It’s been often remarked, how odd our experience of time is in lockdown. The days are long; the weeks disappear so quickly. It seems just a few days since I watched a hugely enjoyable concert by the painist Ivana Gavrić playing Grieg, with great warmth and humanity, in the intimate setting of a lovely drawing room. I was about to put up a link where you could subscribe to the archived recording … and it has sadly gone.
Sorry about that. However, all is not lost! For a start, you can still of course get her captivating 2013 Grieg CD (“Everything glows with affection” said the Gramophone). And even better, there are still two more concerts to come in her current online series. You can get details here (where you can buy tickets for the live stream: the concert then becomes available for a while on City Music’s archive). I’m particularly looking forward to the second of these, when Ivana Gavrić will be playing early Schubert and Janacek — I so admire her earlier recording of the Janacek, which made me fall in love with the music, and her only recording of Schubert so far is really very fine too. Two forthcoming concerts to relish, then.
Out on a bitter evening to Kettle’s Yard for a concert by the pianist — and one-time Cambridge student — Ivana Gavrić.
I’m not sure why, but I haven’t been to a concert there for a number of years. It is a delightfully intimate space; however, the acoustic is a bit challenging for piano music. Hard walls and a tiled floor make for harshness (would it help to have a carpet under the paino? or to keep the lid near closed?). This I think particularly affected the opening Haydn sonata (no. 38, H XVI:23) — partly because one’s ears hadn’t adjusted yet, and partly because Gavrić was already aiming, I think, for a bright transparency of tone suited to early Haydn. But in that unforgiving context, she could perhaps have softened and relaxed the rather lovely Adagio.
But her following Schubert D784 was terrific. I’ve recently heard Mitsuko Uchida in concert playing this in a way that struck me as having become far too mannered and excessive in dramatic emphasis. Gavrić by contrast had the drama under such thought-through control, with some wonderful phrase-shaping, particularly in the weighty first movement.
After the interval, Gavrić played Janácek’s four pieces In the Mists. I first got to really know these, indeed, from her much admired CD. Heard live, I found the pieces in places rawer, more challenging, than I’d remembered, making me very much want to return and listen again to her recording with new ears.
Next, Four Lyric Pieces, short homages to Haydn, Schubert, Janácek and Grieg by Gavrić’s Cambridge contemporary Cheryl-Frances Hoad. I’m not sure I ‘got’ the Schubert in particular, but these were pleasing enough pieces with a slight jazz inflection, and we could draw breath after the intensity of the Janácek.
In one of her engaging short introductions, talking to the audience, Gavrić said that her final piece, Grieg’s Ballade, had rather fallen out of favour on the concert platform. And arguably it does rather seem to run out of interesting ideas before the end. But I did very much warm to Gavrić’s performance of it (as it seems did the rest of her audience).
For me, though, the high point of the evening has to be the Schubert — but then that’s Schubert for you! And I do hope that one day Ivana Gavrić returns to record more of his music. Meanwhile, her D784 (again) on her first CD is very fine.
I’ve very much admired Ivana Gavrić previous rightly praised discs (I wrote about the first two here in an earlier post, and you can find more about them here). So I was really looking forward to hearing her play in the intimate surroundings of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge a few days ago; but she had to postpone the concert as she can’t fly at the moment on doctor’s orders.
So to make up for that, I bought a copy of her new Chopin CD, which I have been listening to repeatedly over the last few days. Now, I should say that I’m not the greatest Chopin devotee, and indeed the only recording of his music that I have returned to at all frequently in recent years has been Maria João Pires’s utterly wonderful performances of the Nocturnes. So I’m hardly in a position to give a very nuanced response to this new disc. But I am loving it.
Ivana Gavrić plays groups of Chopin’s earlier Mazurkas, seperated by a couple of Preludes, a Nocturne and the Berceuse, which makes for something like a concert programme (you should listen up to the Berceuse — which is quite hauntingly played, her left hand rocking the cradle in a way that somehow catches at the heart — and then take an interval!). Some of the Mazurkas are very familiar, but many are (as good as) new to me. The Gramophone reviewer wanted Gavrić to perhaps play with more abandon — but no, her unshowy, undeclamatory, playing seems just entirely appropriate to the scale and atmosphere of the pieces, often tinged with melacholy as they are. She is across the room from a group of you, friends and family perhaps, rather than performing to a concert hall. And repeated listenings reveal the subtle gestures and changes in tone she uses to shape the dances; these are wonderfully thought-through performances. Listen to the opening Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 6 no.2 – the whole CD is in fact available on Apple Music – and you will be captivated.
Schubert’s late piano works have long been some of the most important music of all for me. So one of the highlights of this last year was going to hear Imogen Cooper’s wonderful 70th birthday concert at Wigmore Hall, when she played the last three sonatas, every bar revealing her deep and lasting engagement with this music. More recently, I’ve discovered Francesco Piemontese’s rightly much admired recordings of the same sonatas. But the most revelatory Schubert this year must surely be the second installment of Andras Schiff’s recordings made on a Franz Brodmann fortepiano, made in Vienna around 1820. Schiff’s performances are utterly convincing and make you hear these pieces anew; I was bowled over again, as I was by the preceding disks. Listen, for example, to the Drei Klavierstücke D 946 (favourites of mine): magical playing.
I have much admired Ivana Gavrić’s previous recordings, and praised them here. So I would have bought her new release, whatever it was. This new CD, Origins, starts with a sparkling performance of the Haydn D Major Concerto (it took me a few moments to adapt my ears to the orchestral texture, so used am I to listening to “period” performances of Haydn, but this is joyous playing). There follow the six short homages to Haydn for solo piano commissioned from French composers for the 100th anniversary of his death, and a seventh homage from Gavrić’s Cambridge contemporary, the composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad. And then there follows a performance of the piano concerto Between the Skies, the River and the Hills written for Gavrić by Frances-Hoad. This nods to Haydn (particularly his last movement thought sometimes to be based on a Bosnian dance) and uses a Bosnian folk song in its own third movement: the connection here is that Gavrić herself was born and spent her early years in Sarajevo. There’s more about the CD in three short videos here. I’ve listened and re-listened with warm admiration — both for Frances-Hoad’s composition and Gavrić’s playing! — and I have enjoyed this CD a lot: well worth seeking out.
But the CD of the year has to be the Pavel Haas Quartet’s Shostakovich disk. This isn’t comfortable listening. As the reviewer on the BBC Radio 3 Record Review programme put it, “It’s absolutely gut wrenchingly intense. It’s almost unlistenable to, it’s so fabulous, it’s such committed playing, it’s such deep, deep sincerity.” That gets it exactly right: I’ve heard them play Shostakovich in concert with the same completely overwhelming mastery and emotional depth. This is all quite extraordinary playing, intense indeed, but also in places heartstoppingly beautiful (listen to Veronika Jarůšková in the Adagio of the 2nd Quartet). There’s a revealing interview with PHQ here that tells us something about how they prepare and rehearse and come to terms with the music with such concentrated attention: the result is stunning.
As I said, those lists of books-of-the-year only make me feel quite hopelessly out of touch, and leave me rather sadly wondering how to possibly find the time to read more. But lists of CD recommendations are much more cheering, and encourage enjoyable experimental listening on Apple Music (other streaming services are available …). So let me share some of my favourite new recordings from 2017. Here are my five runners-up for CD of the year, in no special order.
Glenn Gould recorded his 1955 Goldberg Variations a few months before his 23rd birthday. Now Beatrice Rana has recorded the same music when less than a year older. And this is another quite extraordinary performance. Utterly gripping from the beginning. From the Gramophone review: “The variations that in some hands become merely strong and affirmative are beguilingly multi-layered …. Gentler numbers benefit from Rana’s ability to conjure the most translucent of textures … In the famous so-called ‘Black Pearl’ (Var 25) she allows Bach’s tortured dissonances to speak for themselves … the tension finally released by the joyously airborne Var 26. In some hands, these last variations, which build on that sense of joy, can seem rather forced …. Not here, though, where they range from the bucolic to the transcendental. After a Quodlibet that rejoices in its simple good humour, the return of the Aria is as emotionally multifaceted as you would expect – mysterious, quizzical, noble, resigned, hopeful – setting the seal on a life-affirming disc.”
Ivana Gavrić‘s Chopin disc groups some of Chopin’s earlier Mazurkas, seperated by a couple of Preludes, a Nocturne and the Berceuse. This makes for something like a concert programme (you should listen up to the Berceuse — which is quite hauntingly played, her left hand rocking the cradle in a way that somehow catches at the heart — and then take an interval!). Some of the Mazurkas are very familiar, but many were (as good as) new to me. Her unshowy, undeclamatory, playing seems just entirely appropriate to the scale and atmosphere of the pieces, often tinged with melacholy as they are. She is across the room from a group of you, friends and family perhaps, rather than performing to a concert hall. And repeated listenings reveal the subtle gestures and changes in tone she uses to shape the dances; these are wonderfully thought-through performances.
Haydn’s inexhaustible humanity can be a comfort and inspiration in these dark times, no? So I have returned again and again to the Chiaroscuro Quartet‘s wonderful exploration of the Opus 20 quartets, completed this year. Four friends, occasionally coming together to play concerts and record, perform with delight and bold inventiveness and warm insight. Their use of gut strings makes for wonderful timbres, now earthy, now confiding, now echoing a viol consort. This is extraordinary playing, and not just from Alina Ibragimova who leads the quartet: the sense of ensemble and the interplay of voices puts some full-time quartets to shame. Richly rewards that repeated listening.
And here is Alina Ibragimova again, this time continuing her long-standing partnership with Cédric Tiberghien. They have now recorded four double CDs of Mozart Sonatas — in fact there are two sets from this year. The early pieces written by the very young Wolfgang are dispatched with affection and bring out the moments of musical magic that are scattered even there. The mature Mozart is played as well as I have ever heard. As the BBC Music Magazine said of one of the discs, “Tiberghien’s limpid phrasing, radiant cantabile and velvety, cushioned tone provides a continual source of pleasure, complemented ideally by Ibragimova’s silvery-toned exploratory zeal, as she delights in Mozart’s gentle textual interplay, as though discovering its special qualities for the first time.” A constant delight.
The Doric Quartet give us a driven, intense, performance of two of Schubert’s greatest works. From the Gramophone review: “Even in a work as familiar as the Quartettsatz the Doric lend character through elasticity of phrasing, which nicely counterbalances the piece’s inherent energy. … The main event, the G major quartet, is very impressive too, spacious without ever being ponderous. … The quartet build up their own kind of relentlessness, one that becomes more and more potent upon repeated hearings.” Convincing and emotionally gripping playing. (If you like the Pavel Haas’s take-no-prisoners Death and the Maiden, you should like this too.)
Finally, what about the much hyped recording of the last two of Schubert’s sonatas from Krystian Zimerman? Try the opening of the first or second movements of D960 — I found the playing to be so affected, the hesitations and rushes forward so unnatural as to be simply unbearable.
I have come very late to appreciate Janáček’s piano music — something I largely owe to two discs by Ivana Gavrić. Her fine first CD, titled after that composer’s In the Mists, was a serendipitous find in an Oxfam shop (it also includes, among other things, an excellent performance of Schubert’s A minor Sonata, D. 784). But her second recording from 2011, From the Street, is even better. If you don’t know Janacek’s sequence of ten pieces On an Overgrown Path, then you have a delight awaiting you. Gavrić’s playing seems exceptional here: the Gramophone reviewer rightly wrote of “the intimacy, finely honed nuance, conversational flow and subtle underlining of the composer’s harmonic surprises that Gavrić brings to each of the short pieces”, and other reviewers were equally enthusiastic. There are, I have since discovered, some other terrific recordings available, including one by Marc-André Hamelin. But this still strikes me as outstanding.
Also on the CD are Janáček’s Sonata 1.X.1905 From the Street, Ravel’s Valses Nobles Et Sentimentalise, and not least a wonderful performance of Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 2. (I’m not usually a great one for mixed recital discs, and I usually listen to these performances separately; but actually the programming works very well). So indeed, all very warmly recommended, especially if the Janáček or Prokofiev isn’t familiar.
Footnote Ivana Gavrić won a BBC Music Magazine Award in 2011 for her first CD. It is now time to vote for this year’s Awards. The Pavel Haas Quartet are shortlisted in the Chamber Music section. So you know what you have to do …