A Wonderful Wigmore Hall Learning Gala

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn: Joshua Bell (violin), Arisa Fujita (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola), Rachel Roberts (viola), Steven Isserlis (cello), Dénes Várjon (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 24.7.2017. (CS)

Mendelssohn – Cello Sonata No.2 in D major Op.58; Piano Trio No.2 in C minor Op.66; String Quintet No.1 in A major Op.18

Not many concerts at the Wigmore Hall begin with a film screening.  But, this Rubinstein Circle-sponsored recital given by six illustrious international artists began with a short presentation, projected onto the cupola wall, illustrating the breadth and diversity of the events and activities enabled by the Wigmore Hall’s Learning programme which, for over 20 years, has been giving people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities opportunities to take part in music-making through creative projects, concerts, events and online resources.

This was a well-put together presentation in which Daisy Swift (Head of Learning), Hermione Jones (Programme Manager for ‘Music for Life’, the Hall’s programme for people living with dementia and their care staff), Ed Marsh (Programme Manager for ‘Community, Family and Young People’), alongside several Trainee Music Leaders, explained how the Hall works with a range of community, health, social care and education organisations to create opportunities for free creative expression, and for people to communicate, make connections and explore their musical heritage.  Proceeds from this concert, and from a similar programme of Mendelssohn’s chamber music to be performed the following evening, will go to the Wigmore Hall Learning programme.

The concert itself was all the proof one needed to see the pleasure and enrichment that music-making can bring, as these world-class musicians, who so often perform as soloists and leaders, came together to share and communicate through Mendelssohn’s luxuriant melodism.

So well-known and loved are Mendelssohn’s orchestral works, oratorios, the octet and the string quartets, that the works that he composed for a single instrument and piano can sometimes be overshadowed.  Steven Isserlis’s performance of the composer’s Cello Sonata No.2, with pianist Dénes Várjon, was a reminder that these works deserve more of our attention (Bell was to perform the composer’s Violin Sonata in F in the second concert).

Mendelssohn’s facility and fecundity sometimes leads to accusations of superficiality or saccharine sweetness, but Isserlis and Várjon judged the emotional temperature of this sonata perfectly: the players’ impeccable technique underpinned a performance which was committed but never cloying and did not set out to stake any grandiose claims for the work’s profundity.  Composed, like the First Cello Sonata, for Mendelssohn’s younger brother Paul, the music is idiomatic and the flowing sweep of Isserlis’ and Várjon’s playing emphasised the continuity and artlessness of the expression.

The Allegro assai vivace seemed to overflow with joy; as the players exchanged themes, they generated excitement and drama which was enhanced by the busy accompanying textures.  The virtuosity of both players was effortless.  In particular, Várjon’s intricate, rapid filigree figurations were – here and throughout the evening – incredibly clean and light-fingered and this made the piano’s melodic lines catch the ear with their vibrancy.  The development section offered eloquent contrasts to the initial ebullience.

The pizzicato of the Allegretto scherzandoa gesture of characteristic Mendelssohnian mischief – was nimble and warm-toned, while the rocking motion of the movement’s broader theme created a propulsion which carried the theme through the ensuing harmonic progressionsThe Adagio opens with a chorale theme presented in arpeggiated piano chords, which Várjon made resonate with vibrancy and feeling, and against which Isserlis’ restrained responses assumed a spiritual air.  The increasing intertwining of the two voices created an accelerating impetus towards the Molto allegro e vivace which followed on segue, the incessant running scales slipping by with consummate ease.

Of Mendelssohn’s two piano trios, my preference inclines towards the first in D minor.  But, the decision to programme the 1845 Piano Trio in C minor Op.66 (and save the 1839 trio for the subsequent evening) was shown to make good sense, as Bell, Isserlis and Várjon revealed the affinity between the C minor trio and the Cello Sonata we had just heard.  They share a sense of underlying gravity, of an ongoing narrative; and, while we may not be surprised to find another ‘song-without-words’ romance or fairy-sprite scherzo in the inner movements, the appearance of another chorale motif – this time the quotation of ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’ from the Genevan Psalter of 1551 – in the final Allegro appassionato is more startling.

The opening of the Allegro energico e con fuoco was restless and troubled.  I wondered if it would have been judicious to lower the piano lid a little, as the prevailing lower register made it harder for the strings to penetrate the piano’s virtuosic devilries, and in the development section some of the fragmentary motivic exchanges were lost.  Moreover, Isserlis seemed to play with less exuberance and presence than in the preceding sonata – understandable, perhaps, but with the result that his cello did not sing with such warm force.  But, the intermittent and sometimes unexpected, bright lightning flashes of Bell’s E-string created real drama; and, then, there were the glorious moments when the stormy air cleared and the major key prevailed, briefly, before the lyricism was absorbed back into the piano’s maelstrom.

In the Andante espressivo, the prevailing grace was enhanced by small details which made their mark: the engagement of the piano left hand and the cello, through a falling scalic gesture; the crystalline sheen of Bell’s E-string line above the predominantly dark register.  We were back in the company of the Midsummer Night’s Dream elves in the Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto, which was crisp of tone and fleet of foot, though the players still found space for nuanced phrasing despite the whirlwind of notes.  Várjon showed no waning of stamina in the Finale and the madcap momentum never ceased or tripped; syncopated energy and, once again, Bell’s shining brightness propelled this tour de force to a joyous close.

As a violinist, Mendelssohn’s quartets are familiar fare, but I am less acquainted with the composer’s two string quintets; this performance of the first quintet – in which Bell and Isserlis were joined by violinist Arisa Fujita, and viola players Anihai Grosz (the First Principal Viola of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) and Rachel Roberts – had me rushing to order the sheet music.

The A major Quintet Op.18 provides plentiful evidence of Mendelssohn’s precocity: it is thought to have been begun as early as 1826, when the composer was just 17, and completed in 1832.  In the opening Allegro con moto the lyrical melodies conversed initially with lilting buoyancy; then, in the complex development section, they generated contrapuntal vigour.  The string sound was refreshing and the voices combined with Classical balance, rising and receding as the material demanded, as when the pianissimo repetitions of the second subject allowed Grosz’s beautiful first viola theme to come to the fore.

The Intermezzo – which was added in 1832 in remembrance of Mendelssohn’s friend Eduard Rietz, and which replaced the original second movement minuet – once again took us into quasi-spiritual realms, the parts moving in gentle homophony beneath Bell’s graceful melody before greater rhythmic agitation infiltrated the accompanying lines.  Despite the rapid figuration which accompanies the reprise of the theme, the texture remained airy and spacious, allowing the dialogue between Roberts and Isserlis to sing warmly.

The third movement is another of Mendelssohn’s staccatissimo scherzos in which Roberts initiated the canon through the gossamer threads of which occasional espressivo arcs glistened.  The final Allegro vivace was played with flamboyance, as skipping triplets competed with rapidly rushing scalic ascents, but the rhythmic complexities remained crisp.  This was musicianship to admire and cherish.

Claire Seymour

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