The Belcea Quartet at the Wigmore Hall: Breathing New Life?

Ludvig van Beethoven String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 18 No. 6
Thomas Larcher ‘Lucid Dreams’ String Quartet No. 4
Johannes Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34

The Belcea Quartet
Till Fellner (piano)

Positioned between two giants of the chamber music repertoire – Beethoven and Brahms – sat a new piece by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher. Balancing these works wasn’t easy for the Belcea Quartet at their concert at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday night. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the difficulty wasn’t so much in bringing enthusiasm to a work that is new and unfamiliar, bur rather ensuring that the other pieces didn’t sound dead in comparison.

This season, the Belcea Quartet is celebrating 20 years of playing together, so it is unsurprising that their ensemble playing is meticulous. The evening opened with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 18 No. 6. The set of six quartets that constitute Beethoven’s Op. 18 were his first efforts in the genre, and they cannot match up to the emotional intensity of his late masterpieces in the genre. The work still provided the Belceas an opportunity to display their excellent ensemble playing: even the subtle decrease in dynamics that phrased off the pizzicato close of the second slow movement was done in complete accordance. The sparser moments in the movement also allowed for the individual parts to be heard, and we were treated to Krzysztof Chorzelski’s lovely lament on the viola. Meanwhile, Corina Belcea on the first violin sung serenely above the ensemble, although she could at times sound a little jagged, as if she were pushing a little too hard to project. The Belecea nevertheless attained the right energy for the third movement’s Scherzo, switching from a swift dance on their tip-toes, to still fast heavy stamps.

Beethoven instructs players in the final movement that ‘this piece must be treated with the utmost delicacy’. Unconventionally for a final movement, it begins with a slow, and sensitively expressive introduction. Given the care that Beethoven took to give these instructions, the Belceas could have done a better job of maintaining his dynamic instruction too: sempre pianissimo – always very quiet. The Belceas played gently, but the audience should have been straining to hear them, it should have been a whisper.

The UK premier of Thomas Larcher’s ‘Lucid Dreams’ String Quartet No. 4 followed. The quartet’s title refers to the moment when you’re on threshold of consciousness. and you’re aware you’re dreaming and can influence the dream’s events. Whether or not anyone felt this upon listening (I can’t say I did) Larcher’s new piece and the Belcea’s performance of it was hugely engaging. The work opened with scratchy and chaotic repeated notes that the Belceas made electrifying, especially when contrasted with more melodic held notes. The second slow movement’s melody had an innocently simple tunefulness, but the out of sync cello gave this supposed sweetness an underlying eeriness. Larcher has excelled at composing a piece that twists and writhes unpredictably yet remains absorbing. The piece is sometimes relentlessly repetitive – such as the gradual speeding up of repeated notes that occurs in the third movement for huge dramatic effect – which both works to provide considerable drama but also coherence.

The Austrian pianist Till Fellner joined the Belceas for the final work: Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34. It is a heavy work, with the piano giving added thickness and monumentality. Fellner did a good job of blending into an ensemble that is far more familiar with each other than he is with them. They came together for some ferocious playing, especially for the return of the main theme in the first movement. However, Fellner had some difficulty in imitating the strings’ delicacy in the second movement. Whilst Fellner and the Belceas appeared to be playing with much rigour, this somehow did not translate into the sound they produced. The music felt like it was dragging, and – especially after following after Larcher’s piece – they had difficulty breathing life into the work.

A final farewell: The Hilliard Ensemble at the Wigmore Hall

Pérotin Viderunt omnes
Piers Hellawell True beautie – Saphire
Arvo Pärt And One of the Pharisees…
Roger Marsh Death of Yorick
Sheryngham Ah, gentle Jesu
Arvo Pärt Most Holy Mother of God
Anonymous There is no rose
Anonymous Marvel not Joseph
Anonymous Lullay, lullow
15th-century English carol Ecce quod natura
Heiner Goebbels Excursion into the Mountains

The Hilliard Ensemble

The Hilliard Ensemble has been together for forty years, making their final farewell concert at London’s Wigmore Hall something of a momentous occasion. Though its members have changed over the years, this all-male vocal quartet have remained champions of both early music and works  by living composers throughout their extensive performing career.

The Hilliard Ensemble Photo: Marco Borggreve

The Hilliard Ensemble. Photo: Marco Borggreve

The programming for Saturday night’s concert reflected this, ranging from the earliest surviving music to contemporary pieces. The evening opened with Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes, which, according to the programme notes, is the first four-voice work (though omitting to say that it is the first known surviving four-voice work is rather misleading). The work is highly melismatic, meaning that many notes can be written for a single syllable. The first syllable, for example, ‘vi’ lasts for eighteen bars. The Hilliards were in no rush to get through the words and indulged in their own sound.

Their sound is certainly distinctive. In their pre-concert talk, the Hilliards explained that they never aimed for a ‘Hilliard sound’. They were, however, the first professional group to sing with minimal vibrato. What is most astonishing is that though each voice maintains its own strange eccentricities, they still blend as an ensemble.

It would be easy for the Hilliards to get carried away with their sound and pay little attention to the words they are singing. Yet when a greater subservience to the text was required, they were eager to bring out the narrative. It was the story in Roger Marsh’s Death of Yorick, and the dialogue between Jesus and the sinner in Sheryngham’s Ah, gentle Jesu that was most important. As old cathedral choir singers, the Hilliards have tended to avoid dramatic works. But their performance of Excursion into the Mountains, an extract from Heiner Goebbels’ music drama I went to the house but did not enter, offered a glimpse of what might have been if the Hilliards had taken another direction. They sung from memory (something they admitted they rarely do) and enjoyed the more direct contact with the audience.

The concert would not have been complete without Arvo Pärt. The Hilliards have been long-standing collaborators with the Estonian composer who is known for his stripped-down, minimalist music. Pärt’s music may be simple, but the Hilliards were wonderfully resonant in And One of the Pharisees… with some incredibly low notes from baritone Gordon Jones. Dissonances added colour and were satisfyingly jarring. Most Holy Mother of God consists of a plea to Mary to ‘save us’, repeated eighteen times, from which the Hilliards drew considerable variety from. Though there were changes in dynamic, these were kept subtle and were never overdone. In this prayer to the mother of God it was not the Hilliards nor Pärt’s music, but Mary who was the focus.

A single final farewell concert can hardly do justice to a prolific career spanning forty years. Though it was a momentous occasion, the concert itself was not. The Hilliards are not suited to nostalgia. They are at their best when working with composers, or thinking of interesting way of performing very old repertoire, rather than reminiscing on their past achievements. The audience were nevertheless were rapturous. And so they should be, for this was their final chance to celebrate those very achievements.

Dazzling and Daring: Vilde Frang at the Wigmore Hall

Edvard Grieg Violin Sonata No. 1 in F, Op. 8
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Violin Sonata in E-flat, K. 481
Witold Lutosłowski Partita for violin and piano
Richard Strauss Violin Sonata in E-flat, Op. 18

Vilde Frang violin
Michail Lifits piano

For Vilde Frang, maintaining her identity is of utmost importance. So instead of the expected solo Bach works or sonatas by Brahms or Franck, at last night’s concert at the Wigmore Hall audiences were greeted by Grieg, Lutosłowski, and Richard Strauss (Schubert’s Fantasia in C was also programmed, though this was replaced last minute by Mozart).

Picture: Sonja Werner

Picture: Sonja Werner

None of these composers are strangers to the standard concert repertory, but the works on last night’s programme are less familiar. Grieg’s First Violin Sonata is often neglected in favour of the more dramatic No. 3 in C minor, and Lutosłowski’s Partita for violin and piano is overshadowed by its orchestration. Similarly, Strauss’ chamber works are outshone by his massive works for orchestra. Frang, then, is not a performer to rely on easy crowd-pleasers.

Nor does Frang need to be too concerned with losing her identity. Her sound has a soulful resonance that I suspect can only be innate. This she used to her advantage, particularly in the sonatas by Grieg and Strauss, which are packed with powerful melodies. Her best moments were when she was given full reign, when there was nothing preventing her sound from shining.

Frang’s sound is her own, and, at last night’s concert, so was her stage personae. There is a fine line between being reserved or removed, and unfortunately Frang’s stage presence meant she came closer to the latter. When she was not playing, rather than appearing engaged she would stare vacantly outwards. Was she lost in her own thoughts or wishing she were somewhere else? Either way, the resulting effect was not one of intimacy. Instead it gave the impression that the audience’s presence was unwelcome.

Frang’s indifference towards her audience was sometimes reflected in her playing. Her dazzling sound and immaculate ability were givens, but a considered performance was not. In the second movement of Grieg’s Sonata, she failed to make the music sound fresh. The final movement was taken as such a speed, which, though impressive, meant that the music was treated as something only to get through instead of something with meaning. And what I suspect was meant to be a playful exchange of extremes between light and heavy in the final movement of Mozart’s Sonata lacked any sense of humour.

Lutosławski’s Partita for violin and piano saved the evening. There was simply no time for Frang to be anything but engaged. The work is in five movements. The second and fourth are aleotory interludes, meaning that there is an element of chance left up to the performers. This forced Frang and pianist Michail Lifits to pay attention to what they were playing. But they were compelling in the other movements too. Lutosławski’s Partita is drastic and frequently violent, and Lifits enjoyed emphasising the percussive harshness of his instrument. Meanwhile Frang was ferocious. She wrung out all the drama from the third movement’s held notes and her high passage in the fifth movement was chilling in its implausible sweetness.

There is little danger of Frang losing her identity. Her personality is so big that it threatens to stand in the way of the music. But perhaps this is not an entirely bad thing. Frang certainly injected her personality into the performance. And whilst I did not warm to her impersonal and distant approach, she can at least claim that this performance was her own.

An artist unwilling to compromise

Tomorrow I will be reviewing Vilde Frang at the Wigmore Hall. Performing Grieg, Schubert, Lutoslawski and Richard Strauss, Frang has not exactly assembled a programme of crowd-pleasers. But this is not out of character for Frang. Her second album included violin sonatas by Bartok, Grieg and Richard Strauss, which Frang herself described it as “not exactly what you’d put under the Christmas tree”

Frang is an artist that is unwilling to make compromises, both in terms of her programming and how she is marketed. Kate Molleson’s interview with the violinist was written in April earlier this year, but still gives an interesting insight into what makes this violinist tick.

Photo: Niclas Jessen

Photo: Niclas Jessen

Joy and Lament: the Endellion Quartet at the Wigmore Hall

Joseph Haydn String Quartet in E flat, Op. 64 No. 6
Franz Schubert String Quartet in A minor, D.804 (‘Rosamunde’)
Felix Mendelssohn String Quartet in D, Op. 44 No. 1

The Endellion Quartet sound like an ensemble that have been together for 35 years. For Saturday night’s concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, it was not only that they played together precisely. Their endearing warmth of sound as all four voices blended distinguished them from younger (and even some older) quartets.

Photo: Eric Richmond

Photo: Eric Richmond

It was this sound that instantly lifted the audience as the Endellion Quartet opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in E flat, Op. 64 No. 6. Haydn wrote around 90 quartets, and this is not one of his best known. Nevertheless, the Endellion Quartet were eager display Haydn’s ingenuity as father of the genre.

Watching the players converse was particularly enjoyable. During the first movement, cellist David Waterman and violist Garfield Jackson brought out their interactions, sounding as individual voices even whilst accompanying. After a joyous finale, Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor, D.804 (‘Rosamunde’) presented a change in mood. Schubert composed the work a year after being diagnosed with syphilis, and his awareness of his own mortality finds expression in the desolate ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet. The entrance of Watkinson’s melody on the violin was distinctive, perhaps harsh. But this was necessary for a melody that should not only show Schubert as the master of song, but also be full of pained lament. The players of the Endellion Quartet were attentive. At different points, both second violinist Ralph de Souza and Jackson on the viola could slip in easily alongside Watkinson. And though the cello’s rich sound comes to the foreground in the third movement, Waterman could effortlessly shift from leading to accompanying.

Watkinson nevertheless took the lead for most of the evening. Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D, Op. 44 No. 1 has similarities with his earlier Octet for strings. They both contain utterly joyful melodies and require virtuosic brilliance from the first violist. Watkinson’s playing was dynamic, given a boost by the lower strings brimming with buzzing energy. Indeed, he could hardly contain himself, his enthusiasm occasionally resulted in a few scuffed notes (though these hardly mattered).

The Endellion Quartet were at their most dazzling during moments of high intensity, when all the players had individual parts that somehow fitted together into a thrillingly complex but coherent whole. Mendelssohn was a master of this kind of writing, which he used for terrific effect at his quartet’s climax. Seized here by the Endellion Quartet, they came together for a culmination that was staggering in joy it unleashed.

A single purpose: the Takács Quartet at the Wigmore Hall

Ludwig van Beethoven String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart String Quintet in G minor, K516

Takács Quartet
Louise Williams
viola

For their return to the Wigmore Hall, the Takács Quartet were not afraid of tackling two towering works of the chamber music repertoire. There might have been a degree of uncertainty over whether other ensembles would be capable of pulling off such monumental works. But having played together since 1975 (though admittedly in various different line-ups), there is cohesion in the Takács Quartet’s playing that few can rival.

Takacs QuartetThis unity between players is crucial for Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130 – a work representative of the composer’s late style. Written in six movements (instead of the normal four), Beethoven creates a deliberate sense of dissociation. Not just between movements but also within the movements themselves. In the first movement, for example, the melodies are brief, prevented from ever developing into a fully-fledged tune. The frequent switch between adagio and allegro (slow and fast) adds to its fragmentary nature.

Op. 130 is a fluid work, and it would be easy for an ensemble to lose their way. Yet the Takács Quartet played with a single purpose. Most impressive was their ability to change mood in sync with each other, a rare skill requiring far more subtlety and than playing the right notes together at the right time.

I was slightly disappointed on finding that the Takács Quartet were not going to play the original Große Fugue that Beethoven wrote to conclude the work. This monumental movement was replaced by a newly composed finale at the bequest of Beethoven’s publishers who found the fugue too complex. Though its replacement is more delicate, the Takács Quartet proved that it too has moments of extremes. For in his replacement finale Beethoven did not abandon the fugue completely. He inserts an extended fugal passage in the movement’s central section. The Takács treated this to their full power, proving that this replacement movement can be ferocious too.

Working as a single entity did not mean that the voices in Takács Quartet merged completely. Moments given to the middle texture were cherished, including Geraldine Walther’s glimpse of melody in the viola part during Op. 130’s third movement. And with the added viola in Mozart’s Quintet in G minor, K516, the middle texture was further emphasised. This added resonance was appreciated in the Quintet’s slow movement. Opening with warm, soft chords, the pure pleasure of the Takács’ sound gripped the audience.

The Wigmore Hall will attract many high-flying artists. But with their Associate Artists, the Takács Quartet, we might already have seen the highlight of the 2014-15 season.

The Bennewitz Quartet at the Wigmore Hall

Although the group have been together since 1998, there was still an air of boyish freshness as the Bennewtiz Quartet arrived on stage. Nevertheless, with a first half of challenging Viennese music, this Czech ensemble revealed themselves as a Quartet wanting to undertake serious repertoire that takes them outside of their comfort zone. This, unfortunately, was all too clear in their uneasy performance of Schubert, which did not succeed in mediating between its different emotions. However, a highly expressive performance of Webern demonstrated that the Quartet could do justice to another Viennese master, before their joyous return to their countryman Dvořák.

View the rest of this article by clicking on this link: http://bachtrack.com/review-dec-2013-bennewitz-quartet-wigmore-hall?destination=%2Ffind-reviews

One man and his cello: Pieter Wispelwey plays Britten Cello Suites

Monday night’s concert at Wigmore Hall was truly a one-man show. And it was going to take quite the soloist to confront these technically challenging and unforgivably exposing solo cello works. While Britten’s Cello Suites were composed less than 50 years ago, they also look back to J.S. Bach’s originals. Thus, Pieter Wispelwey’s equal understanding of both modern and Baroque music (his repertoire spans from J.S. Bach to Elliott Carter) puts him in a good position for a performance that looks forward as well as back.

Read the rest of the review on the Bachtrack website:

http://bachtrack.com/review-dec-2013-wigmore-wispelwey-britten?destination=%2Ffind-reviews%2Fcategory%3D1

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