Steven Isserlis Birthday Concert

Bach
Italian Concerto in F, BWV971
Haydn
She never told her love; The spirit’s song
Dvořák
Four Songs, Op.82
Schumann
Arabeske, Op.18
Kinderszenen, Op.15
Janáček
Sonata for Violin and Piano
Fauré
Clair de lune; Nell; Soir; Mandoline
Schubert
Fantasie in F minor, D940

András Schiff (piano) [Bach]

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor) & András Schiff (piano) [Haydn & Dvořák]

Radu Lupu (piano) [Schumann]

Joshua Bell (violin) & Jeremy Denk (piano) [Janáček]

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor) & Radu Lupu (piano) [Fauré]

Radu Lupu & András Schiff (piano/four hands) [Schubert]


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 16 December, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Steven Isserlis. Photograph: Tom MillerOfficially billed as the “Steven Isserlis Birthday Concert”, for his 50th, in recognition of the cellist’s long-standing contribution to Wigmore Hall, this musical feast took place four days ahead of Isserlis’s actual birthday. The concert did, however, fall on Beethoven’s, none of whose music appeared on the official programme, so András Schiff gave us a Beethoven Bagatelle (from Opus 119) before launching into Bach’s Italian Concerto. Prior to this we had a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday” – sung in time and in tune by the packed audience.

By comparison with some younger pianists Schiff’s way with the Italian Concerto now sounds agreeably old-fashioned, almost Edwin Fischer-like with its spread chords and a certain weightiness of purpose. Yet there was also a delicious clarity and relish in the part-playing. The Andante was beautifully sustained too, almost vocal, the musical line uncoiling itself in one long breath.

Schiff continued as accompanist for the Haydn and Dvořák songs, which were shared between Mark Padmore and Felicity Lott. The Haydn settings were unexpectedly weighty and plangent, “She never told her love” (the words from “Twelfth Night”) drawing an impassioned legato from Mark Padmore, completely at ease and controlled even in the highest register, its close “smiling at grief” almost Schubertian in its profundity. By contrast, Felicity Lott – no longer blessed with the voice she once had but still a wonderful singing actress – made heavy weather of the chromatic “The spirit’s song” which conjures up the image of a spectre in limbo. Padmore was at his velvet magisterial best in ‘Spring’ and ‘At the brook’ from Dvořák’s set of “Four Songs”, Opus 82, making the most magical diminuendo on the latter’s final phrase “Nimmerwiederseh’n” (Never to see it again). The group closed with ‘Lass mir allein’ (Leave me alone), a marvellous song from which Dvořák quotes a phrase in the coda of his Cello Concerto.

Radu LupuOf Radu Lupu’s Schumann it is difficult to write dispassionately since both the Arabeske and Kinderszenen were undoubtedly great (not a word to be used lightly). In Arabeske we were immediately transported to the heart of the matter, its inner voices hanging in the air, Lupu conjuring an exploratory quality such as we used to hear from Clifford Curzon so that when the theme was finally reprised it re-emerged subtly transfigured, drawing us into realms of fantasy that could scarcely have been imagined at the outset. In Kinderszenen perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Lupu’s playing was his ability – without so much as raising his voice – to penetrate to the core of each of these miniatures – artless and without affectation. When we reached the final piece, ‘The poet speaks’, these visions of childhood gently receded into silence.

Joshua BellJoshua Bell is undoubtedly a top violinist. However in Janáček’s Violin Sonata one had the sense of luxury miscasting. Although both he and pianist Jeremy Denk tackled the work with panache and force, it was all artful tapering and careful manipulation as though Janáček’s abrupt discontinuities could somehow be tamed and manicured. In the ‘Ballada’ Denk might almost have been playing Fauré and the succeeding Allegretto was yielding and pliant as though both performers imagined that the day could be won by beauty alone.

Lott and Padmore then returned, this time with Lupu, for a quartet of Fauré’s most famous songs. Doubtless one will never again hear such variety and character teased unobtrusively from Fauré’s rippling accompaniments as Lupu achieved. Padmore brought an extraordinary ability to sustain the line in “Nell”, and the opening line of “Soir” – “Now the gardens of Night begin to flower” – was imbued with such pure finesse. Lott’s gifts as a chanteuse were fully exploited in “Mandoline”.

Lupu and Schiff ended the advertised programme with a dreamlike performance of Schubert’s F minor Fantasie, emotion gently recollected in tranquillity in its initial paragraphs, yet their very restraint even in the more forceful passages threw into even greater relief the work’s twin climaxes, climaxes of an almost symphonic grandeur. This was a reading that encapsulated all that bittersweet wisdom which humans eventually acquire, only to have life snatched away at the moment of fullest understanding, and leaving us with an acute sense of our own transience; this was music at once profoundly unsettling yet deeply affecting.

Finally Lupu and Schiff swapped places (Lupu now on the lower part) for a hypnotic account of Schubert’s A major Rondo by way of an encore, its theme endlessly varied at each successive repetition.

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