An Evening of Exceptional and Highly Imaginative Music Making

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bridge, Fauré, Debussy, Shostakovich: Adam Walker (Flute) Anthony Marwood (Violin) Lawrence Power (Viola) Steven Isserlis (Cello) Lucy Wakeford (Harp) Alexander Melnikov (Piano) Wigmore Hall, London, 17.9.2013 (RB)

Bridge: Cello Sonata in D minor (1913-17)
Fauré: Violin Sonata No. 2 in E minor Op 108 (1916-17)
Debussy: Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915)
Shostakovich: Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor Op 67 (1944)


This highly imaginative programme featured four contrasting works which were composed in the shadow of the two world wars.  All six musicians are distinguished concert soloists in their own right which probably accounted for a packed Wigmore Hall.  I was pleased to see soloists of this calibre tackling lesser known works by Bridge and Fauré, both of which are superb and appealing works which deserve to be played much more often.

FrankBridge’s Cello Sonata is a late romantic work which was written over the course of the First World War.  The engaging thematic material has an immediate appeal but it also has a restless and uneasy quality, no doubt reflecting Bridge’s own growing unease with the appalling slaughter and duration of the Great War.  The opening Allegro ben moderato opens almost in mid-conversation.  Isserlis gave a very assured performance, producing a wonderfully deep and rich sound and perfectly moulded phrases against a shimmering accompaniment from Melnikov.  The balance was perfectly judged throughout and I was struck how Isserlis was able to project the material and draw the audience in during the quieter more intimate passages. The slow second movement encloses a scherzo and Melnikov’s shaping of the opening harmonic progressions was very well judged while both soloists captured perfectly the biting, edgy quality of the scherzo.

Fauré’s Second Violin Sonata is not as famous or played as often as the First but it is a very fine work.  As a young man, Fauré enlisted to fight in the Franco-Prussian War and won the Croix de Guerre but he declined to write patriotic music.  In 1914 his son Philippe enlisted to fight in the Great War and during this time many of Fauré’s compositions reflect a deep anxiety and concern for his son’s safety.  The Second Violin Sonata, like many of Fauré’s late compositions, features unusual and daring harmonic progressions and it has a rather elusive quality.  In the opening Allegro non troppo Anthony Marwood produced seamless long, legato phrases while moving effortlessly between registers while Melnikov brought out the fanciful and quicksilver qualities of the accompaniment.  Marwood brought a heightened sense of dramatic intensity to the music while at the same time negotiating the intricate figurations with perfect intonation.  The second movement Andante was a little faster than I was expecting but the choice of tempo worked surprisingly well.  Marwood brought out the songful qualities and lyricism of the violin part while deftly navigating the harmonic twists and turns.  Throughout the movement, there seemed to be a sense of striving for resolution.  The last movement is a rondo which features a recapitulation of some of the themes from the first movement.  The incremental build up in intensity was very well judged by both soloists – they managed to achieve this while at the same time retaining the sense of refinement in the music – and the coda was delivered with brio.

The first half concluded with Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp which was written in Dieppe in 1915 – barely 100 miles from the battlefields and trenches.  Debussy seemed to be much less affected by the events of the Great War than some of his compatriots and the Sonata is full of light, caprice and colour.  All three players brought a wonderfully cultivated quality and lightness of touch to the opening Pastorale.  They were perfectly in sync, producing a shifting web of textures and sonorities with the fluctuations in tempo beautifully judged.  The opening of the second movement minuet was supremely elegant and graceful while the trio brought out the sparkling and effervescent qualities in the latter part of the movement.  The finale was well executed with all three players evoking darker colours and bringing a greater sense of urgency to the music but the musical tapestry they created was not quite as compelling as the other two movements.

The second half consisted of one work – Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio which was written in 1944 as a memorial to a close friend of the composer.  It was written at the time when reports were beginning to reach Russia of the Nazi death camps and massacres and, with its distinctly Jewish themes, it stands out as a great cry of defiance against the anti-semitism which was so pervasive at the time.  Alexander Melnikov has become increasingly celebrated for his interpretations of Shostakovich so I was particularly interested to see how he would approach this work.  Isserlis did a wonderful job evoking the whispered harmonics which open the work and there were some extraordinarily vivid tonal contrasts between these thin sounds and the fuller, more rounded sounds produced by Marwood.  All three players controlled the contrapuntal elements well while characterising superbly the contrasting musical episodes.  The scherzo is a caustic piece and it was here played with enormous energy and vigour.  Both string players really dug into the strings to bring out the biting character of the piece while Melnikov deployed a hard, steely tone in the brilliantly shaped piano figurations.  Melnikov invested the opening chords of the Largo with a sombre power and authority while the string players brought an anguished and brooding intensity to the sombre melodies which ensued.  The final movement is the most famous of the four with its ‘Dance of Death’ using overtly Jewish melody.  All three players gave us an exceptional range of textures, tone colours and dynamics to bring out the full horror of this music in all its grotesque and doom-laden glory.

Overall, this was an evening of exceptional and highly imaginative music making.  Bravo to all the players!


Robert Beattie