by Ruby Hughes April 3rd, 2018

Who was Giulia Frasi?

Ruby Hughes’s recent Chandos debut CD, Handel’s Last Prima Donna – Giulia Frasi in London, recorded with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Laurence Commings made possible through her BBT Award 2014, also inspired her piece for The Arts Desk website, reprinted here with permission.

Who was Giulia Frasi? This is so often the response I get when I mention the name of this Italian singer who came to London and became Handel’s last prima donna during the final decade of his life and, consequently, the supreme soprano of English music in the mid-18th century. Over the last five years or so, as I explored the music she inspired and performed, Frasi has become my own muse in a way. Music of the Baroque defines where my musical roots lie and has always been central to my repertoire. Some of my happiest memories are of performing music from this era.

It was when I was researching some of my favourite Handel heroines that I discovered most of them had been composed for Giulia Frasi. I found myself especially drawn to the empathetic temperament and lyrical ease of the vocal writing embodied in roles such as Susanna, Theodora and Iphis. There is also a depth of expression and “realness” in the characterisation of these women which was hugely refreshing to perform. I can imagine these roles may well have subverted the norm at a time when women did not enjoy rights equal to those of men. With the help and support of musicologist and historian David Vickers, I started investigating the music and roles Handel wrote for Frasi and soon discovered that during her 31-year career, she led a culturally diverse life, performed in many different musical settings (including regular concerts at Oxford and the Three Choirs Festival outside of London) and inspired a range of composers and operatic producers beyond Handel.

Reputedly trained in Milan and having made her operatic debut at Lodi (1740), Frasi came to Britain to join Lord Middlesex’s Italian opera company in autumn 1742 – not long after Handel had decided to stop composing and performing operas on the London stage. Frasi participated in at least 14 opera seasons at the King’s Theatre on the Haymarket between November 1742 and 1761 and rose through the ranks from minor to major roles in their productions. She was noted especially for her sweet and clear voice and her excellent English language diction.  In 1743 Frasi also began her long association with the annual charity concerts in aid of the “Fund for Decay’d Musicians or Their Families” (which later became the Royal Society of Musicians) and it was at these events that she began to enlarge her repertoire with some of Handel’s English music. Handel first recruited her for the revival of Judas Maccabaeus (March 1748) – and that was the beginning of their association and when her star really began to rise. She sang in all of the Covent Garden oratorio concerts that Handel gave for the remainder of his life.

One of Frasi’s characteristics that especially appealed to Handel was her ability to convey musical pathos. His admiration for this dramatic quality is evident in the roles he created for her: emotional journeys with vivid scenes of sentimental and spiritual drama that depict women reacting to distressing events with courage, dignity and selflessness are the trend. Just think of those noble heroines in Jephtha and Solomon, for example, with their moral stoicism.

On delving more deeply into the archives we discovered other long-forgotten compositions for Frasi by composers such as Thomas Arne and John Christopher Smith, which complement Handel’s works. Their music for Frasi helped sustain her career after Handel’s death in 1759 and helped her maintain her position as the foremost principal soprano soloist of English works in the oratorio style. Having made these exciting discoveries, I felt a real desire to explore the catalogue through the process of recording. This allowed me to place well-known arias alongside other sublime pieces – many of which have never been heard in modern times – and set them down on record for future generations to enjoy. Frasi seems to have been an ambitious and indomitable woman, even when her star was waning. But her rather profligate lifestyle caught up with her in her later years when her career was also plagued with bad luck, poor planning, and some vocal problems. It is rumoured that after her last documented concert, at Hickford’s Room on 16 May 1774, she fled from her creditors to Calais and died there in destitute circumstances. Such a tragic end for an artist who inspired such sublime music that still communicates emotional resonance to audiences of every new generation.

I had already started my research into Frasi when I was given a Borletti-Buitoni Trust award in 2014 – a sum of money and, as it turned out, a great deal more in the way of support and encouragement to help me bring to life this recording dream and my first solo Baroque album. Indeed, my dream team was Laurence Cummings (my teacher at the Royal College and somebody I had performed with on many occasions) and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: together, they evoked great sensitivity, warmth and character in the music. Chandos Records has captured both the magic atmosphere of the church where we recorded and the music with real precision and warmth. During the process of recording I was keen to try and achieve a chamber music feel in the balancing of parts, and an impression that the voice was sometimes part of the orchestral texture, and not superimposed, and I feel we achieved that. But, more than anything, I am so pleased to have been able to present a story that has seldom been told and has never before been presented through a cross-section of Frasi’s musical repertoire.

Listen to extracts from the CD here.

Read the original The Arts Desk article here.

Posted in
by Maria Milstein February 19th, 2018

A Proustian Poser

Maria Milstein’s recent CD, The Vinteuil Sonata, recorded with her pianist sister Nathalia and made possible through her BBT Fellowship 2016, also inspired her piece for The Arts Desk website, reprinted here with permission.

I remember very well the first time I read Swann’s Way, the first part of Marcel Proust’s monumental masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu). I was struck not only by the depth and beauty of the novel, but also the crucial role that music played in the narrative. For those who haven’t read the novel, here is a brief summary of the part that particularly fascinated me, “Swann’s Love.

Swann, one of the main characters in the novel, is a rich young man living in Paris who is connected with the highest Parisian aristocracy. At a musical soirée one evening he hears a sonata played by the invited pianist and suddenly recognises the music as the mysterious sonata for violin and piano that he had first heard some time ago and which had made a strong impression on him then. Hearing this music again makes him realise exactly what it was that fascinated him – a petite phrase (‘little phrase’) that appeared in the slow movement and returned later in the last movement. He discovers during the course of the evening that this piece was recently written by a composer named Vinteuil. Swann’s obsession with the sonata grows and he starts to identify the ‘little phrase’ with his love for Odette de Crécy, whom he meets at the same salon. As the love between Swann and Odette develops, flourishes and then diminishes, Swann is left with a broken heart and the sonata whose petite phrase keeps haunting him, appearing every time in a different light as his feelings develop and metamorphose.

The way Proust describes the Vinteuil Sonata is absolute genius, and is proof of the vast knowledge he had about music. One can almost hear the piece he is describing and many features, such as the cyclical form of the piece (the ‘little phrase’ returns in different movements of the sonata), the texture of the piano-writing and the moods the different sections convey, make one think that the Vinteuil Sonata is based on a prototype that really exists.

Since the publication of Swann’s Way in 1913 there have been numerous speculations about the possible model for the Vinteuil Sonata. Proust was a fervent music-lover who, partly through his relationship with the composer Reynaldo Hahn and partly through the cultural circles in which he moved, was introduced to the broad musical spectrum of turn-of-the-century Paris salons. Proust’s musical taste was cosmopolitan; he was a great admirer of Beethoven and Wagner, but also very interested in his contemporaries, such as Franck, Fauré and Debussy. When analysing the descriptions of the Vinteuil Sonata one can actually identify several possible candidates, including the violin sonatas of Franck, Fauré and Lekeu, which are often mentioned as plausible models.

In one of his letters, however, Proust does say that the inspiration for the description of la petite phrase was a “charming but mediocre theme from a sonata of Saint-Saëns”. Camille Saint-Saëns‘ First Violin Sonata, written several years before the completion of the novel, does indeed feature a second theme in the first movement (whose candour and apparent naivety perhaps made Proust consider it mediocre) which not only seems to correspond to the description of the “little phrase”, but also returns as the apotheosis of the last movement.

The Saint-Saëns Sonata was therefore my departure point for this rather ambitious project of recording an album inspired by the Vinteuil Sonata and the mystery surrounding it. My wish was not to unite in one recording all the possible prototypes – that would far exceed the length of a disc – but rather to recreate the atmosphere of a musical salon, such as Proust might have attended.

In our search for suitable repertoire my sister and I discovered the Violin Sonata Op 36 by Gabriel Pierné, then totally unknown to us. Pierné, a turn-of-the-century composer, was also a renowned conductor who premiered and championed many works of his more famous contemporaries, among whom was his close friend Claude Debussy. Pierné’s Violin Sonata, very impressionistic in its writing and rather demanding – as much for the pianist as for the violinist – amazed us with the freshness and variety of its melodies and the harmonic beauty underlying these fluid melodic lines. For us the dreamy second movement was a special coup de coeur. And the second theme from the first movement of this sonata also returns in the finale. We immediately felt that this unfairly forgotten piece had to feature in our project.

Immersing myself deeper into the atmosphere of the novel with its broad and versatile use of associations, memories and flashbacks, I realised more and more that the musical counterpart of Proust, who changed the path of literature, would be Claude Debussy, who changed the path of classical music just as drastically. A contemporary of Proust, whose music was most probably known to the writer, Debussy composed his Violin Sonata just a few years after the publication of Swann’s Way in 1917. This sonata, with its mysterious opening (which returns as a flashback at the beginning of the last movement), awakens in the listener a whole world of associations; sometimes one can taste a flavour of Spain, sometimes one hears the sea, especially in the tempestuous last movement. For me, the introspective and sometimes dream-like quality of the music made a very logical link with Proust’s novel and the Vinteuil Sonata with its elusive ‘little phrase.’

To make the album complete we had to include works by Reynaldo Hahn, the lover and close friend of Proust, who played a significant role in the writer’s growing passion for music. Instead of choosing a piece for violin and piano I decided to turn to Hahn’s songs, some of which are true gems and probably among his most beloved works. À Chloris is a neo-baroque song in which the unnamed narrator sings of his love to Chloris; the allusion to Bach and his contemporaries suspends this song in time, the craving for a past long gone transcending the piece. L’Heure Exquise, based on a poem by Paul Verlaine, invites the listener to forget the passing of time and fully enjoy the exquisite moment; Rêvons, c’est l’heure (“Let’s dream, it is time”) could also be an appropriate title for our album. Making the choice to arrange these songs for violin and piano – thereby leaving the texts aside – was very conscious, not only because both songs work wonderfully on the violin, but also because the lack of text creates a sense of mystery, leaving one to guess what the song could be about.

Maria and Nathalia Milstein

The mystery around the Vinteuil Sonata remains unsolved and every reader should be able to hear his or her ‘own’ Vinteuil Sonata. This album, rather than dictating an answer, is merely suggesting a possible approach, and will hopefully prompt the listeners who haven’t yet read Proust’s masterpiece to plunge into the great novel In Search of Lost Time.

Photos: Marco Borggreve

Read the original The Arts Desk article here:



Posted in
by Peter Quantrill June 5th, 2017

Bartók Live – Heath Quartet

heath new banner © Simon Way

There’s an argument to be made that the state of British quartet playing has never been healthier. Pressed for evidence I’d turn first to the Heath Quartet, three-quarters of whom are sitting in front of me. Prizes, awards and glowing reviews have piled up since Oliver Heath founded the group in 2002 while studying at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester. Here he is in the central London offices of the harmonia mundi record company, a little sleep-deprived as new dads should be, but perked up by an Easter break and joined by the cellist Chris Murray and the Quartet’s new second violinist, Sara Wolstenholme. Only the violist, Gary Pomeroy, is dawdling in Florence.

Heath Qt Bartoks CD cover 907661.62Both occasion and venue are prompted by the Quartet’s new recording of a Bartók cycle, made over two concerts at the Wigmore Hall in May 2016. For an ensemble with regular return invitations to the world’s chamber-music hubs, in London, New York and Berlin, they have made relatively few recordings. ‘It wasn’t a conscious choice,’ says Heath disarmingly, ‘but how things evolved. Some of our peers have recorded much more than us. We had a few opportunities, but we were waiting for the right thing.’

That ‘thing’ was only the second complete cycle on disc of the five quartets by Sir Michael Tippett, also recorded live at Wigmore Hall: a remarkably bold debut, and one rewarded with the 2016 Gramophone Award for chamber music, where they fought off competition from more long-established groups such as the Emersons and the Artemis, and against repertoire staples of Schubert and Brahms. In turn this brought further recognition which may be considered somewhat overdue to a group that has come into full maturity, ready to pass on their collective experience through teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

In the interim, the First and Third quartets of Tchaikovsky have been set down in the studio thanks to the Heath’s new relationship with harmonia mundi, and with the support of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust (BBT). In a field not overstocked with Western-European rivals, the Heaths won widespread praise for a natural and idiomatic mastery of music which is often hard to extricate from tenacious assumptions about private melancholy and public assertions of nationhood. As the Sunday Times reviewer wrote about the elegiac Third Quartet, ‘the Heath players pour out Tchaikovsky’s grief for his friend with a depth of tone and virtuosity that matches the finest Russians on disc.’

Having been awarded a Special Ensemble Scholarship in 2011, the Quartet is also the beneficiary of BBT support for the new Bartók cycle. Here too Heath is fairly robust in pointing out that this music doesn’t ‘belong’ exclusively to native musicians. ‘Way back we studied Bartók with Hungarians,’ he says, ‘but I remember speaking with Stephen Hough about the Russian way of playing Rachmaninov. He thought it was complete nonsense. I do sense that there is a sense of ownership over some music, but the idea that only Czech quartets can play Dvořák is ridiculous, as though English musicians are the only people who can play Delius.’

Heath expresses a strong preference for the demands and concomitant rewards of a live recording. ‘There’s more pressure on you. But there’s a seduction to being in the studio, being able to make sure everything’s in the right place, and that can become the priority. That isn’t an option playing live. And it isn’t healthy. Maybe 20 years ago, we would have recorded Bartóks [in the studio] with everything in the right place. But there isn’t much point doing that. It doesn’t have much artistic value.’ All six quartets in two concerts over three days was ‘right on the edge of what was possible for us,’ he says.

I was present at those concerts, and the atmosphere was as electric as Heath says. The hall-manager’s adjuration to bear the microphones in mind – ‘If you’re thinking of coughing – don’t’ – was superfluous on this occasion. ‘An enthralling Bartók cycle,’ I remarked in the pages of The Strad, ‘self-evidently the work of long preparation, in which sense and sound became one. The records should be worth waiting for.’

What they preserve is indeed a strong sense of music on the edge, even in the silence before No.1 with its strong kinship to Beethoven’s Op.131. The quartet has listened to and learned from the composer’s pioneering field recordings in the rural communities of eastern Europe and North Africa: ‘They sound rough as anything,’ says Murray, ‘but there is such a sense of atmosphere and energy and charisma in the way they’re played. It’s like a party. You can hear people shouting and knocking things over. So when you get a piece of classical music which is played on stage it’s important to remember that kind of excitement was there from the beginning.’

Such excitement is generated in the quicker music by a complex of metronome marks which it can be seductive to treat literally. Heath stresses the importance of absorbing the rhythms and tempi – ‘you can’t be doing cartwheels mentally while playing’ – for a movement such as the Algerian wedding music in the middle of No.2. ‘You’ve got to feel the moment that the tuba comes in, and it all gets a bit wonky. Having said that, in No.3 there are points where it’s important to be mechanical.’

Murray is especially animated by the Machine-Age ostinati and crunching harmonic gears of the Third, the glissandi ‘which make me think of elevators and escalators. The Third in many ways is the most exciting to play. The challenge is to keep hold of it.’ ‘He doesn’t seem to care about bringing people in,’ adds Heath. ‘It’s just there. The ending is mayhem, the most cacophonous writing in any of the quartets. At the beginning of the coda you have this rustic, folky writing, and then after the squiggly semiquavers there’s a crescendo, it goes into fourths and ninths and becomes basically unintelligible to someone listening for the first time. But it’s our job to make it clear.’ But not too clear? ‘I don’t think that’s something we need to worry about!’

Even in the more obviously imposing demands made by the five-movement structures of the Fourth and Fifth, believes Heath, Bartók was thinking more of his audience. In their buzzing scherzos and off-kilter finales may even be heard an unrefined humour: ‘moments of slapstick and goofiness,’ according to Murray, alongside the kind of internal quartet jokes in which the composer took no less delight than Haydn or Mozart, pitting instruments against each other in teams like the ‘Game of Pairs’ in the Concerto for Orchestra.

High purpose and low humour collide most spectacularly in the precipitous finale to the Fifth – ‘the big one’ as Heath puts it – where the second violin abruptly tears the fabric of material ‘with indifference’ (Bartók’s marking). Their response is considered but down to earth, the Heaths to a T: ‘It’s a musical box,’ says Murray, ‘where something goes wrong in the second line. Like an ice-cream van, where the mechanics have gone wonky.’ ‘It happens in some of the most profound music of Mozart and Beethoven,’ observes Heath. ‘And then, all of a sudden they interrupt the mood – don’t take it too seriously! – before they carry on in the same vein.’

Tracing a thread or development through six works composed over a composer’s active life-span is irreducible to soundbites, but the big discovery for Heath lay in the different shades of Bartók’s slower music. ‘The contrasts between incredibly tender and heart-on-sleeve moments, generous and open, and then a bleak hopelessness, and then howls of anguish and inconsolable grief. I’m thinking of the last movement of No.6. You have these different types of expression for the turmoil inside him, and they don’t sit easily with each other.’

heath new projects © Simon WayThe Heath Quartet now finds itself on the cusp of change. Its personnel had remained constant until second violinist Cerys Jones departed last autumn ‘to pursue new musical collaborations that allow me to be a better mother… As a violinist, being in a successful string quartet is as good as it gets, but it has come with huge sacrifices for my family.’

How do three become four again? Is it a matter of sifting CVs, sitting through interviews, slotting into post? Is it more like transplant surgery to replace a lost limb? Surely you can’t advertise in a newspaper: ‘Wanted – Second Violin. GSOH and experience of living out of a suitcase essential’. Or a lonely hearts column: ‘Three players WLTM violin for foursome. Must bring own instrument.’

In fact the Artemis Quartet did just that, Heath reminds me, following the death of their violist Friedemann Weigle in 2015. Second violin Gregor Sigl switched instruments and his place was taken by Anthea Kreston. As recruitment options go, however, it’s an outlier. Heath and his colleagues took a more routine approach – ‘putting out feelers. The people we contacted were mainly those we’d come across before.’ Wolstenholme variously knew the other three from her schooling at Chetham’s in Manchester and student days at the RNCM. Five years ago, she covered for Jones’s second period of maternity leave.

The Heath’s remaining members lined up a few contenders and issued invitations to come and rehearse. So Wolstenholme joined them one day in November for a session at Pomeroy’s house: they played through some Mozart and Dvořák: ‘We exchanged some comments,’ she recalls, ‘but it was by no means intense rehearsal.’ She was taken on for a trial patch of concerts, but the decision was evidently an easy one to make. ‘The three of us met up at Pret a Manger in St Pancras station before catching the Eurostar early one morning in February,’ says Murray, ‘and it was a very brief meeting indeed – a few minutes – to confirm that we wanted Sara to join the quartet.’

Before their break, the Quartet undertook an intensive tour of Germany; the new line-up has given just ten concerts together, so they are still in the early stages of adjustment. According to Murray, ‘the quartet has an identity which will change slightly but also stay the same. Sara brings a new, slightly different way of working.’ Such as? ‘I bring almonds!’ jokes Wolstenholme, but Murray adds that ‘when we’re in rehearsal there’s even more sense of what we want to get done rather than turning up and seeing how it goes. There’s more of a sense of homework.’

Wolstenholme had been a member of the Finzi Quartet until it disbanded in 2012 – but as first violinist. Then she joined the Scottish Chamber Orchestra as principal second, and in that capacity has played with a number of ensembles including the Northern Sinfonia. ‘Coming back to quartet life is coming home to me,’ she says. At the same time, she took care not to fill the hole left by Jones, but to create her own space. ‘I didn’t look at films of the quartet online because I thought, “what’s the point?” As soon as you do that you start to analyse what the previous person did, but all you can do is be true to yourself, and do what you believe in. I was glad that I didn’t make that comparison.’heath new search © Simon Way

Heath himself values exactly that sense of identity in her and the Quartet as a whole. ‘That’s one of the things I love about Sara: there’s an unshakeable core musician in her which won’t change, and that’s very exciting. Chris and Gary and I are all quite different musicians. We have different approaches to what we play, different philosophies and attitudes, and that’s what I want. When I go to see a group on stage I want to see that energy. A perfectly homogenised quartet – and there are many – isn’t so interesting to me. What we share is our integrity as people, and what happens on stage is a meeting of different people. We rehearse to create something that’s cohesive and intelligible as a whole, but within that there are four very different people.’

My reference to An Equal Music elicits a groan from Heath – ‘I tried to forget that book’ – but Vikram Seth’s novel opened up to outsiders both the sealed world of a string quartet (‘you are a bit of an island,’ admits Heath, ‘quite self-contained’) and the peculiar nature of its group dynamics. Heath explains more, from the inside. ‘As the process was going on, I was thinking that to the outside world, it would appear that changing the first violinist is the most important thing in changing how a group plays. But when you’re inside a group, the second violinist is possibly the most integral role in how a quartet plays and how it glues together the different roles. Someone outside might think the inner parts are pretty interchangeable, but the second violinist creates the cohesiveness. She directs traffic.’

heath new biography © Simon WayAs a former first, now second, Wolstenholme appreciates the difference better than most. ‘There’s a different sort of stamina to playing first violin’ – ‘and loneliness!’ interjects Heath, putting on a ‘sad violin’ face. ‘Both roles have their difficulties and joys,’ continues Wolstenholme. ‘You don’t feel lonely as a second violin. There are certain technical things I’m getting used to: noodling about in lower registers, and then suddenly having to play something soloistically, but not in as nice a register as the first violin. Before my trial, I did a lot of playing on the bridge on the D string, because as a first violin you don’t spend so long in the lower part of the instrument.’

Considering whether there is any such thing as a ‘first violin’ violin leads us to think about matched quartets of instruments. The first violin has a thinner table than the second in some modern sets, and Wolstenholme has experience of playing one of the most famous historical sets, the ‘Evangelists’ of Vuillaume, after the Finzi Quartet was awarded the loan of them in 2010; as I recall from the competition finale at Wigmore Hall, the Heaths also took part, and there was some surprise that they did not win.

She now plays a 1750 violin by Gennaro Gagliano, with a ‘really beefy’ G string, evidently suited to her new role. The most renowned matched quartet of all must be the ‘Paganini’ Strads, with which the Heaths had tangential contact when partnering the Tokyo Quartet in the Mendelssohn Octet a few years ago. Murray was surprised how much bow his fellow cellist, Clive Greensmith, used in order to summon that particular ‘warm resonance’ associated with the ‘Paganini’ quartet. As Heath observed from a recent Wigmore recital, the instruments now sound quite different and less homogenous in the hands of the Hagens. ‘It might be a cliché,’ says Murray, ‘but you do end up sounding like yourself whatever instrument you play. It takes time – maybe a couple of years – but your sound comes through.’

Though coy about future recording plans with harmonia mundi/PIAS, the Quartet has a concert diary stretching years ahead, focused in the coming season by a concentration on the five quartets of Jörg Widmann, which they will perform one by one at the Wigmore, as they did the Tippett cycle. The coffee concert of 10 December is particularly enticing: Haydn’s ‘Fifths’ and Mendelssohn’s anguished Op.80 framing the Third ‘Hunt’ Quartet of Widmann. ‘I’m looking forward to shouting on stage,’ says Wolstenholme of the increasingly violent and vocal interjections that punctuate this Beethovenian perpetuum mobile. While it’s hard to imagine these four friendly and grounded musicians yelling at each other in any other context, Widmann and the Heaths should have a Sunday-morning Wigmore audience spluttering over their sherries.heath new contact © Simon Way

Peter Quantrill writes about music for Gramophone, The Strad, Pianist and many other journals. He contributes to international music festivals (Cheltenham, Edinburgh, Risør and Salzburg, among others) and record companies (including Deutsche Grammophon, Eloquence Classics and Warner Classics).
Find him on Twitter @PeterQuantrill

Photos: Simon Way

Listen to excerpts from the Heath Quartet’s live Bartók String Quartet cycle on harmonia mundi here

Posted in
by Calidore String Quartet March 6th, 2017

If Music be the Food of Love

December Days in BoscoforteIMG_3335

After a week in London where we recorded for our first BBC New Generation Artist broadcast, heard Mitsuko Uchida in an unforgettable concert of Mozart with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, had a reunion with our BBT family and lessons with the Belcea Quartet we arrived in Boscoforte after night had fallen. Prior to our arrival, we spent two weeks globe-hopping from New York to Hong Kong to London and it was a welcome reprieve to be able to spend six days of leisure in one place.

On our first morning we awoke to behold an icy and green hillside spilling downwards to a dense forest. In the distance Lago Maggiore shimmered against snow capped mountains. This magical backdrop was the setting for a week of exploration of Mozart’s String Quartet K.421 and Ligeti’s String Quartet No 1 Metamorphosis Nocturnes as we prepared for concerts in the New Year.IMG_3338

IMG_3315As with any daily activity, especially a musician’s practice or rehearsal, it is easy to drift into predictable patterns. But with the peace and tranquility of Boscoforte (the antithesis of our homes and lives in Manhattan) we disassembled our usual routine. Having the luxury of time, we didn’t have to rush into any interpretive decisions.



We spent time playing through each phrase very slowly while letting the harmonic shifts percolate into our nervous systems.Our practice in Boscoforte reconnected us with one of the beautiful truths of the string quartet genre: with such a rich and profound canon, every piece has innumerable avenues for exploration and interpretation.

boscoforte canine


Rehearsals and personal practice were interspersed with walks along the estate, often encountering the dogs of Boscoforte. Some of the canines were a bit skeptical of us upon our arrival. But by the time of our departure we had a howling farewell committee!

We are a quartet that is as passionate about the food we eat as the music we play. Thus, the highlight of each day was the incomparable Italian cooking of Adele, Boscoforte’s culinary master! The three courses of lunch and dinner fueled our practice and our souls! All varieties of pasta, cheeses, cured meats, soups and delicious cakes were present at our feasts fit for kings.

calidore selfie at boscoforteAs none of us speak Italian, communication was difficult at first with Adele, Lucia and the others who work at Boscoforte. Eventually, using a mixture of Spanish, hand gestures and the bits of Italian we know from our study of music, we were able to have entire conversations together. On our last day we organized a concert for Adele and Lucia where we performed Mozart’s String Quartet K.421 as a thanks for their help and friendship. We left Boscoforte with full hearts and full stomachs, rested and prepared for the New Year!

Posted in
by Zoltán Fejérvári February 19th, 2017

Zoltán Fejérvári joins the Kurtágs in Budapest for the presentation of the Franco Buitoni Award

Some weeks ago I was present at a very special event. By the time you read this blog it has been officially announced that BBT gave a Special Award to the famous Hungarian composer György Kurtág and his wife, the wonderful pianist Márta Kurtág. The presentation happened in Budapest during an informal lunch and, as a member of the BBT family, I was lucky also to be there.

FBawardphotoI don’t need to tell you what Kurtág and his music mean to musicians, especially to us Hungarians. He is certainly one of the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century and fortunately he is still with us and keeps creating masterpieces. Whoever has ever taken masterclasses with him, or seen him play four hands together with his wife, knows what his music means. As Mitsuko Uchida says: “We know György Kurtág the great composer but with him always is Márta the wonderful pianist.” They are certainly an extraordinary couple helping and completing each other.

The event took place in the Budapest Music Centre. This is a recently renewed building which includes a concert hall, a well-equipped library, a jazz club and several rehearsal rooms as well as some dormitories and an apartment. This place has been the Kurtágs home since they decided to move back to Hungary. The day was very cold but beautiful and sunny. I left home very excited, aware that one doesn’t have the chance to be in such company every day. Not to mention that I was going to meet Mrs Buitoni for the first time. She and Mitsuko Uchida flew to Budapest only for a few hours in order to make the presentation. When I arrived at the centre I learned that their flight had been delayed a little, but every cloud has a silver lining as, after an exhausting morning, at least the Kurtágs could rest a bit. They had been rehearsing with singers for his forthcoming opera: just a usual day in the life of a 90-year-old couple!bbt_franco_buitoni_award_kurtags_&_mitsuko_BMC_Bálint Hrotkó

When they finally arrived and introductions were over, Mitsuko Uchida went to the piano and played Mozart’s Sonata Facile (K. 545). What a genius gift! It couldn’t be better than the Sonata Facile. Simplicity and complexity: just a few notes but the greatest expression. And a nice connection to Kurtág’s musical language.

She joined us at the table and took a seat next to György and Márta. “Is this sonata really facile? I think this is the hardest piece!” said Mitsuko and laughed. Kurtág immediately reflected on the performance pointing out some places which he especially liked. Then the conversation kept going between them about Mozart, Schumann, Schubert – the long and short of it was that the atmosphere was very nice at the table. It was quiet, intimate and simple.

bbt_franco_buitoni_award_ zoltan_BMC_Bálint Hrotkó

The most touching moment of the celebration was certainly when Ilaria stood up to say a few words and give the award to the Kurtágs. She spoke in French but one didn’t need to get the exact meaning of the words to understand what it was about. She couldn’t hold back her tears, we probably all know why. This could have been a meeting of two wonderful married couples…

All photos by Bálint Hrotkó / © BMC

Posted in
by Bram van Sambeek October 24th, 2016

Undaunted by Extreme Challenge

Now that the CD is about to come out, I am taken back to the very beginning.

bram_aho_fagerlund_bis_600x600I will never forget receiving the score and midi file of Sebastian Fagerlund’s bassoon concerto Mana.  While on my bike I listened to the computer generated mp3 file, and remember thinking, “Wow – I’ve never heard better electronic music in my life!”  And I pedalled home very fast without really noticing.  The music had such a moving quality in every sense I thought to myself “Yes! This is the future of classical music and the bassoon!”  And though I felt slightly intimidated by the amazing capabilities of the computerised bassoonist to play such extended glissandi combined with a perfect rhythmic execution, I couldn’t wait to get to grips on the real bassoon.  Now I couldn’t be more thankful for the final result, coupled on the recording with Kalevi Aho’s solo concerto, supported so much by BBT, BIS and the great playing of Lahti Symphony with equally great conductors.

Though both these Finnish composers have very different styles, I think they share two strong facets that connect them more on an emotional level.  First, the solo bassoon leads the orchestra like a shaman; and secondly, both Fagerlund and Aho’s imaginations create wide and extremely rich landscapes. The opening of Kalevi Aho’s concerto immediately sets the tone of grandeur for the rest of its 35-minute story.  I always say half-jokingly that I wish Shostakovich or Mahler had written a bassoon concerto, which is why I’m so happy now to have Aho’s concerto that has this incredible substantial symphonic quality, while at the same time puts the solo bassoon in the foreground with such techniques as enhanced overtones for bassoon, coupled with unexpected sounds of other instruments.

Kalevi Aho and Sebastian Fagerlund flank bassoonist Bram van Sambeek after the premiere of Fagerlund's Bassoon Concerto Mana, Lahti Finland 6 December 2014. Photo: Susan Rivers

Kalevi Aho and Sebastian Fagerlund flank bassoonist Bram van Sambeek after the premiere of Fagerlund’s Bassoon Concerto Mana, Lahti Finland 6 December 2014. Photo: Susan Rivers

I think while writing the solo pieces Woodlands (Fagerlund) and Solo V (Aho), both composers must have thought, “OK, let’s see how far we can push it…, let’s see how we can extend the limits of what’s possible on this fascinating instrument…”  I practised both pieces intensely for months, with   periods in between when I’d momentarily reached my own limits, when my nose started bleeding (twice when singing and playing at the same time) or when I found a note that other bassoon freaks on the internet claimed to have played, but which had definitely never emanated from my bassoon until now.  Quite often bassoonists get scared by these challenges and say it’s not natural to write relatively unknown techniques for bassoon (like difficult glissandi or singing while playing).  But I think here both composers had a tremendous feeling for the versatile character of the instrument, and knew exactly in which direction to push those limits forward, like Stravinsky once did with his famous opening of Le Sacre du Printemps or – nearly two centuries earlier – when Vivaldi wrote huge leaps in quick tempi in many of his 39 bassoon concerti.


Now with the recording over and the disc due out, this music can be released to the world, for every listener to enjoy.

Posted in
by Susan Rivers August 12th, 2016

The Bag’s the thing…

People who know me well know how much I value and love practicality in all areas of life and work. We at BBT love to come up with ideas to keep getting the word out about the Trust and how proud we are of all the wonderful musicians we have assisted with BBT awards and fellowships. So, if we can actually come up with something useful at the same time… even better.

This year we decided to produce another good strong shoulder bag sporting the names of our award winners since the beginning in 2003, right up to the latest young musicians added to our roster earlier this year. In BBT colours of red and white on black, we listed the names over 100 musicians and ensembles from all over the world.

Gloria Campaner sporting her new BBT bag August 2016

Gloria Campaner sporting her new BBT bag August 2016

Apart from the practicality of the bag itself, the list is a way of also reminding our BBT award-winners of the family of amazing musicians they are part of. We do try to keep in touch with them all and see them when we can, but this is ‘out-there’ proof that certainly not one of them is ever forgotten.

So we couldn’t have been more delighted to see Dutch recorder player, Erik Bosgraaf (alphabetically top of the list of our winds section) tweeting a picture of said BBT bag, spotted by a friend at the Parnü Summer Festival in Estonia this July.I happen to know it was being sported by David Nice, music editor and critic of The Arts Desk, because I had given him one personally when I was at the East Neuk Festival at the end of June and that’s where he was headed for next. As well as enjoying the concerts and scenery in this beautiful part of Fife, I also caught up with  BBT award winners Julian Steckel, Pavel Haas Quartet and Calidore String Quartet – and giving them their bags, of course.

BBT bag spotted at Parnu Photo: Thiemo Wind

BBT bag spotted at Parnu Photo: Thiemo Wind

We have had many appreciative comments about the strength and size of it (good for laptops, scores, books) and that it can also be folded up and stashed away in a pocket or carrying case for spontaneous purchases (pianist Llyr Williams is a self-confessed fan of such items).

Perhaps next time we produce one it will have to be a large fold-out suitbag to accommodate our growing list! Meantime, do snap (and send us) a picture of any that you see on your travels…

BBT bag-toters are in good company too – Mitsuko Uchida liked her bag so much, she asked for another one!

Susan Rivers, BBT Chief Executive


Mark Simpson with his newest BBT accessory, August 2016

Mark Simpson with his newest BBT accessory, August 2016

For the shy and retiring - guess who is displaying another way to wear his BBT bag? Photo: Nick Breckenfield

For the shy and retiring – guess who is displaying another way to wear his BBT bag?

Photos (unless otherwise stated) Nick Breckenfield, August 2016


Posted in
by James Baillieu September 30th, 2015

Introducing Me!

September 2015 is a thrilling month for me as it marks the beginning of an exciting new season in which I will be appearing in 11 concerts in the Wigmore Hall series ‘Introducing James Baillieu’. Throughout the series I will be working with, among others, Henk Neven, Adam Walker, the Heath Quartet and Allan Clayton. We will be proudly flying the BBT family flag!

James Baillieu 24 credit Kaupo Kikkas

The concert on 4th December with Iestyn Davies (countertenor) and Allan Clayton (tenor) will be featuring a brand new composition. BBT and the Wigmore Hall (together with André Hoffmann, president of the Foundation Offmann and other anonymous donors) have co-commissioned composer Nico Muhly to write a piece especially for the series.

I first heard Iestyn and Allan perform together many years ago in a spectacular performance of Abraham and Isaac by Benjamin Britten. That evening made me think what a pity it is that there isn’t more music written for this vo cal combination (and in particular these two singers!). No obvious partner piece for the Britten appeared to exist… That’s where the idea for a commission originated: I wanted to perform Britten alongside a new partner piece. After much thought I approached the great composer Nico Muhly, whose reply to my email was a single word: ‘YES!’

James Baillieu 2 credit Kaupo KikkasNico was my first choice of composer because he has written a lot for both Iestyn and Allan, so knows their voices very well. He is also particularly interested in creating atmospheric and dramatic works through a profound engagement with text. The search for an ideal text has led us to a wonderful passage that will both compliment and contrast the Britten. All will be revealed…

I’d like to offer my huge gratitude to both BBT and the Wigmore Hall for making this possible. I can only wish that this is the first of many performances for what will undoubtedly be a very exciting and interesting piece of music. In December, I wish that we are able to do justice to Britten’s masterpiece when we reveal its new partner to the audience at the Wigmore Hall. I hope to see you there!

Posted in
by Frances Mayhew June 30th, 2015

Welcome to Wilton’s

Wilton’s is onwiltons in lights graham johnston horizontale of the last and oldest surviving grand music halls in the world offering a vibrant blend of culture, heritage, learning and participation. We produce a programme of imaginative productions and activities, we give opportunities to emerging artists and present a year round programme that includes theatre (new commissions and classics), opera, dance, magic, music (classical and contemporary), cinema, circus, traditional music hall, comedy, puppetry and other art forms.

The building has led a chequered life – situated at the heart of the historic East End within easy walking distance of The Tower of London, the Thames and the City – it has been shops, a music hall, a Methodist mission, a rag warehouse and forgotten and derelict for many years ….

Wilton's Auditorium 2013 - no_credit_needed (1)The Wilton’s Music Hall Trust has been looking after Wilton’s since 2004, bringing its very damaged structure back to life through a 3 year capital repair project. We are opening up new spaces all the time which brings me to the BBT concert series in our Cocktail Bar.

Using the cocktail bar as a performance space was a new venture for Wilton’s. Previously it had been open to the public as extra foyer space with a small cocktail bar in the corner. It had no running water, it was propped up by acrow-props and the rain came straight through… in March 2015 it became a 40-seater performance space.

We wanted to trial concerts in the cocktail bar space because it is so intimate. Our philosophy is to present imaginative events and as we were thinking about what might work in there we remembered the first time we met the BBT. It was a few years ago and they were presenting O Duo – a percussion duo in the main hall and we thought –perfect! They were adventurous, fun and incredibly nice to work with. We approached BBT to see if they would consider a creative partnership during this developmental stage of Wilton’s life. BBT brilliantly suggested some very creative and talented musicians who would like to try concerts in an unusual space without the formality of a concert hall. The idea was to give the artists freedom to choose their own programme, without agenda, and to give our audiences a really up close experience of live classical music.

However we still have building works going on (we finish completely in September), and it was a stretch getting the room ready on time for the first BBT concert in March. There was still saw dust in the corners, wires where there shouldn’t be and we only just got the props down! The audience had to thread their way through a building site to get here!Frances Mayhew

The concerts were fantastic though, a treat to listen so closely to great music and to be able to talk to the musicians within the chilled atmosphere of a lounge bar.

All the concerts were my favourite but I particularly enjoyed Erik Bosgraaf’s recorder concert. He mixed up traditional baroque pieces with brand new daring compositions that really showed off the range of the recorder. I think for any audience member this kind of concert is rare and a delight because there are no rules and “plenty of room to play.”

The BBT relationship helped us to achieve our mission above, while the building is still emerging. It enabled us to hatch new kinds of shows and develop the artistic network that will keep the building alive in the future – so a HUGE thank you to Susan, Debra and Nick for making this happen!

Frances Mayhew
Artistic and Managing Director
Wilton’s Music Hall

Click here to see Frances’ Video Blog for BBT Wednesdays at Wilton’s

Click here to find out more about Wilton’s Music Hall and its current programme

Posted in
by Byol Kang January 21st, 2015

ROMANTIC IMPRESSIONS – how we chose our repertoire

Byol Kang and Boris Kusnezow Violin/Piano Duo CD Romantic Impressions GENUIN 15335

Byol Kang and Boris Kusnezow Violin/Piano Duo CD Romantic Impressions GENUIN 15335

Coming up with the programme for our new CD was a long process and it started off with an important lesson on how NOT to do it. Initially, my Duo partner Boris and I thought it would be an interesting and innovative concept to gather pieces together that illustrate various stages of life, such as childhood, youth, adulthood and age/death. We had chosen three works by Mozart, Strauss and Brahms and even commissioned a piece by composer Francisco Coll for the depiction of adulthood. However, after trying out this programme in concert several times, we realised, it was a concept that only looked good on paper. The idea rationally made sense, but we were missing a musical arch, a coherence in musical content.

Nowadays, hardly any listener of a record plays it through from beginning to end, which I think is a great pity! I remember, how as a child, I had some favourite albums that I would listen to over and over from beginning to end – that’s what made me grow so fond of the music. So I thought I would like to offer this kind of experience to the listeners of our CD as well.

After rejecting our first concept, we attempted another approach and asked ourselves, which piece makes us feel the urge to record it in our guts. Without much discussion, we decided it would be the First Violin Sonata by Johannes Brahms. It is a highly emotional piece, which Brahms wrote because his godson Felix Schumann, the youngest child of Robert and Clara Schumann, had died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Brahms, who was never married himself, loved Felix like his own child and one can hear his tremendous love and grief throughout the sonata. With this music, Brahms also wanted to console Clara, so he used one of her favourite melodies from his early songs Regenlied and Nachklang and she wrote to him “I could not help bursting into tears of joy over it… I wish the last movement could accompany me to the next world.”

Whenever we played this sonata in concerts, we had some of the most memorable experiences with it – moments where we felt completely in a ‘flow’ and felt a very intimate connection with the audience, which would often remain silent for quite a while after the last note. To us this silence means so much and is a very precious gift. It tells us we have managed to take the audience to a different place, a place so beautiful, they don’t want to wake up from it yet… so all of us in the hall would cherish this quiet moment together, breathe, feel alive and at peace. It’s a truly magical experience at the end of a whole concert. Now for the CD, we put it at the very beginning, because the pulsating chords of the piano sound so warm and inviting and the violin spins out a melody that takes the listener on a journey.

Having decided on Brahms, it didn’t take long to look for pieces by Clara Schumann. When we stumbled across the Three Romances, we immediately felt they were perfect. The three absolutely endearing and short pieces were written for her good friend and violinist Joseph Joachim in 1853 – the year before her husband Robert jumped from a bridge into the Rhine river and was consequently hospitalised in a sanatorium. It was also the year before her eighth child, Felix Schumann, was born. One could almost assume, Clara might have been pregnant with him during the time she composed the pieces, which are like songs without words. Since my father is a singer, I grew up listening to a lot of songs and I always loved pieces with lyrical character.

Byol Kang violin and Boris Kusnezow piano. Photo Irène Zandel

Byol Kang violin and Boris Kusnezow piano. Photo Irène Zandel

Now it might have been the next logical step to pick a work by Robert Schumann, but we wanted another ‘spice’ in our mix. Edvard Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata brings an element of passionate excitement to the album while still being very lyrical and romantic especially in the beautiful slow movement. Oh, how I love that movement! The piano solo in the beginning conveys solitude, subtle melancholy and longing… the violin then enters with the same melody in a very comfortable register, which after a playful dance tune is repeated in ‘heavenly heights.’

It soon became very clear to us that we wanted to keep the focus on lyricism. There are so many wonderful songs by Grieg that are not very well known, except for Solveig’s Song (from Peer Gynt), so we played through his song books and chose three melodies that instantly felt like they would also work without words. It was a happy coincidence that those songs even have something like a storyline: With The First Meeting we witness a person falling in love with someone at first sight. The Time Of Roses wistfully depicts a love once shared, like fading roses that one remembers when they were in perfect bloom. In Solveig’s Song the protagonist holds on to her belief that her man will return eventually and that she will wait come what may as that is what she has promised.

Though one could say that our chosen program is rather conventional, we feel the music of the romantic era is so wonderful (full of wonder) – sparking imagination with ways to express deep and timeless emotions. So we want to share it with as many people as possible.

We are so very lucky and thankful to have been given a BBT Fellowship, which enabled us to record this CD and we would be very happy if listeners take a little journey with our music, with our Romantic Impressions.

Listen to excerpts from Romantic Impressions

Posted in