 46

Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication Count Johann von Brown-Camus
Duration 9′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a duet from Act 1 of Mozart‘s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), between the characters Pamino and Papageno, as below. It is an attractive tune in triple time, shared between the piano and cello in its higher register.

Background and Critical Reception

This set of variations is the third and last from Beethoven for piano and cello – and the second to use a theme from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The inspiration is thought to have been two new productions of the opera appearing in Vienna in 1801. Steven Isserlis notes that despite its equal writing for both instruments, the first edition of Beethoven’s new work ‘fails to even mention the cello on its title page: pianistic chauvinism’.

This is all the stranger given the cello’s elevated role in Beethoven’s writing. As Misha Donat observes, writing for Philips’ recording by Heinrich Schiff and Till Fellner, ‘for the first time the two players are treated very much as equals. Their equality is inherent in the theme itself, which is laid out in such a way that the piano takes the part of Pamina, and the cello the answering voice of Papageno.

Isserlis takes the variations ‘depict various aspects of romance – from excited gossip to lofty ardour’. Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd, in their wonderful book Beethoven’s Cello, observe how the fourth variation travels through the ‘parallel, though remote and rare, key of E-flat minor’, and Beethoven ‘reaches for the extremes’, the piano in its high register and the cello down low. Then, the three final variations ‘further deconstruct Mozart’s theme’, the last with a coda.

Thoughts

As the authors observe, Beethoven is bringing his ‘duo’ works to an ever more even keel. The theme here is a case in point, piano and cello united in their sharing of melodic material, and some effortless dialogue. Soon Beethoven is working through a busy second variation, before spicing up the melody with some chromatic additions. The questions and answers between the instruments continue, before the striking fourth variation in the minor key – tricky tuning for the cello here!

The two instruments have a lot of fun, finishing each other’s sentences in the fifth variation. Variation 6 is a florid affair, first for piano then cello, before the substantial finale, with the exuberant interplay of its coda – which also goes on a forceful excursion into the minor key. On the music’s return ‘home’ there is a bit more sparkling interplay before the two instruments sign off convincingly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website

All versions are excellent, with operatic flair in evidence from Perenyi and Maisky. Once again though it is Robert Levin and Steven Isserlis who get to the heart of the piece and the enjoyment it can provide.

Also written in 1801 Woelfl Duo for cello and piano Op.31

Next up Lob auf dem dicken (musical joke) WoO100

Online concert review – Lars Vogt, Estonian Festival Orchestra / Paavo Järvi @ Pärnu Festival – Mozart & Tubin

paavo-jarvi

Lars Vogt (piano), Estonian Festival Orchestra / Paavo Järvi (above)

Mozart Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor K491 (1786)
Tubin Music for strings (1963); Suite from The Goblin (Kratt, 1961)

Pärnu Concert Hall, Estonia
Wednesday 14 July 2021, available online

Written by Ben Hogwood
Picture of Lars Vogt (c) Giorgia Bertazzi

This attractive concert was one of the calling cards for the Pärnu Festival, an annual event marking the end of its first decade in the Southern Estonia city. Its patron, conductor Paavo Järvi, was conducting his ‘home’ orchestra, the Estonian Festival Orchestra, inspired by Lucerne’s festival orchestra, in a nicely devised program of Mozart and the seldom-heard composer Eduard Tubin.

To begin with, Järvi and the orchestra were joined by pianist Lars Vogt in one of Mozart’s stormier utterances, the Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor. Vogt has been an inspiration in his career but particularly of late, documenting his battle with cancer in an admirably forthright fashion. Part of his therapy is to play music, to the extent of playing on an upright piano during his chemotherapy sessions, and also to take every chance offered to him to playing music live.

This only heightened the admiration and enjoyment for his performance here, as with heartfelt playing Vogt got right to the centre of this most dramatic of Mozart’s concertos. Järvi followed his lead and was helped by some very fine wind playing, particularly in the slow movement. The first movement had a great deal of Sturm und Drang, the angular contours of the main theme ideally phrased. Vogt’s solo episodes were impeccably delivered but always had an ear towards the orchestra, where the strings gave incisive commentary. The final Allegretto allowed a bit more room for playful exchange, and there was a wonderful shaft of sunlight as the music turned from minor to major key, sensitively engineered by the conductor. As a suitable ⁹encore, Vogt chose Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major Op.118/2, watched appreciatively from the sidelines by Järvi.

Lars-Portrait-3-©-Giorgia-Bertazzi

Eduard Tubin‘s Music for Strings was an intriguing choice just after the interval, representing a desire for the festival to showcase the music of Estonia itself. Tubin, who died in 1982, is still under-represented on the stage, but this was the ideal platform from which to appreciate it. Music for Strings is a slightly elusive but compelling piece, resilient and attractively scored. It brings an economical and slightly classical approach, but with forward looking harmonic language. When the bass strings dug in during the passacaglia first movement the furrowed brow of Shostakovich could be glimpsed, yet the upper reaches of the violins felt as though the music was reaching further north. The second movement was more mysterious and questioning, while the finale, an Adagio, featured excellent solo violin playing from the unnamed Estonian Festival Orchestra concertmaster.

The program finished with a suite from Tubin’s 1943 ballet Kratt (The Goblin). Composition for the whole work began in 1938, making use of melodies from the Estonian Folklore Archive in Tartu. Although the Russian occupation of Estonia in 1940 forbade modern music, Kratt passed the sensors on account of its use of traditional themes, and not the way in which they were treated – which has reminiscences of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Tubin constructed the shorter suite in 1961, to a commission from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

The ballet is based around a peasant who builds a magical figure (Kratt) in order to make him rich – but to do this he has to give three drops of blood to the devil. Perhaps not surprisingly the story does not run smoothly, with the peasant – and his soul – meeting a grisly end at the hands of the goblin. Yet the side plot of a love affair on the farm where the peasant lives brings more light hearted material.

Tubin’s music is ideal concert fayre, tuneful and with lively orchestration. Järvi ensured the syncopations of the dance numbers were sharply rendered, bringing through Tubin’s imaginative writing for wind and brass in particular. The final dance scene was the most captivating, with a soulful cor anglais solo leading into the driven rhythms of the Dance of the Exorcists, featuring the added punch of the orchestral piano. The Goat and The Cock were sharply characterised, bringing reminders of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, before snarling brass punctuating the outgoing Dance Of The Northern Lights, a more rustic affair. The brass themselves were completely on point, especially in the final statement, warmly received by the audience.

This was a most enjoyable concert, confirming the warm atmosphere in which this festival operates. It is clear Paavo Järvi and friends are building something special here, and it is to be hoped when restrictions are finally lifted that the chance will arise to experience it in person.

You can watch the concert on the festival’s dedicated TV channel here

Lars Vogt talks about his music making after his cancer diagnosis in February and his ongoing treatment with Kate Molleson on BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters, available on BBC Sounds

For more information on the Pärnu Festival you can visit their website

In concert – Paul Lewis, CBSO / Chloé van Soeterstède: Mozart, Beethoven & Mendelssohn

chloe_conductor

Paul Lewis (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Chloé van Soeterstède (above)

Mozart Don Giovanni K527: Overture (1787)
Beethoven Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major Op.19 (1787-9, rev. 1795)
Mendelssohn Symphony no.5 in D minor Op.107 ‘Reformation’ (1830)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 2 June 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photos from Symphony Hall by Hannah Blake-Fathers

‘Heaven and Hell’ might have been too histrionic a title for this latest concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, yet it indicated the trajectory of a programme featuring Mozart at his most Romantic, Beethoven at his most Classical then Mendelssohn at his most Baroque.

Making her debut with this orchestra, French conductor Chloé van Soeterstède played down the rhetoric in those indelible opening chords of the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni but maintained impetus throughout the deftly modified sonata design as it sets out the tone if not content of what follows. In its theatrical context the music continues directly into the opening scene, but – despite (or even because?) of its emotional terseness – the ‘concert ending’ is by no means un-effective in its propelling the dramatic focus on towards a decisive conclusion.

Paul Lewis then joined the CBSO for Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto – actually, the first in chronological terms and easy to underestimate in terms of its stylistic antecedents. Yet, as Lewis demonstrated in engaging terms, this is only incrementally less then characteristic and such as the close of the first movement’s initial tutti and transition into the reprise could only be by Beethoven. Lewis now feels the composer’s 1809 cadenza involves too great a stylistic disparity, and his own solution is formally and expressively consistent with what went before.

The highlight of this performance was nonetheless the Adagio (probably the earliest music in what was a lengthy gestation), limpid and poetic while never cloying – the closing interplay between soloist and orchestra unerringly well judged. Lewis then set a swift if not headlong tempo for the ensuing Rondo which gave full rein to the music’s bracing vigour but also its deftly ironic asides. Not least those tonal sideslips near the outset of the coda, with pianist and conductor at one in projecting an ebullience right through to the spirited final pay-off.

Good to see Mendelssohn’s Reformation reasserting its place in the repertoire after decades at the periphery. With controversies over a Jewish-born composer commemorating a Protestant anniversary (and quoting the ‘Dresden Amen’ of Catholic liturgy) now consigned to history, the innate power of the initial Allegro can readily be appreciated and not least in so assured a reading as this. Van Soeterstède brought out its inexorable onward motion in full measure, the scherzo providing an ideal foil in its infectious gaiety and the whimsical guile of its trio.

Eloquently rendered as a soulful ‘song without words’, the third movement thus balanced the work’s introduction as a searching contrast to what follows – here, a finale which unfolds as an extended paraphrase on the Lutheran chorale Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, its heady if sometimes overbearing emotional force adroitly channelled toward a fervent apotheosis. The CBSO woodwind made a felicitous contribution, not least Marie-Christine Zupanic with the flute’s gentle intoning of that chorale – Mendelssohn’s devotion to Bach here made manifest.

An auspicious showing for Van Soeterstède, who will hopefully be returning in due course. Next week sees a very different programme of Britten’s Nocturne and Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony, doubly welcome in view of his centenary and its close association with the CBSO.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about the next concert on Wednesday 2 June, click here, and for more on conductor Chloé van Soeterstède you can visit her website