Wigmore Hall is providing a great service, hosting concerts, and livestreaming them all over the world. They can be viewed for thirty days after the fact. These livestreams are free, though the hall asks for donations, understandably.
We are talking about the hall at 36 Wigmore Street, in the Marylebone section of London. This is probably the most famous “chamber hall,” or small hall, in the world. It has 545 seats. From September 13 to December 22, Wigmore Hall is staging one hundred concerts, featuring more than two hundred performers. Most of these performers are “U.K.-born or U.K.-based,” as the hall says. One of the purposes of the concerts is to “get artists earning again.” When rules permit, the concerts have an audience, though, even then, a limited, “socially distanced” one—and all patrons wear masks.
Mixed in with the hundred concerts are almost thirty “lunchtime concerts,” arranged in association with bbc Radio 3. The thought of a midday concert puts me in mind of Dame Myra Hess and World War II. The great pianist organized midday concerts at the National Gallery throughout the war. In all, there were 1,698 of them, and Dame Myra played in 150 of them herself. They were good for morale. I do not say that a pandemic is the same as a war. I think we can all find similarities, however.
Would you care for a sampling of the Wigmore offerings?
I was interested in a recital by Francesco Piemontesi, a Swiss pianist. I had heard him at the Salzburg Festival, twice, in Mozart concertos. He had proved himself an elegant and intelligent pianist. He “never put a foot wrong,” as many say about Queen Elizabeth II. Piemontesi was born in Locarno in 1983. He studied under Arie Vardi, a prominent Israeli, and worked with several leading concertizers, including Alexis Weissenberg, Alfred Brendel, and Murray Perahia.
In Wigmore Hall, Piemontesi played two big sonatas, very different from each other. The first was by Schubert, the second by Liszt. To begin the program, however, he played a piece by Helmut Lachenmann, related to Schubert. Lachenmann was born in Stuttgart in 1935. His first published piece appeared in 1956, when he was twenty. It’s Five Variations on a Theme by Franz Schubert. What’s the theme? An obscure piece, the Waltz in C-sharp minor, D. 643. The variations are a fine combination of intellect and charm. They also require some virtuosity.
Piemontesi did not put a foot wrong. He was elegant and intelligent, as in Mozart. And of virtuosity, he had plenty. He was smooth and assured, neat and accurate. Myra Hess would have smiled in appreciation.
The program continued with Schubert’s Sonata in G major, D. 894. This is a wondrous, almost otherworldly work. Robert Schumann called it Schubert’s “most perfect” sonata, in “form and spirit.” A pianist has to be able to sing in this piece. It is even more lyrical than most Schubert. The pianist also has to get himself out of the way, letting the sublimity of the music come through. Francesco Piemontesi played the piece superbly. He had complete authority, complete assurance, thorough understanding. There was an air of inevitability. This is the way it goes. Simple as that.
Franz Liszt wrote only one sonata, his B-minor stunner. A pianist must be stormy, delicate, imaginative, disciplined—and very, very virtuosic. Fingers are the price of admission to the piece. And then there is the musical imagination or sympathy. As Piemontesi had proved himself a Mozartean, he now proved himself a Romantic and Lisztian. The notes were no problem, at all. And the music had its drama, at every turn.
I want to call this performance “moderate,” but that implies a tameness, and you must have daring—abandon—to do this piece justice. Piemontesi had plenty of daring and abandon. But he kept his head about him. This was a neat, tidy, beautiful Liszt Sonata. But make no mistake, it was exciting as hell, even if you were at home with your laptop, as I was.
Piemontesi played one encore, sticking with Liszt. This was a little piece from Years of Pilgrimage, Book 1, which is the book that sketches out Switzerland. Was Piemontesi nodding to his homeland? In any case, he played “Au lac de Wallenstadt” with model gracefulness.
Anastasia Kobekina, a young Russian cellist, gave a recital with Luka Okros, a young Georgian pianist. They played Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff. You know the Rachmaninoff they played: the Cello Sonata. And the Stravinsky? His Suite italienne, drawn from his ballet Pulcinella. He worked out this suite with Gregor Piatigorsky, one of the great cellists of the day. The music is sparkling, clever, irresistible.
By Kobekina and Okros, it was very competently played. But did it have its full sparkle and the rest? I’m afraid not. This is a hard performance to criticize. There was nothing wrong with it—except at the level of intangibles. Some of the playing was flat, not of pitch but of spirit. The pianist in particular sometimes lapsed into the mechanical.
In between the two works on the program, Anastasia Kobekina spoke to the audience. She is a winsome young woman. In her remarks, she cited a story: During World War II, it was suggested that the British government cut spending for the arts, in favor of the war effort. Churchill said, “Then what are we fighting for?” This is a nice story but not a true one. Obviously, Churchill valued the arts, and he once said, “The arts are essential to a complete national life.” Very well put (as usual).
Before I move on to the Rachmaninoff sonata, let me report that the concert’s page-turner wore a mask, a vivid reminder of the times we are in.
The Cello Sonata is one of the best things Sergei Rachmaninoff ever wrote. His genius overflows in it. The slow movement, Andante, I often describe as “great-hearted.” There is a great-hearted element of the last movement, too. Kobekina and Okros gave a commendable account of the sonata. On her instrument, the cellist proved a very good singer.
Speaking of that, she played Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise as an encore, beautifully. I would have liked a bit of a sob toward the end, and Kobekina was straight—but lovely, inarguably.
Another concert featured a veteran cellist, Steven Isserlis, along with his regular pianist, Connie Shih. Isserlis is a Brit, London-born; Shih is from Canada. They played a French program, or French-ish one, and it was a program that included several short pieces. I was so pleased to see this. It seems to me that concertizers eschew short pieces in favor of long ones. Therefore, a lot of good music gets skipped over.
Isserlis and Shih began with a piece by Reynaldo Hahn, a composer who is best known for his songs—two of them, in particular: “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” and “À Chloris.” The cello-and-piano piece in question is amply songful. Indeed, it’s called Variations chantantes sur un air ancien. What is the air ancien? It comes from the opera Xerse—not Serse, by Handel, but Xerse, by Francesco Cavalli, the seventeenth-century Italian. Hahn’s work is beautiful, smart, and lovable.
So was its performance, by Isserlis and Shih. Both players exhibited great warmth and nobility. The cellist sang, yes, but so did the pianist, and her job, given the instrument, is harder.
We then heard the third (and final) movement of Saint-Saëns’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in C minor. Just one movement? Isn’t that taking a short-pieces view too far? Well, listen to a story: Camille Saint-Saëns unveiled his sonata in 1872. His mother did not like it—the third movement, that is. So, good son, he wrote another third movement, to replace the original. I like his second attempt just fine. But I’m not sure I prefer it to the first.
In fact, I think that Madame Saint-Saëns was nuts, and that Camille was nuts for listening to her. His original last movement is saucy, fetching, and brilliant. Steven Isserlis made a splendid case for it, along with his partner. I’m glad that this movement—this piece, it would be better to say—has legs.
Next on the program was a new work, or new enough: it was premiered in 2009 by Isserlis and the composer, who was at the piano. The composer is Thomas Adès, the Englishman born in 1971. The work has a French title and French headings: Lieux retrouvés, whose four movements are “Les eaux,” “La montagne,” “Les champs,” and “La ville: Cancan macabre.”
The first movement is watery, as advertised—or you can at least hear it that way. The music is serene and dreamy. Then it gets spiky and confused, before calming. About the following movement, Steven Isserlis has written this, in a program note:
The second movement portrays mountaineers as well as mountains, their footsteps crunching on the paths. The movement functions as a scherzo, with a trio section representing particularly hardy climbers, yodelling as they trudge. I was a bit worried by the dramatic end of this movement, concerned that a mountaineer had fallen off the mountain; but I was reassured to learn that it represented merely the defiant planting of a flag.
Can you discern any of this, from listening to the music? No. But, once you have been told, you can hear nothing but. Such is the way of almost all “program music,” i.e., music meant to depict or evoke something concrete.
Adès’s third movement, about the fields, is peaceful and contemplative, filled with sweet sixths. Isserlis played with remarkable control in the upper reaches of his instrument. The fourth movement, about the wicked city, is wicked fun, although “your mileage may vary,” as they say on social media.
The composer was on hand in Wigmore Hall to take a bow—a masked bow (not to be confused with a masked ball).
To continue the program, Connie Shih began the Franck Sonata in A major. Isserlis quickly intervened, telling her that she had begun the wrong piece. He gave the audience a charming explanation: “Tom made us nervous” (“Tom” being Thomas Adès). Scheduled before the Franck sonata were Chaminade’s Sommeil d’enfant and—speaking of sleeping babies—Fauré’s Berceuse. The former is a Chaminade song, transcribed by the composer for cello and piano; the latter was originally written for violin and piano. It is such a wonderful lullaby, that Fauré: easygoing. Baby would want to stay awake, to listen to it over and over.
Franck’s Sonata in A major—his Violin Sonata, really—was transcribed for cello and piano by Jules Delsart, a French cellist who lived from 1844 to 1900. I always think that the cello sounds too low in this sonata, at least for a movement or two. But then the ear adjusts.
After the sonata—admirably performed, by both players—Isserlis said the following, to an admiring audience: “Okay, a very short encore for you. It would probably be more magical if I didn’t say anything, but I know you would then spend the whole one minute asking yourself what it is.” This is one of the most endearing things I have ever heard spoken from a concert stage. You want to know maybe the most endearing thing? It was uttered in this same period by Diana Damrau, the German soprano, in an online concert for the Metropolitan Opera. Looking into the camera, she made some remarks about music in a time of pandemic—finishing with, “And now I’ll stop talking, because I’m really not a talker.”
I’ll love her forever for that (and for her general excellence).
What Isserlis announced, and then played with Ms. Shih, was the slow movement of a cello-and-piano sonata by Henri Duparc. The composer wrote it when he was nineteen, and it is his only chamber work. We know Duparc for his songs—all seventeen of them. The best known, possibly, is “L’invitation au voyage,” setting a poem by Baudelaire. I am very glad to know about this cello sonata, and Isserlis was absolutely right: it would have been more magical to say nothing, and I would have spent the whole minute wondering.
Was I talking of transcriptions? In another Wigmore recital, Julian Bliss, the British clarinetist, played a transcription of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs—his own transcription. (Bliss was accompanied by a South African pianist, James Baillieu.) Clearly, Bliss loved these songs so much, he wanted to sing them, or play them, himself. When it comes to these songs, I have Hans Hotter and other basses and baritones in my head. The clarinet sounded all wrong, not to mention the absence of words. Still, I appreciated Bliss’s appreciation.
The very next day in Wigmore Hall—by sheer coincidence, I believe—Igor Levit, the Russian-German pianist, played the Four Serious Songs, too. He played them in the piano-only arrangement of Max Reger. Levit sounded thoroughly Brahmsian, playing deep into the keys, drawing from them rich, fat, plush tones. He did not treat these songs as sacred music, from which to remain aloof. No, they were flesh-and-blood, full of human emotion—and mesmerizing. I think Brahms would have been pleased with his “piano pieces.” And he would have smiled on Julian Bliss, too, and thanked him.
Do you care for a fashion note? Igor Levit came out wearing a red mask with white polka dots. He then removed it and laid it on the side of the piano, the way some people do their hankies.
We’ve had singing by pianists, cellists, a clarinetist—maybe close with some singing by a singer? He was James Gilchrist, a British tenor, accompanied by Anna Tilbrook, a British pianist. Their program had a theme: loneliness and solitude. It began with Purcell—“O solitude, my sweetest choice”—and ended with Samuel Barber: his Hermit Songs, of course. In between, there was Schubert’s Einsamkeit and also a song-cycle written in 2017: Under Alter’d Skies. It was composed by Jonathan Dove, a Brit born in 1959, who composed his cycle expressly for Gilchrist and Tilbrook.
His texts are from Tennyson: In Memoriam A.H.H., the poem that Tennyson wrote in honor and memory of Arthur Henry Hallam, his dear friend—and the fiancé of his sister—who died in 1833 at twenty-two. Tennyson named his first son after him. Hallam Tennyson became the second governor-general of Australia, in 1903. In Memoriam A.H.H. is ripe for music.
Dove’s cycle is in seven sections—seven songs—and the words of the first begin thus:
Fair ship, that from the Italian shore
Sailest the placid ocean-plains
With my lost Arthur’s loved remains,
Spread thy full wings, and waft him o’er.
The music here is so, so English. Also, British composers have been writing about the sea for hundreds of years, and writing well, haven’t they? Furthermore, what is it about British music with its sad/not-sad quality? I often use an oxymoron in reference to British music: “happy melancholy.” They are masters at it.
“ ’Tis the gift to be simple,” goes an old American hymn. Jonathan Dove has this gift. In Under Alter’d Skies, he writes economically, not using a note more than necessary. He allows Tennyson’s words to speak, through song. James Gilchrist sang with a sweetness and sensitivity, and he sang a beautiful English. At the piano, Anna Tilbrook did her part with all the qualities necessary.
Throughout this cycle, emotions tend to be subdued, or submerged. They are an inch or two below the surface, but they are unmistakable and palpable. What did I say a moment ago? “So, so English.”
The words of the fourth section, or fourth song, begin as follows:
With weary steps I loiter on,
Tho’ always under alter’d skies
The purple from the distance dies,
My prospect and horizon gone.
You see where the title of the cycle comes from. I can tell you, too, that the music at the beginning of this section sounds exactly like the words: those weary steps, loitering. I believe that Tennyson would find his work enhanced—brought out, adorned, honored. This is a significant achievement by Jonathan Dove, and I hope and expect that singers will perform this cycle for a long time to come.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 4, on page 58
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