tue 25/06/2024

Steven Isserlis, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Viviane Hagner, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Steven Isserlis, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Viviane Hagner, Wigmore Hall

Steven Isserlis, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Viviane Hagner, Wigmore Hall

Star soloists make best case possible for Saint-Saëns but possibly not the Fauré

Bavouzet, Isserlis and Hagner: 'It was beautiful the way Isserlis and Hagner sat listening to each other despatch the three love songs'

First, an admission. I have a blindspot for the chamber work of Fauré, Saint-Saëns and Ravel. I've tried my best, acquainted myself with the most stirring recordings of the finest pieces, got friends to hold my hand. But I've never been able to shake off the feeling that these French composers are mostly a bit drippy in this genre, a bit Watercolour Challenge, a bit I-eat-yoghurt-vote-Lib-Dem-and-don't-have-much-of-a-pulse. So last night was laser-eye-treatment time.

If Steven Isserlis and his clever colleagues couldn't banish my blindness at their Wigmore Hall recital, no one could.

Thankfully, I only needed to hear a few bars of the Saint-Saëns First Cello Sonata to realise how foolish I'd been about this particular Frenchman. It's not a pally work. Neither performer does much melodic backscratching. Rather, ideas are spat out by cellist or pianist in a rather visceral way. The two soloists appear there to amplify each other's alienation and misery and by turn ours, too. And they did this impressively. The dry, aggressive staccato runs from pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet proved what an infernal atmosphere could be conjured up in the right hands. And to see that impressive grey mop of hair attempt to flee Isserlis's head like it was a lion's mane mid-hunt was a joy in itself.

Most interestingly, the influence of Bach seemed more prominent than ever. He was there as always in the slow movement but he was also present beyond this. Was this down to the translucency of Bavouzet's pianism? Or the result of the extraordinary explosion of textures that Isserlis was coming out with? There seemed to be a holistic counterpoint going on in this performance of not just melody but of timbre and style, dryness, wetness, airiness, earthiness all cavorting together like a Bach fugue. Then the third movement throws up the final astonishing idea: the unexpected scampering triplets that Bavouzet and Isserlis chased to the end with such ferocity it looked like they might set fire to their fingers.
They followed this with the world premiere of the original final movement of the First Cello Sonata that had been thought lost. Saint-Saëns had replaced it as a result of objections to its quality from his mother, who was obviously not easy to please. Isserlis read out a letter that she had sent to her son on receiving a note from him that he was nervous about a performance. "Dear Friend," she wrote, "You make me ill with your fears. I used to think you a man; you are merely a coward. I treat you with contempt... I believed I had brought up a man. I have raised up only a girl of degenerative stock... Play as you ought to play - an artist of great talent. Either you will play well, or I will renounce you as my child."
A bit strong but not entirely wrong. The original movement is a little weak, particularly towards the end, though there are some ravishingly catchy moments. Which sort of sums up my attitude to Ravel's Violin Sonata, even after the performance by Bavouzet and Viviane Hagner. Bavouzet offered some interest, whether in playing up the dissonances in the first movement or just feeling the beat in the second, something that Hagner seemed incapable of. She has a lusty, vivid sound when at full whack but is strangely uninvolving at other times.
Why each note and phrase were where they were was a mystery to my ears
So we came to the Fauré in the second half. First up, his easy little Berceuse, Op 16. Only a heart of stone could have resisted Isserlis's rendition. He clearly loves this work and he was cradling it as if he were its father. Happily, it was swaddled in two equally tender Berceuses from his compatriots, both delivered by Hagner while Isserlis waited on stage. It was beautiful the way the two soloists sat or stood listening to each other despatch the three love songs - for that's what they became.
Fauré's Piano Trio in D minor was next. I was ready for it. Pumped for it. Primed to acknowledge its and his genius. Sadly it wasn't to be. The blindspot had shifted slightly. I was now forced to acknowledge the ripeness of Fauré. There was blood in this old goat for certain. But my initial prejudice of boredom had been replaced by bafflement. Don't get me wrong; this was an extremely fine performance, fluent and full-bodied. But why each full-bodied note and fluent phrase were where they were was a mystery to my ears. If only Fauré had had a Mrs Saint-Saëns, I thought.
"Dear Friend," she wrote to her son Saint-Saëns, "You make me ill... I believed I had brought up a man. I have raised up only a girl of degenerative stock"

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For a fan who has been waiting nearly 20 years to hear a live performance of Ravel's violin sonata, which is forever associated in her mind with Emanuelle Beart in 'Un Coeur en Hiver' nursing her fingertips after a rehearsal in which the pizzicato takes its toll, this concert was a treat and Hagner's playing delightful.

I'm still puzzling this one out: does it mean Stravinskyites are Tories and Brahmsians vote Labour? I think I've just about understood that I'm a soft-centred softy for loving this repertoire; but I'm happy to confess I wish I'd attended this concert with its wonderful players and such an alluring programme. And I've never once fainted in my life. As for voting Lib Dem... well, that's out of the question now, isn't it? Four and a half years from now the very idea will have faded into history.

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