Stephen Hough, composer and pianist with The Prince Consort at Wigmore Hall, Friday 28th October 2016

An evening of music for piano and voice by pianist and polymath Stephen Hough, performed by The Prince Consort, with Hough himself playing in the second half, promised to be something intriguing and special, especially as the programme included the world premiere of Hough’s song cycle Dappled Things, dedicated to John Gilhooly, director of Wigmore Hall.

In setting poetry to music, Hough is working within a fine English song tradition that includes composers such as Purcell, Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Britten, and indeed there were fleeting musical glimpses of these composers within Hough’s works

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(picture: The Economist)

This weekend I headed off to “sarf-east” London for a rather unusual Prom featuring music by American minimalist composer Steve Reich who is 80 this year….

For those of us more used to the highly refined atmosphere of London’s finest chamber music venue, a brutalist concrete lump with low ceilings and unremittingly grey walls cannot possibly be a good place to hear music, whatever the genre. The acoustic should be appalling, a brisk wind slices through the performance space, riffling music, which is pegged to the music stands to stop it blowing away, and the music is regularly interrupted by rattling trains and the sounds of the street below….

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the venue
Multistory Orchestra conducted by Christopher Stark
part of the Derek Jarman garden at the Bold Tendencies multi-storey carpark
leaving the carpark after the concert

Mozart, Piano Sonata in B flat major, K570

Beethoven, Piano Sonata no. 31 in A flat major, Op.110

Haydn, Piano Sonata in D major, Hob XVI:51

Schubert, Piano Sonata no. 20 in A major, D.959

Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 6th April 2016

Sir András Schiff is traversing the final three piano sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in concerts across America and Europe. Twelve sonatas in total are spread across three concerts which celebrate the sonata form, “one of the greatest inventions in Western music” (Schiff), a structure central to the oeuvres of all four composers and a means by which we can observe their development at key stages in their creative lives.

andras-schiff

The triptych of concerts also explores the notion of “late style”. In considering Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, lateness is relative, almost a philosophical construct. Haydn and Beethoven were long-lived (by the standards of their day), while Mozart and Schubert died young. But it is the intensity of their lives and creativity that matters here: for example, in the last year of his life, Schubert’s output was astonishing – the string quartets and Symphony in C major, the ‘Schwanengesang’ song cycle and many other works in addition to the three final piano sonatas.

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The Françoise-Green Duo at St John’s Smith Square, Thursday 31st March 2016

  

The five-concert residency at St John’s Smith Square by the Françoise-Green piano duo is exploring the music of Vienna’s musical landscape through its salon culture, from Mozart and Schubert to Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Vienna’s unique system of private and public patronage allowed composers such as Mozart to present their music to a select audience via the salon. For Schubert, who did not have the kind of patronage and support Mozart enjoyed, nor publishers eagerly clamouring for his music, performances within the privacy of his own circle of friends was the only way his audacious music found a truly receptive audience. This salon culture became even more pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century, when Schoenberg and his cohort broke away from the Vienna Tonkunstlerverein and built their own community for the performance of their music outside of the mainstream where much of their music was premiered through private performance societies. The Françoise-Green Duo pay a special hommage to this by performing new works which they have commissioned especially for their residency.

Music for piano duo is often, and mistakenly, regarded as “light” – music to be enjoyed at home amongst friends, and the enduring popularity of music for piano duo is testament to its appeal, variety and inventiveness. Both Mozart and Schubert wrote fine works for piano 4-hands, including the latter’s Fantasie in f minor, D940, arguably the most profound work ever written for this genre.

This particular concert, the third in the series, revealed the contrasting characters of Vienna, from the elegance and wit of Mozart through Schubert’s bittersweet Allegro in A minor ‘Lebenssturme’, D947, to the decadence and eroticism of fin de siecle Vienna of Alban Berg, reimagined by British composer Kenneth Hesketh in his Die letzten Augenblicken der Lulu, and the world premiere of ‘Fable’, a new work by Colin Alexander which was dedicated to the duo.

The Françoise-Green Duo are notable for their confident and convincing handling of contemporary repertoire – one has the sense of two musicians who actively relish the challenges, both technical and artistic, that this music presents – yet their opening piece, the Sonata in F K497, written at the end of Mozart’s life, proved them at home in more traditionally “classical” repertoire. In this sonata, the two pianists are equal players, sparking off one another, and creating witty dialogues interspersed with rich orchestral textures. In the softer dynamic range, the pianists brought a tenderness which immediately shrank the large space of St John’s Smith Square to an intimate salon.

Kenneth Hesketh’s work is both a redaction of Berg’s ‘Lulu Suite’ focusing on the main material in the suite, but also providing a flashback of Lulu’s life in the immediate moments before her death. Soprano Sarah Gabriel’s performance in this work was dramatic and vulnerable, and the combination of spoken word and vocal line, culminating in a full-throated scream signifying Lulu’s death at the hand of Jack the Ripper, was searing. The piano part created an unsettling undercurrent, increasing in urgency towards the tragic denouement.
After the interval came the world premiere of Colin Alexander’s ‘Fable’, a work which fully utilised the fine acoustic of St John’s Smith Square, the resonance of the Steinway D, and the duo’s technical assuredness. At times, the sounds emanating from the piano recalled bells, bassoons, horns and chanting, which built in intensity to create a hypnotic whole. It put me in mind of Somei Satoh’s mesmeric Incarnation II, which uses the resonance of the piano to similar effect.
It’s all too easy to ascribe a certain mindset or state of health to Schubert’s music: his illness, syphilis, and its disturbing and debilitating treatment and side effects are well-documented. Whatever the composer’s mental state in the final year of his life, there is no doubt that this was a period of fervent, boundary-breaking creativity. The ‘Lebenssturme’ (Life’s Storm – a title assigned by the publisher after Schubert’s death) opens with a dramatic motif of forte (check) chords which gives way to an ethereal second subject, which Antoine Françoise seemed to float across the upper register of the piano. It’s a substantial work whose structure hints that Schubert might have had something longer in mind and which demonstrates fully the breadth and daring of his creativity in the year of his life. 

For an encore, the duo played the opening movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K19d (dropped from the original programme better to accommodate the new works) Written when the composer was still a boy, yet already bright with promise, witty, colourful, and elegantly turned by Robin Green and Antoine Françoise.

‘The Viennese Salon’ continues at St John’s Smith Square on 7 April with a rare opportunity to hear Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 arranged for piano four-hands by Alexander von Zemlinsky together with works by Mozart and the world premiere of a new piece by Alissa Firsova. Further information here

Recommended.

(photo: K Miura)

In a concert celebrating 25 years since his Wigmore Hall debut, Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski presented a programme of music with which he is most at home – works by Bach, Schumann and Szymanowski, with an encore by Janáček. By his own admission, Anderszewski “cannot play just anything” and chooses to perform only those composers he feels a strong urge to play. By the standards of most pianists active today his repertoire might be regarded as “narrow”, but it is this limited focus which results in playing which is both fastidious (without fussiness) and spontaneous, and such spontaneity is clearly the result of a long association with the music coupled with a patient, thoughtful study of it.
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John Foulds – Three Mantras

Olivier Messiaen – TurangalÎla-symphonie

BBC Philharmonic

Juanjo Mena, conductor

A guiding thread of Hindu philosophy ran through Prom 38 which brought together music by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century with one of its neglected non-comformists to create one of the most exciting and uplifting concerts I have attended for some time. Works by Olivier Messiaen and John Foulds combined in a programme of ecstasy and excitement. The piano soloist in Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie was Steven Osborne, acclaimed for his performances and recordings of Messiaen’s piano music. He was joined by Valérie Hartmann-Claverie on the Ondes Martenot, a curious electronic keyboard instrument much used by Messiaen in his music.

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