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Ionarts-at-Large: Pilgrimage to Wigmore Hall

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from his recent trip to London. Apart from kindly guest-reviewing for ionarts, he writes a regular classical music column for Crisis Magazine at Inside Catholic. His latest book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist–an analysis of 9th century Islamic religious philosophy (and with no pretensions of being a page turner)–has been released by ISI this May.

available at Amazon
R.Schumann (& Brahms), Phantasiestücke, op. 88 et al.,
Argerich, Kremer, Maisky, Bashmet
available at Amazon
L.Janáček , Pohadka (Fairytale) et al.,
Jamnik / Kahánek
available at Amazon
A.Dvořák, Sonatina, Sonata, 4 Romantic Pieces,
Gil & Orli Shaham
available at Amazon
R.Schumann, Piano Trio No.3, Phantasiestücke, Piano Quartet,
Florestan Trio
My very first visit to Wigmore Hall in London this past Tuesday evening, May 11th–to hear Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Tanja Tetzlaff (cello), and Leif Ove Andsnes (piano) play chamber music–proved several things.

First, the legendary reputation of the hall, built in 1901, for fine acoustics is well deserved. In row W at the back, under the overhang of the balcony above, from which one normally expects a loss of some quarter or third of the sound, everything was crystal clear.

Second, when an audience can hear everything, it behaves itself. This was the least obtrusive audience I have been with in many years. No one crumpled their program, fidgeted, unwrapped cough drops from their noisy cellophane, or whispered to their mate in that obnoxious sotto voce that carries twenty rows in each direction.

Third, a less than famous program of chamber works can fill a hall. QED, Wigmore was full. I have never before heard Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op. 88, his Third Piano Trio, op. 110, Janáček’s Pohadka (Fairytale), or Dvořák’s Sonatina, op. 100 in concert anywhere. These works made for an immensely enjoyable program, though none of them is in the Top Ten for their respective composers or in the chamber music literature overall. This made the opportunity to hear them all the more enticing. Perhaps it takes a city like London to pull it off, or artists with a following as Andsnes and Tetzlaff have, but I’d call that highly intelligent programming.

Which brings me to my fourth point: namely that we may look back on this time as a golden age of performers. I know this is heresy to those who invoke Alfred Cortot or Wilhelm Furtwangler to disparage some of the homogenized styles of today’s musicians. However, having heard groups like the Ébène Quartet twice in the last year and half, and now this team, I have ready examples of playing that is approaching the incomparable.

Yes, that is how well this trio of artists played. Their sheer musicianship elevated everything–including the audience, which is another reason it was quiet. The Schumann Fantasy began with wonderful, mellow warmth in the first movement, and was played, without losing any subtle expressivity, with hair-trigger precision in the second. In the third movement, the violin-cello duo, with piano accompaniment, was simply exquisite.

The quirky, idiosyncratic Janáček piece for piano and cello can only be made comprehensible if the performers catch the underlying pulse of blood coursing through the music. This they did. Tanja Tetzlaff kept the music going in the often broken cello line. In this piece, the cello is almost played percussively, with the piano carrying the melodic line, when there is one. When the melody was occasionally passed to the cello, Tetzlaff’s instrument glowed. Her performance was inspired. As a Janáček fanatic, I found it particularly poignant to hear this work in Wigmore Hall where Janáček himself once attended a concert of his chamber music.

Dvořák’s Sonatina for violin and piano was written for
his children. These artists did not condescend to this relatively simple music but threw their hearts into it. Christian Tetzlaff has a broad expressive range, which includes breathtaking pianissimos. The music itself is a mix of gypsy or Moravian folk music, a little Americana, a touch of the salon, and some sheer bravura writing. It may not be great music but only crank could dislike it. Adnsnes’s tone was especially beautiful in this piece, and he and Tetzlaff were superbly partnered.

All three artists together again in the Schumann Trio, they provided dream playing for the closing piece of the concert. The many subtleties of this music were drawn out so naturally that one could not imagine hearing it another way. In the achingly beautiful second movement, Tetzlaff frère et soeur essayed the string duo with a soulful intimacy that was extremely moving. Until I read the program notes after the concert, I did not know whether they were brother and sister or husband and wife, but I knew they had to be one of the two to play together like this. I understand that there is a Tetzlaff Quartet; that is something I would travel good distance to hear.

The hall, the performers, and the program–Wigmore Hall knows what it is doing. And Wigmore sponsors some 400 concerts per annum. Londoners are more than lucky to have this in their neighborhood. I will certainly be making repeat pilgrimages to hear chamber music in this superb venue.


Doundou Tchil said...

Pilgrimages is the word ! The Wigmore Hall is sacred ground for chamber music and song. Everyone significant in European music has passed through these doors, as composer, musician or guest. There used to be a poster tucked away near the toilets announcing a recital by Pierre Bernac. Pianist ? Poulenc.... When I started going, there were people in the audience who personally knew Schoenberg, Cortot etc. Lots more anecdotes like that, over a 100 years worth. .

What's more, with a seating capacity of only 450, the Wigmore Hall is never going to attract the kind of musicians dazzled by big money. Hence the emphasis on extremely high standards. Cognoscenti audiences, receptive to unusual repertoire, with finely honed listening skills. In a hall as intimate as this, there's no room for bluff or hype. We really are blessed.

herman said...

The size of the hall is critical. One is not an anonymous figure in a 450 seat hall, but a visitor, intent on the music.

Also, chamber music tends to draw a more serious listener anyway. There are really no Big Names in chamber music, even though both Tetzlaff and Andsnes can fill a (too) big hall as soloists the next day and be met with coughs and rustling.

Doundou Tchil said...

Luckily, much bigger names than Tetzlaff and Andsnes (no disrespect to them) have appeared at the WH, Brendel, Cortot, Hampson, Casals etc. I suspect some do it for reduced fees because, as Schreier said at his farewell, with tears in his eyes, "You are my family". Because it's not a huge space, it's affordable too for less famous folk. Some concerts are organized by musicians themselves, some for promotion, but many so they can do repertoire they care about but won't sell out a football stadium. Last week, we had Anderszewski playing Szymanowski. Next week, the phenomenal Florian Boesch, whom I heard in March in a private Liederabend where he was definitely singing for love, not money. The Wigmore Hall is an amazing place, I've been going for years, sometimes several times a week. Frankly, I wouldn't be "me" if it wasn't for the WH.

Unknown said...

Wigmore is one of the classical music world's best kept secrets. I have attended a dozen recitals over the past couple of decades, every one splendid. If you love chamber music, you HAVE to go. The series of Wigmore live recordings available on CD is also wonderful.