Three Fine Players Unite at Wigmore Hall

Schubert, Debussy, Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Bartók: Anthony Marwood (violin), Martin Fröst (clarinet), Marc-André Hamelin (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 28.2.2014 (MB)

Schubert – Rondo in B minor, D 895
Debussy Première rhapsodie
StravinskyL’Histoire du soldat: suite for violin, clarinet, and piano
Poulenc – Clarinet Sonata
Debussy – Violin Sonata in G minor
Bartók Contrasts

In many ways, this proved an enjoyable recital – once past the opening Schubert Rondo in B minor. I cannot imagine what possessed the musicians to include it. Quite apart from the lack of connection with an otherwise twentieth-century programme, it is a weak piece, whose revival does the composer no favours whatsoever. It might have been made to work with a compelling performance; here both Marc-André Hamelin and Anthony Marwood sounded decidedly out of sorts, displaying little chemistry. Hamelin struggled to conjure a plausibly Schubertian piano tone, often sounding harsh, his opening chords – and their repetition – almost ludicrously so. And goodness, this piece overstays its welcome: its lengths are anything but ‘heavenly’.

With Debussy’s Première rhapsodie, we entered a different world in every respect. Hamelin set up the piece well in terms of opening sonority, suspense, and seductiveness. Martin Fröst – here as elsewhere, undoubtedly the star of the evening – offered beguiling clarinet tone and subtly telling phrasing. Rubato was well judged; indeed, the performance as a whole sounded wonderfully effortless. Hamelin sounded by turns languorous and nimble, whilst Fröst showed the truth of the adage that technique is the liberation of the imagination, his account of the clarinet part as sexy as that of the slinkiest saxophonist.

Stravinsky’s suite for the three instruments of movements from The Soldier’s Tale has sometimes come in for adverse criticism. I cannot imagine why; it works very well, and certainly did so in this performance. Throughout the players, especially Hamelin, offered an excellent onward, motoric tread. Marwood seemed far better attuned to this music than to Schubert, properly capturing the weird expressiveness of Stravinsky’s decidedly eccentric writing for the violin. Fröst’s high notes in the ‘Marche du soldat’ proved nicely menacing, his coolness in ‘Le Violon du soldat’ a proper foil to that violin. Not for the first time, I thought of jazz, both the similarity and also the very real differences. The ‘Petit concert’ was brilliantly evocative; one could almost see the original ‘show’. Well-characterised dances followed, leading us into the closing ‘Danse du diable’, a frenetic heir to the Rite as well as neo-classical precursor. It teemed, as it were, with alienated and damaged life.

Following the interval, Fröst and Hamelin offered a fine account of Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata, full of dark, at first understated energy. The first movement’s typical sudden shifts of mood were handled well, likewise the general ebb and flow. Both players offered quite breathtaking hushed playing. Ultimately, quite rightly, the composer’s serious side emerged as victor. Even when predictable, as sometimes it is, the slow movement remained lovable. Again, it was perhaps the quiet intensity that was most impressive. The finale was razor-sharp, yet playful.

The Debussy G minor Violin Sonata followed. Again, the opening piano chords announced a very different voice: cooler, yes, but in an Isadora Duncan-like, faux Grecian manner. That, however, would be to overlook the vigour and passion of what would follow. Especially in the first two movements, we were in no doubt as to the broad range of expression Debussy summons up through, rather than despite, his late classicism. The ‘Intermède’ was sprightly, yet the players knew also when to relax. However, there was perhaps a little too much of the plain-spoken to the finale, which lacked in fantasy.

Finally, Bartók’s Contrasts, which once again brought all three players together. The opening twists and turns, of which there are many, were convincingly communicated. In this ‘Verbunkos’, Fröst again emerged as primus inter pares, a proper heir to Benny Goodman. Structure and expressive means continued to be conveyed as one in ‘Pihenő’. I mean no disrespect to Hamelin to say that some of the most revealing moments were those in which the piano fell silent; it is rather a tribute to Bartók’s extraordinary imagination. The final ‘Sebes’ was viscerally exciting, wanting nothing in agility. It shared the virtues of its predecessors with a wildness that was entirely its own.

Mark Berry