Music

In concert: Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus

This week, a rightly classic performance from the great countertenor Andreas Scholl with
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. [23 mins]


Vivaldi’s works were already going out of fashion in Venice well before he died in 1741, and for the next two centuries he seems to have been remembered — except in a small handful of historical studies — just for a few violin concertos. And even those who knew a bit more about the range of his instrumental music music seem to have been ignorant of (or at least very much downplayed) Vivaldi’s religious and secular vocal music.

It wasn’t until about 1930, and after some detective work, that the Biblioteca Nazionale of Turin acquired a large collection of Vivaldi’s music that had been bought by the Austrian ambassador to Venice in the second half of the eighteenth century and then split and passed down through two branches of his descendants. And there re-emerged such central masterpieces as the Gloria RV 589, the Stabat Mater RV 621, and not least the motet Nisi Dominus RV 608, receiving their first performances since Vivaldi’s time in 1939.

We know that the motet was probably composed about 1715, in one of the periods while Vivaldi was officially maestro de’ concerti at the Ospedale della Pietà, but unofficially was also filling in for the maestro de’ coro (who was responsible for religious music). And it is thought that it was written for the vespers service for the patronal feast of the Pietà (i.e. the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary), when Psalm 126, Nisi Dominus, is prescribed.

The motet, then, was written to be sung by a woman — and it could well have been intended for quite a mature contralto (for the retirement age from the coro of the Pietà was 40). But it seems that most modern recordings are by countertenors. Of video recordings by countertenors, there is a particularly good one by the one-time Cambridge choral scholar Tim Mead, performing in Santa Chapelle. If you want to hear a contralto, then Lucile Richardot also gives a very fine performance in Prague’s Church of Saints Simon and Jude. But in the end, my first choice has to be Andreas Scholl. Not just for his voice but also because, in the transcendent Cum Dederit (here at 6.15), Vivaldi marks the strings to be played “con piombi” (with lead mutes) and in this recording the orchestra obey, using unusually heavy mutes to produce such atmospheric tones. A wondrous effect.

In concert: Beatrice Rana plays Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D-Minor

The plan has been to post a weekly link to share some performances, ones that you too might find really worth pausing over for a reflective moment one evening. As I said at the outset, they might be old or new, maybe just part of a concert, perhaps just half an hour more or less — and available online at least for the next couple of weeks, so you can find a chance to stop to watch and listen.

This sixth week — in particularly grim days — let’s turn to Bach, who else? Here is the wonderful Beatrice Rana playing Bach BWV 1052 with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta in 2019. [22 min.]

I particularly like the way the small-forces orchestra is standing closely gathered round the piano as she plays. It seems to engender such engaged performances from both pianist and band. The result surely is a stunningly good interpretation of this great music.

In concert: Beethoven’s Gassenhauer Trio

Chamber music can be profound, difficult, emotionally wrenching. But much can be more fun, a delight for friends or scratch ensembles to play just for the enjoyment of it.

Last year, while in Manchester to play concerts as a soloist with the Hallé, Elisabeth Brauss got together with the orchestra’s Sergio Castelló López and Simon Turner to play Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B-flat major, Op. 11 for piano, clarinet and cello (known as the Gassenhauer Trio). The Hallé have just newly put a video recording online, and it is captivating, with the players’ enjoyment indeed shining through. So I thought I would share!  [Just 22 minutes]

In concert: Dana Zemtsov and PHQ

I have been listening to a couple of CDs by the violist Dana Zemtsov. And I thought I’d also share this video of a relaxed and very engaging short concert she gave with friends a couple of years ago. I particularly enjoyed the opening two pieces by Beethoven and Lutosławski, and the final pieces (starting at 51.40) by Shostakovich.


What took me to exploring Dana Zemtsov’s recordings was finding that she is to be the violist with the Pavel Haas Quartet for the coming months. She is obviously a very fine player, but also (or so it strikes me) her approach and playing style should be a terrific fit. [Added: And a review of their Madrid concert, a couple of days ago, comments that they were “perfectamente integrados”, mentioning particularly Dana Zemtsov’s viola as something “fantástico” given how new she is to the quartet.] I really do hope this works out for them all — we so need the PHQ to settle into a happy new line-up and then feel able get back to the recording studio!

Meanwhile, here are two BBC radio recordings from PHQ concerts at last year’s Bath Mozartfest. First, the Prokofiev’s String quartet No 2 (which they recorded on a prize-winning CD a dozen years ago) and Schubert’s String quartet in G major, D 887 (starting at 6.14). [You might need to use a VPN pointed to the UK to access BBC sounds.]

And some other PHQ news, in case you missed it. In the BBC Radio 3 Record Review programme last Saturday, their “Building a Library” episode was surveying recordings of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 8 in C minor. Surely one of the very greatest pieces of chamber music of the second half of the twentieth century. The reviewer’s top recommendation was the PHQ recording. So yet another accolade for them. You can listen to a podcast of the episode here. And then their recording of the Shostakovich was broadcast here (starting at 17.00).

In concert: Peter Jablonski and Elisabeth Brauss play Bacewicz

Not my usual kind of music! But, this week, here is a performance of Grażyna Bacewicz’s Double Piano Concerto of 1966. The soloists are Peter Jablonski, who last year released a very well received CD of Bacewicz piano works, and Elisabeth Brauss. And since this concert in December, they have recorded the Concerto together for another CD to be released in the spring. Visit the concert page here, press Katso (play), and go to about 22.30 for the Concerto (which last less than twenty minutes). I’m not sure what to make of the music, but I much enjoyed watching them play!

Peter Jablonski and Elisabeth Brauss also play a very short and delightful encore by Ligeti, at 42.10. And then, if you want something a lot calmer, here is another very short piece, this time by Hindemith, quite beautifully played by Elisabeth. Hopefully a trailer for a DG solo disk by her.

In concert: Chiaroscuro Quartet play Beethoven

Here is a video of the wonderful Chiaroscuro Quartet at a recent concert in Stockholm. They begin with Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 33, No. 4, followed (at 16:30) by Emilie Mayer’s String Quartet No. 1 (first performed in 1858). The concert concludes (from 47:30) with Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3.

I leave you to make your own mind up about the Mayer piece. But I’m really linking this video because of the performance of the third Rasumovsky. That quartet has been a quite special favourite of mine ever since I saw Godard’s One Femme Marieé at a very impressionable age — do you remember this scene? I have never found out which quartet’s performance was used in the film — though of the recordings from that era which I know, it is quite similar to that by the Amadeus.

The greatest live performance I’ve ever heard was by the Pavel Haas about three years ago, who were absolutely on fire at Wigmore Hall. I have never heard the transcendental second movement played more affectingly, or the final movement propelled with such passion. Astonishing (as the audience obviously felt at the time). But this performance by the Chiaroscuro, with their distinctive timbre on gut strings, is very fine indeed.

In concert: Pavel Kolesnikov plays Schubert D899

 

Since earlier in the pandemic, one cheering lifeline has been provided by filmed concerts. Here’s a plan. At least until the sunnier days of spring are here, I’m going to post a weekly link to share some performances, ones that you too might find really worth pausing over for a reflective moment one evening. They might be old or new, probably in fact just part of a concert, perhaps just half an hour more or less — and available online at least for the next couple of weeks, so you can find a chance to stop to watch and listen. Let’s see how it goes.

I’m starting with the opening of Pavel Kolesnikov’s Wigmore Hall concert just before Christmas. He began with a deeply felt, mesmeric, performance of Schubert’s D899 set of Impromptus. Kolesnikov astonished in the great G major sonata recently too; I find him a quite wonderful Schubert pianist. Enjoy!

(The impromptus last just over 30 mins: the rest of the concert — Bach, Adès, Schumann — is predictably excellent too!)

Music for the end of the year

Somewhat to my surprise, I have posted here over a hundred times in the last year. But very many of the posts were of (at best!) pretty ephemeral interest — for example, giving links to then current drafts of the Beginning Mathematical Logic Study Guide, to updated chapters for Gödel Without (Too Many) Tears (lots of those), and updated chapters for the stuttering notes on Category Theory (lots of those too). Other posts were logic/maths booknotes, not all exactly friendly. But I wasn’t always mean: there was warmer praise for a number of books, including the following very mixed bag:

I’ve also been intrigued by the opening chapters of

but I’m not at all sure what to make of Tennant’s deviant form of logicism and his handling of logical objects more generally. And as you’ve noticed, I’m still wrestling with and learning from

More, no doubt, about this very substantial book in the new year.


There have also been a dozen and a half posts on particular musical enthusiasms. So, since you may have a little more time over this holiday season, let me repost links to three wonderful filmed performances which are still available to watch. First, the wondrous Pavel Haas Quartet, recently at Wigmore Hall:

As I wrote before, it makes for a rather dramatic stage presence, Veronika Jarůšková with her mass of golden hair and a golden yellow dress catching the stage lights,  the rest of the quartet in the most subdued of subfusc. And there’s a lot of drama in the performances too. But in one respect, the way the quartet play couldn’t be further from what is visually suggested — the equal balance, the closeness of the ensemble, the intense way they listen to each other, is as ever remarkable. So here they are, playing Haydn’s Op. 76 No. 1, Prokofiev’s second String Quartet No. 2, and then Pavel Haas’s String Quartet No. 2 (that’s the one with percussion in the final movement). On this occasion, I thought, the Prokofiev was especially fine: it is difficult to imagine the deeply affecting Adagio being played better.

Next, here is Elisabeth Brauss, also performing at Wigmore Hall to the warmest of receptions:

The recital started Beethoven’s Op. 109 Sonata, which inspired Elisabeth to quite mesmerising playing with heart-stopping moments: transcendental music, and a performance to more than stand comparison with the very best I’ve heard. Sadly, this part of the recital is no longer available online. But in the rest of an engagingly varied programme she offered us some rarely performed Hindemith, Brahms’ late four Klavierstücke, and Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, all done with such verve and then wonderful delicacy, as variously called for — just a delight. You can watch here.

Thirdly, let’s revisit the extraordinarily stellar Lea Desandre, filmed by candlelight, from Rouen … escaping our mad world for an hour. Sheer delight again, and just wonderful singing and playing.

The Pavel Haas Quartet, at Wigmore Hall, online

It makes for a striking stage presence, Veronika Jarůšková with her mass of golden hair and a golden yellow dress catching the stage lights,  the rest of the quartet in the most subdued of subfusc. And there’s a lot of drama in the performances too. But in one respect, the way the quartet play couldn’t be further from what is visually suggested — the balance, the closeness of the ensemble, the intense way they listen to each other, is as ever remarkable. So here they are, from a Wigmore Hall concert last week, playing Haydn’s Op. 76 No. 1, Prokofiev’s second String Quartet No. 2, and then Pavel Haas’s String Quartet No. 2 (that’s the one with percussion in the final movement). On this occasion, I thought, the Prokofiev was especially fine: it is difficult to imagine the deeply affecting Adagio being played better.


Veronika Jarůšková founded the Pavel Haas Quartet in 2002, and she is the only remaining member from the original four — though she was soon able to swap cellists with the Skampa quartet, so was joined by her husband Peter Jarusek in 2004. There were then some changes of second violin until the quite excellent Marek Zwiebel joined in 2012. It seemed then that the Quartet was happily settled in a steady state. It must have been a great blow to them when their founder violist Pavel Nikl felt he had to leave the Quartet in 2016 because of family illness. Since then there have been — for whatever reasons, the internal dynamics of a quartet must always be complicated — more changes in the viola seat than they could possibly have wanted.

But for a few months now, it has been occupied by another Czech, Karel Untermüller — who looks on stage such a stolid figure, but his ability to have fitted into the Quartet’s style so seamlessly, so quickly, is rather extraordinary. However, it is not clear what the future holds — I see that at a February PHQ concert at Wigmore Hall, the viola is being played by Dana Zemtsov, while touring the USA in March the violist is Šimon Truszka.

The unsettled recent state of the Quartet must mean that recording plans are on hold for now. But Veronika Jarůšková, Peter Jarusek and Boris Giltburg are going into the studio this month (I think) to record Dvořák trios together. The Czech concerts where they have performed these have had rave reviews. So another terrific CD to look forward to in 2023!

PHQ, at the Edinburgh Festival

Photo by Petra Hajska

There was an extraordinary concert by the Pavel Haas Quartet at the Edinburgh Festival on Tuesday morning, with a BBC radio recording available for a month. They gave very fine performances of

Haydn: String Quartet in G major Op. 76/1
Martinů: String Quartet No 7 H314
Schubert: String Quartet in G D.887

The Schubert was particularly intensely felt. But what made the performances little less than miraculous was that they playing with (yet another) new violist. The gifted Luosha Fang was with them as recently as the East Neuk Festival in early July; and interviews when their Brahms Quintets disk came out a bit earlier gave every impression that after a year she was very much part of the Quartet. But now, it seems, more trials and tribulations for the Quartet and, for whatever reason, a sudden parting of the ways. The viola seat is now being occupied — at least for the rest of the year — by a Czech compatriot, Karel Untermüller. So there he was, just a few weeks into the role: yet the ensemble seemed (at least to my not very expert ears) to be as remarkable as ever. Which, as I say, was surely rather extraordinary.

There is a good piece on the concert here.

Added And there is now also a rave review here. It finishes “These musicians are at the very top of their form: their playing is virtuosic, their tone is sensational, and they listen to one another as though their lives depend on it. In short, wonderful.” Perhaps it was the very necessity of extra-extra-close attention to each other, playing with a brand new member, that produced  such fine performances.

Scroll to Top