thu 28/05/2020

110th Anniversary Gala 2, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

110th Anniversary Gala 2, Wigmore Hall

110th Anniversary Gala 2, Wigmore Hall

Starry birthday line-up does passionate justice to Schubert and Elgar

Ghosts legendary and personal dog the nostalgic footsteps of Elgar's utterly characteristic late Piano Quintet - though who knew the old man had as much red blood in him as last night's world-class team managed to squeeze out? And circumstantial ghosts have often niggled during the little portion of the Wigmore Hall's century-and-a-decade history I've witnessed, namely the spectre of sweltering at the back behind rows of nodding heads seemingly as old as the hall itself. But there are also the noble spirits of great performances, and heaven knows this sedate old venue has seen a few of those. I've already heard one such this year, and yesterday provided another.

And what a line-up they fielded to follow the first instalment of Takács Quartet and Stephen Hough the previous evening. There was the occasionally wraith-like playing of cellist Steven Isserlis - perhaps a little too pale in a because-it's-there duo movement by Beethoven alongside Tabea Zimmermann, finest of all living viola players for going straight to the tonal and expressive heart of the matter. But no one could have conjured the spectre at the feast of Schubert's majestic-humane E-flat Piano Trio more hauntingly than Isserlis. True, it appears no less than three times in the finale having dominated the dead-man-walking second movement; but the cellist's combination of nearly vibrato-free line and elegant trills duly froze the blood. And his tone at the dead centre of the opening Allegro sounded uncannily like the human voice.

Yet despite that peerless violinist Joshua Bell's cultured soaring, which later took on new wings in four surprising and well-contrasted Romantic Pieces by Dvořák, it was the perfectly sprung articulation of Jeremy Denk which shone throughout the Piano Trio. Here's another of those pianists who prefers to take the responsive chamber line rather than hold an entire recital alone - though I've heard him in the States give the most vivid and seamless of all solo Prokofiev performances, a revelatory account of the Visions Fugitives. Schubert asks far more of the pianist, though, than Elgar in his Quintet, where the late-Romantic writing is mostly arpeggios and flowery roulades for the keyboard, and much more interesting for the strings.

Even so, Denk set up in furtive octaves the fleshcreep which is such a feature of Elgar's formally unpredictable soul-searching and scared the hell out of us with the shock big chords of the first-movement development. Believe what you will of the inspirational source: sinister trees in a Sussex park near the cottage where the composer was working, lightning-struck Spanish monks - curiously the colourful folkish inflections in the piece seem more like the homages to the Jewish people in Shostakovich's much later chamber music - or simply a self portrait of Elgar as a "knight of ghosts and shadows".

pic_Tabea_Zimmermann_Portrait2_CR_MarcoBorggreveWhat's obvious is that this kind of naked emotion needn't shame us in this post-modern age and can't be compromised; nor was it from any of the magnificent five. Elgar is remarkably even-handed in his elegiac solos; second violin Pamela Frank got to draw distinguished dark tones, complementing Zimmermann (pictured right by Marco Borggreve), who stole the poetic limelight in the Adagio and effortlessly injected a fantasy figure as the finale dwindles from robust self-assertion to moonstruck reminiscence. Isserlis, too, reminded us that the introspection of the Cello Concerto was just around the corner when Elgar completed his chamber works. The most vivid moment of an unforgettable evening came at the very heart of the Quintet as each of the players, from Isserlis up to Bell, threw down an impassioned gauntlet, only to explode in a communal frenzy of grief subsiding to a hint of the Dies Irae. A note of requiem might not be inappropriate for all that the Wigmore's seen in its 110 years, but the final flourish of boisterous self-assertion was even more apt as the grand old institution builds on its past - and its patrons - while doing its best to embrace the new.

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