A Wonderfully Civilised Late-Evening Concert at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Couperin, Quantz, Benda, Duphly, Rameau, and Philidor: Adam Walker (flute), Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord). Wigmore Hall, London, 24.6.2016. (MB)

CouperinConcert royal no.4 in E minor

Quantz – Two Capriccii

Franz Benda – Flute Sonata in E minor

RameauPièces de clavecin en concerts: ‘Le Forqueray’

Jacques DuphlyTroisième livre de pièces de clavecin: ‘Le Forqueray’

Pierre Danican Philidor – Suite in E minor, op.1 no.5

This was my first visit to the Wigmore Hall’s series of late (10 p.m.) Friday evening concerts; I am sure that it will not be my last. It is a wonderfully civilised time to hear music, and these were wonderfully civilised performances of wonderfully civilised music. Adam Walker and Mahan Esfahani left one wanting more – which is just as it should be.

The fourth of Couperin’s Concerts royaux made for an arresting and varied opening work. Its Prélude offered impetus and leisure; what could be more Versailles-like? Harmonies and melodies alike proved generative, but above all juste. The Allemande proved a playful response (even, I am attempted to suggest, quasi-liturgically and with an ear to the Boulezian future, a playful répons). Yet, as one listened, many of the same qualities as those heard in the preceding dance were revealed. The first Courante likewise presented continued affinity and difference: very much the trick in a Baroque Suite (so very different from the world of sonata form). In that ‘French’ dance, and in its ‘Italian’ counterpart, variegation was very much the thing. Character without exaggeration was to be heard and experienced; we were made, or perhaps better, gently yet firmly led, to listen. Dynamic contrasts, terraced and otherwise, were always meaningful, always tending towards musical explication. The Sarabande, graceful, but certainly not in a merely generic way, had me visualise knowing glances between dancing partners. A keen Rigaudon and a Forlane (opening with Esfahani tapping the rhythm on the case of the harpsichord) of impeccable rhythmic, and thus melodic, impetus proved both charming and exploratory.

Two Quantz Capriccii for solo flute followed. Walker truly transformed what can easily sound like mere studies – in a way, that is precisely what they are – into music, beautifully phrased and shaped. Esfahani joined him once again for Franz Benda’s E minor Sonata (published in 1756). Again, juste was the word that came to mind in the first movement, ‘Largo, mà un poco andante’: not just in mood, not just concerning tempo, but also with respect to its status as chamber music in the truest rather than just the default sense. The second movement, ‘Arioso, un poco allegro’ proved both quickened and quickening. It was absorbing to follow its twists and turns, our musicians the surest of guides. More than that, it was fun. Rhythm and harmony likewise worked together in the final ‘Presto’, goading each other to the conclusion.

Esfahani had the stage to himself for two ‘Le Forqueray’ pieces, the first by Rameau, the second by Jacques Duphly. In the former, rhetoric ‘spoke’, without the exaggeration sometimes marring performances of such music as music. Rather to my surprise, although I greatly enjoyed the busy quality of that piece, I found that Duphly’s perhaps went deeper. Or at least its mood was more thoughtful (the piece, that is, for both performances were excellent). Rubato was well judged: enhancing, enticing.

Pierre Danican Philidor’s E minor Suite concluded proceedings. The variety of flute colours summoned up by Walker from his instrument was not the least of the joys of the Prélude. Likewise the colours from Esfahani’s harpsichord. The players took their time, and the performance was all the better for it. Much the same might be said of the ensuing Allemande, although its mood and its mode of eloquence were, of course, quite different. The Sarabande took my mind back to that of Couperin, as much on account of subtle difference as kinship. The give and take between musicians ensured considerable variety, without sacrifice to a strong sense of the whole. The final Gigue did just what a Gigue should. Far less hard-driven than one too all often hears, this was a musical delight to conclude an evening of similar yet different delights.

Mark Berry


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