ECMA showcase – Pacific Quartet Vienna at the Wigmore Hall


Pacific Quartet Vienna (Yuta Takase, Eszter Major (violins), Chin-Ting Huang (viola), Sarah Weilenmann (cello))

Mozart String Quartet in D minor, K421 (1783)

Schumann String Quartet in A major Op.41/3 (1842)

Wigmore Hall; Saturday January 28, 2017

Flying in the face of Brexit, the European Chamber Music Academy is a body established in 2004 by the Alban Berg Quartet founder Hatto Beyerle.

It provides training for flourishing chamber ensembles, and here gave a showcase for the Pacific Quartet of Vienna, a chance for them to play at the hallowed Wigmore Hall for the first time.

There was much to admire. A nicely balanced program of Mozart and Schumann began with one of the six quartets the former composer wrote and dedicated to Haydn. The D minor is the darkest quartet of the six, exploring more oblique harmonies and melodies than the composer normally would. The quartet gave a nicely poised performance, the obdurate and slightly gruff outer movements punctuated by flashes of light. The slow movement was light and beautifully floated, as though they were performing an aria, while the trio section of the stern minuet took the weight away completely, a note of mischief added to the duets between leader Yuta Takase and violist Chin-Ting Huang.

For the Schumann the quartet had a noticeably warmer sound, and they bought joy to one of the composer’s happiest utterances, written in the wake of his marriage to Clara. The lyrical first movement and romantic third were affectionately played, Huang giving maximum expression to the melodies. The scherzo was fun but eventually paled in the shadow of the finale, which gets obsessed with a ten note motif to the point of distraction. Here it cropped up with amusing regularity, the intervening sections deliberately contrasted with it so that it felt like home.

This was an impressive first Wigmore outing for the quartet, who clearly enjoyed the experience and the music they brought with them. I would wager it won’t be the last!

You can read more about forthcoming ECMA events at their website, while further information about the Pacific Quartet Vienna can be found by clicking here

Oberon Symphony Orchestra : Mahler Symphony 4 with Anousheh Bromfield


Anousheh Bromfield (soprano), Oberon Symphony Orchestra / Samuel Draper (above)

St James’s, Sussex Gardens, London. Saturday 21st January, 2017

Mozart Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!, K418 (1783); Ah sie in ciel, benigne stele, K538 (1788); Nehmt meinen Dank, K383 (1782)

Mahler Symphony No.4 in G (1892; 1899-1900)

L-R Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791); Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The Oberon Symphony Orchestra continued its season with this pertinent juxtaposition of Mozart and Mahler. The second half was devoted to the latter composer’s Fourth Symphony, in a performance that brought out a great deal of its ethereal rapture as also its oblique irony.

Opting for a steady though never sluggish underlying tempo for the first movement, Samuel Draper (below) made much of this music’s constant eliding between affection and agitation; the latter quality to the fore during a development that built stealthily and incrementally toward its (in context) visceral climax, with the ensuing textural fragmentation then resumption of the main theme in media res tellingly done. Nor was there any lack of eloquence in the Oberon strings’ response to the blissful final pages, before a heady accelerando into the resolute closing bars.

The second movement upped the ironic ante accordingly. Draper knitted together its sardonic scherzo and ruminative trio sections with no mean subtlety, while also emphasizing the aura of malevolence – this latter abetted by leader Matt Bain’s adept switching between violins as tuned normally as well as a tone higher. No less pleasing was Draper’s unaffected approach to portamento – an expressive device only belatedly reintroduced but that, when handled so unobtrusively, adds greatly to the cohesion of this music whatever its emotional disjuncture.

If the adagio was marginally less well integrated in terms of its overall follow-through, there was little doubt as to the poise of Draper’s conception across these variations on contrasted themes in what is arguably Mahler’s most Beethovenian movement. If the slowly emerging angst seemed overtly reined-in, moreover, the breath-taking sense of the coda opening-out onto new expressive vistas was palpably conveyed; the music that follows evincing a highly personal take on the essence of serenity which was – and has remained – unique to Mahler.

Following on (rightly) attacca, the finale needs to lighten the prevailing mood without that unworldliness seeming trivial. In which respect this account succeeded admirably, whatever the occasional failings in ensemble. It helped to have a soloist who, in Anousheh Bromfield, had the measure of the vocal writing’s pert insouciance and often edgy naivete. The lengthy orchestral introduction into the final verse had an ideal lilting motion, with the closing bars not so much tapering-off into nothingness as making toward a point of unwavering stillness.

samuel-draperBefore the interval, Bromfield joined the orchestra for a selection of Mozart concert arias     as complementary as it was unexpected. There was no want of technical finesse in Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! or Ah sie in ciel, benigne stele, though the greatest delights came with a rare outing for Nehmt meinen Dank which incidentally pointed up the unfettered melodic appeal common to Mozart’s settings in German. In each of these pieces, moreover, Draper and his players provided accompaniment of a poise and elegance necessary for this music.

Overall, another fine showing for the Oberon Symphony Orchestra – which returns on April 29th with a further notable first: the UK premiere of Enescu’s Fourth Symphony as realized by the late Pascal Bentoiu, together with shorter orchestral pieces from Bartók and Schubert.

Further information at the Oberon Symphony Orchestra website

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Annie Turner on the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
annie-turnerThis is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Annie Turner (above) gives her thoughts on Prom 62.

Baiba Skride (violin), Siobhan Stagg (soprano), Christopher Maltman (baritone) BBC Symphony Orchestra / Siobhan Young

Bayan Northcott Concerto for Orchestra (2014-2016, world premiere); Mozart Violin Concerto no.5 (1775); Zemlinsky Lyric Symphony (1922-23)

You can listen on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Annie, what was your musical upbringing?

I was born in 1980 and so my earliest musical memories would be Vangelis, Dire Straits, Phil Collins and stuff like that, so I’m very fond of that music in a sentimental way. I was really interested in playing music, and I remember when I was about seven or eight I was absolutely desperate to learn the recorder, as the older kids in school were playing them. My mum asked the teachers but they said I was too young, and I had to wait until I was nine!

I learned recorder and got to play in the school concerts, but after that you pick up another instrument, so I did keyboard. I went to a country school in Australia, so there wasn’t a big music program. I learned piano for a while but struggled with the music because I didn’t find it interesting! It was classical, and it was a bit boring for me as a kid, but I really loved listening to music and working out the fidelity for myself. My dad was really into Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I used to work out bits of melody from Phantom of the Opera and Cats.

Then I stopped and didn’t pick it up again until high school when I was interested in bands. I got interested in grunge and wanted to play it, so I got into drums and guitar lessons, and really loved that. By the time I was that age I got really shy and didn’t want to play in front of anybody, so I was a bedroom musician. I still kept studying music at school though, and then when I graduated from high school I really wanted to play in a band.

I moved to Melbourne to go to university, and it was my dream to play in a band, so I just had to get over my stage fright! I joined any band that would have me…and I’ve played in some terrible bands and some awesome bands, but I mostly ended up playing drums in all of them, so I dropped the guitar. I played in a heavy metal band, a punk band and an experimental bands, a few jam bands. I did that for a few years, and we recorded and toured which was great. Then I moved to London and didn’t do it again, because London was a bit too big and intimidating and it was hard to have the resources. So that was my musical upbringing!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

There is a Norwegian black metal band called Satyricon, which I love, and I love them because I find their music is well written, well-constructed, engaging, it’s very melodic, atmospheric, it’s quite dark as well which I find when you’re in that mood. It’s frenetic, there’s a lot of energy to it, and I find it really interesting.

I don’t find I listen to acts any more, I listen to songs rather than acts…but I actually love Calvin Harris! I’ve followed his career, and I don’t love everything that he’s done, but I really love the fact he’s a pop purist. He writes and produces but he does it very well in a purely pop way but I think he respects that genre. He does quality work and it’s such good, good pop I think it’s genius – the construction, the way he has that mix of happiness and sadness in one song. Pop music you have to capture the kind of strategy of teen romance, which is kind of ‘gaggy’ but at the same time it’s got drama, some of it’s got humour, and I just think he’s excellent and very intelligent pop auteur.

For the third I would have to say I love Nirvana really, because that was the band I really got into in depth, because it was rebellious, artistic, subversive, but also even though it was very aesthetically abrasive it was pop music right down the line in the middle. It got me very interested in playing music as well as listening to music, and as well it had more implications for popular music. I was very obsessed with that band for a good five years!

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I’m generally familiar with the big hits because you hear them on TV, and on adverts, and there are definitely pieces I’ve come to know and like, but other than that it’s really through watching films. I did a degree in film theory, and studied lots of films, but didn’t really study the music on the film.

I guess also there was a time when I would tune the radio to Classic FM because I didn’t want anybody to sing at me, I didn’t want to hear any words! I wanted something I knew would be relatively calm and peaceful. I know it’s not always like that though, and that classical music can be tumultuous! I was seeking something that would be a bit more calming I suppose. I remember I did buy an iTunes album of the greatest hits of the classics, but I didn’t really follow it any further than that.

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I really enjoyed it. I had no expectation, and I guess I thought I might have got bored because if I didn’t know the music I might not follow it. I was surprised that I really did find myself getting enthralled, so I rated it to the point where I would definitely come back on my own. I would like to investigate it more, ask for tips, you know?

I like the opera Carmen, but any other opera I don’t like, because sometimes it sounds to me like yelling. I know you could say I listen to death metal, and that’s shrieking, but you know, it’s just yelling! The vocal music we just saw I didn’t think about it that way, I heard the music and looked at their faces, saw that emotion, and it felt a bit like I was watching a play. I think I might be coming around to being converted!

What did you think of the Bayan Northcott Concerto for Orchestra, the first piece?

That started off really avant-garde, and more modern, and I guess that surprised me in how it developed. It developed very smoothly into something that was a bit more formulaic in a classical sense. I had to remind myself that I didn’t really know what was going on, and the transitions I enjoyed. I felt that one took you on a bit of a journey that was quite surprising. I particularly liked the dynamics where you could hear something that was really loud, layered and reverberant, and then you could get something that was really quiet and minimal on one instrument. I enjoyed the delicacy of the sound, because when you see a band or a DJ you don’t get that, you just get ‘loud’ or ‘off’!

What did you think of the Mozart?

I thought I recognised it from having heard it before. I really liked it, and having someone palying solo you can focus in on it and follow their emotion, which was new and interesting, and I thought it was interesting too how the orchestra seemed to be all on the same level.

Normally you go to see a band and you think I’m seeing my idols, or seeing this famous person, and the people who created the music. They’re in a higher hierarchy so to speak. With the orchestra I had this sense that they’re just normal people, serving the music and all enjoying it. I liked it when it wasn’t about the composer, the rock star, and not about the conductor – they’re not facing us, they’re just delivering it. I really liked that sense of the music being the star. That was a new experience, you could see a different perspective even in the formalities of ‘now it’s my tern to stand up and play’, the ritual of it. It was really touching, and I think classical music might tend to have this image of being a little bit posh, a little bit fancy, but actually these people are not royalty, they’re working for the music. There wasn’t any grandiosity, it was very humble.

And the Zemlinsky?

That was probably my favourite. I was a bit apprehensive because it was like opera, and I’ve not really liked opera before, plus it sounded like it was in German. I don’t speak German, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be a language that would lend itself to singing! But OK, I was really surprised. I stopped thinking about the music. My mind did keep wandering and I was thinking about my own life, and I don’t know if the music was really influencing that or not, but it wasn’t like I was standing there going oh, that was a great bit of trombone, I was thinking about my own life! I was thinking about what was going on in my life.

I’ve recently started doing meditation, and know that it’s good to be present and mindful, so I did start to drag myself back and focus on the sounds and what was going on. It was good, though I did feel like it was a soundtrack to my thoughts. There was a lot of percussion and I really liked the textures of the drums, how deep that sound is, and I think there was a lot of melancholy and ‘blue’ notes. I like that darker sound, I guess that might be a bit of a cliché, but the sadder stuff probably says more to me than the jolly little dances I suppose!

I deliberately didn’t research the program, so think I will read that on the bus home which will be really interesting, to see what was in the text!

Would you go again?

I would. It would be amazing to see a piece I was already familiar with and really liked, so next year I can find out which composers I like more and make a plan to see more of them. At the same time I would also select something at random – something familiar and something new – and see how that works!

Verdict: SUCCESS


BBC Proms 2016 – Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, Mozart & Northcott world premiere – Baiba Skride, Simone Young & BBC SO


Soloists Christopher Maltman and Siobhan Stagg take the applause with conductor Simone Young and the BBC Symphony Orchestra after their performance of Zemlinsky‘s Lyric Symphony (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 62; Royal Albert Hall, 31 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Every festival has its ‘down’ periods – and here it was the turn of the Proms. Don’t stop reading there though, as by ‘down’ period I mean a Royal Albert Hall that was perhaps half full and music that was relatively unknown. The combination can on occasion lead to an unsatisfactory evening, but here it was a heartening opposite.

It was good to note a rare UK appearance for the Australian conductor Simone Young, her first at the Proms. Young is predominantly an opera specialist, so it was perhaps inevitable that Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony of 1923 should bring out the very best in her brief relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

This powerful, passionate account got off to the best possible start, assertively bringing Zemlinsky’s themes of doomed love to the front of the layered texture and packing the music with drama. Here Young was helped by the woodwind and brass, horn player Nicholas Korth in particular, though when singers Christopher Maltman and Siobhan Stagg got into action theirs was the defining contribution.

Baritone Maltman’s silky contribution was brilliantly judged, an ideal complement to Stagg’s soaring soprano, though the biggest notes on her part were saved for the particularly anguished lines in the poems of Rabindranath Tagore. When she began Stratt was a little coy, beautifully so, for this got the audience on to her side and meant we all felt her tragedy in Vollende denn das letzte Lied (Then finish the last song). Maltman it was who ended the symphony, striving for peace, which Young ultimately found in the beautifully floated coda.

The performance was the shade to the light of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no.5. This did receive a slightly heavy performance in comparison to others, but the strings of the BBC SO were beautifully graceful in the slow movement and accommodating to soloist Baiba Skride (below, with the orchestra) in the outer fast movements.


Skride’s violin makes a beautiful sound, and it was a feature of her performance that the notes were floated towards the audience, respectful of the orchestral accompaniment but making the most of Mozart’s melodic inspiration. The choice of cadenzas by Brahms’s contemporary Joseph Joachim was a little risky but the virtuosic passages were sensitively handled, while in the finale, the so-called ‘Turkish’ part of the concerto that actually sounds more Hungarian, there was a pleasing rustic feel, as though we had all been ushered outdoors together. As a footnote to this, Skride chose a movement from a sonata by the eighteenth century composer Johann Paul von Westhoff as her encore.

First up on the program was a world premiere, Bayan Northcott’s Concerto for Orchestra. It is great to have so many in the Proms season, with the unfortunate caveat that not many of these pieces get a second hearing. This one was a premiere in two respects, being Northcott’s first work for orchestra alone. At the age of 76 that is an impressive achievement, and his care over the composition could be sensed in a compressed piece that was full of incident. Debts to 20th century composers such as Hindemith were occasionally felt, but the enthusiasm of the two fast movements drove the music forward, speaking in tunes but also impressing the ear with their instrumental textures too.

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Ensemble Marsyas and Kristian Bezuidenhout

Ensemble Marsyas, Kristian Bezuidenhout (left)

Ensemble Marsyas (Josep Domènech Lafont (oboe), Nicola Boud (clarinet), Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Peter Whelan (bassoon), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)

Wigmore Hall, London, 11 July 2016

written by Ben Hogwood

Audio (open in a new window)

Available until 10 August

What’s the music?

Mozart Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major, K451 (1784) (23 minutes)

Beethoven Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major, Op.16 (1796) (24 minutes)


Kristian Bezuidenhout and the Ensemble Marsyas have not recorded this music, but in case the broadcast link does not work the Spotify playlist below gives alternative versions from pianist Stephen Hough and the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet, available on BIS:

About the music

Mozart held his quintet in extremely high regard in comparison with the rest of his output. Its first performance was part of a marathon concert that also featured the Linz and Haffner symphonies, but all the composer could talk about was his satisfaction with the new quintet. It does mark something of a departure, being the first work for the combination of piano and wind quartet, and the writing for both is superb.

In some of his early works Beethoven was consciously using instrumental combinations already mastered by Mozart, and applying his own stamp to them. The early string trios, piano trios and this quintet for piano and wind are all examples. Typically he does things his way in all of them, and in the quintet the piano really does take the lead, perhaps betraying the fact that Beethoven was about to publish his first two piano concertos.

It is an ambitious work, with a particularly sizeable first movement, and in the second Beethoven allows each of the wind instruments a chance to shine in a solo capacity.

Performance verdict

There is something about the sonic combination of piano and wind that is enormously comforting, either as late night / early morning listening or in a concert experience. To say it was invented by Mozart may be stretching things a little far, but it is seemingly the earliest work to put the combined forces together, followed by Beethoven in his early ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ mode.

The two make a good concert coupling, especially when the performances are as good as these. Kristian Bezuidenhout is a musician who easily dispels the fears among some concert goers that the fortepiano is a tinny instrument of little sound quality. He gets his phrases to really sing, especially in quiet moments, and throughout the more graceful parts of both pieces he played several melting passages of music.

The wind players were every bit as good, led more obviously in the Mozart by oboist dfgd or in the Beethoven by the bright timbre of clarinettist Nicola Loud. Alec Frank-Gemmill wrestled manfully with the difficulties of natural horn to produce a lovely sound, while on occasion the bassoon of Peter Whelan had a timbre resembling a baritone saxophone. When all four played together it was a beautiful sound, sometimes rough around the edges in a most appealing way, reminding us that there is such a thing as over-polished performance!

One of the most enjoyable Wigmore concerts of the 2015-16 season, closing the series with a flourish and well worth hearing. As a postscript, it is worth noting Ensemble Marsyas were formed as a result of relationships formed in the European Union Baroque Orchestra. Would such a thing be possible after the UK leaves the union? Very unlikely!

What should I listen out for?


2:02 – a slow introduction, where the tonality of E flat is established – but where the sonorities of the wind instruments are also made clear, as though Mozart were introducing the new idea to his audience. Then at 4:08 we hear the start of the allegro, introduced by the piano then passed over to the winds. This is a genial piece of music, like listening to a conversation between musical friends, and Mozart develops his ideas comprehensively, a good example occurring at 8:44.

12:05 the slow movement, a beautifully restrained introduction followed by solos for clarinet, oboe and then horn, Mozart giving each of the treble instruments their chance to shine. The fortepiano – reclaiming melody at 13:28 – is very much part of the ensemble. The horn gets a bigger solo at 16:08, part of a central section deeper on feeling.

19:37 – the fortepiano begins the finale with a detached and relatively simple theme that gains more colour when the woodwind repeat it. This tune becomes more of an earworm as the piece progresses.


28:15 – a subdued fanfare signals the beginning of the quintet from the wind, answered by a profound statement on the piano. This is a slow introduction, and a grand one at that, before the fast movement proper gets underway at 30:51, with some lively exchanges between the instruments and a number of tricky runs on the piano.

41:02 – a gentle start to the first movement, the fortepiano playing a figure that sounds like a lullaby. The sonorous tones of the wind instruments are soon in play with the same material, before solos from all four. The piano returns to the lullaby material at 45:12.

47:17 – the finale starts with a tune on the piano that you know is going to be whistled by the end of the concert! It is a perky and optimistic melody, often assigned to the bright clarinet timbre. When piecked up by the wind its dance character comes through, and for the rest of the movement it is developed and repeated.

Further listening

Not too long after the pieces in this concert were composed and performed, Rossini wrote six sonatas for string ensemble, published in 1804. Around twenty years later, Frédéric Berr thought these would be suitable when arranged for wind quartet – and so it proved. They make a very enjoyable hour’s music, making absolutely no demands on the listener!