Mendelssohn at Wigmore Hall, with Joshua Bell, Arisa Fujita, Amihai Grosz, Rachel Roberts, Steven Isserlis & Dénes Várjon

Sonata No.2 in D for Cello and Piano, Op.58
Piano Trio No.2 in C-minor, Op.66
String Quintet No.1 in A, Op.18

Joshua Bell & Arisa Fujita (violins), Amihai Grosz & Rachel Roberts (violas), Steven Isserlis (cello) and Dénes Várjon (piano)

Reviewed by: Guy Holloway

Reviewed: 24 July, 2017
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Clockwise from top-left:Joshua Bell ( Fujita ( Roberts ( Grosz (Brinks Artist Management)This delightful Mendelssohn evening (the first of two at Wigmore Hall) opened with the D-major Cello Sonata. The first movement kicked off at a cracking pace. Steven Isserlis must know this music like the back of his hand yet his eyes were reverently fixed on the score, as though wishing to honour the music precisely as Mendelssohn wrote it; yet he has a natural conversational spontaneity in his playing too – his is a unique mellow sound, self-effacing and true. The slight problem was, even with the lid of the Steinway half-closed, the sound of Isserlis’s gut strings were too often smothered by the sheer volume of the piano.

Dénes Várjon is an established soloist and an experienced chamber musician, and he has a terrific connection with Isserlis, yet one yearned at times for a greater sense of the music being allowed to breathe, rather than of being played. In the faster passages with Isserlis, and later in the Piano Trio with Joshua Bell, there were truly exciting, deftly-pedalled moments of perfect partnership. But, in the Adagio of the Sonata, Várjon’s opening arpeggios did not quite find the stillness or reflectiveness required, the top notes not quite ringing out, blurring as they did with the bottom note of the next arpeggio. The movement was taken quicker than is often the case, which suited Isserlis’s conception – no tear-jerking here, or straining for effect: this was an intimate disclosure, completely relaxed dialogue, as with a trusted friend.

The C-minor Piano Trio was dedicated to and written for Louis Spohr. As such, it was written for a virtuoso violinist and in this Bell did not disappoint. The piano-lid now came up, as it needed to with Bell in full flight. The first movement is marked Allegro energico e con fuoco and Bell held the attention throughout the many key changes, and effectively led from the front. The camaraderie between the three players was in evidence during the Andante espressivo – playing does not become more human than this, with Bell sensitively scaling down his sound to match Isserlis. The dazzling Scherzo went off at a fantastical and thrilling pace, and there was so much to enjoy overall.

Steven Isserlis (Jean Baptiste Millot) & Dénes Várjon (Balazs Boroc)The great event of the evening was the A-major String Quintet (with two violas) written when Mendelssohn was seventeen, just after the Octet and around the same time as the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. Arguably this is a deeper, richer, and even more satisfying work. Bell (on first-violin) made light work of the astonishing demands, but he was perfectly attuned to his fellow musicians, and indeed some of the most searching lines came from Arisa Fujita who yielded nothing to Bell in terms of intonation, sweetness of tone or character.

The haunting slow movement, written and revised with Mendelssohn’s friend Eduard Rietz in mind (he died aged thirty) was highly personal to the young composer and, from such committed and ego-free interpreters, its beauty and humanity touched as only music can. There was much to like in the Scherzo’s contrapuntal writing, with the viola-players kept busy.

In these challenging political times I noted, with pleasure, that English, American, Hungarian, Japanese and Israeli musicians had come together to celebrate a great German. On a similar note, proceeds from this concert will go to Wigmore Hall’s Learning programme, which gives people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities opportunities to take part in creative music-making.

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