How to have the “returns only” signs up at Wigmore Hall well before the concert? A star pianist in Beethoven will do it, as will a star singer in a Schubert cycle. Another way is to mount a concert with great but hardly over-exposed chamber works, played by the nearest you can get to a classical music “supergroup”. Joshua Bell, Steven Isserlis, Timothy Ridout and Jeremy Denk playing Fauré and Schumann did the trick here, offering duos, a trio and a final piano quartet so that only the last item brought them all on stage together. 

Steven Isserlis © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Steven Isserlis
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

First up was Fauré’s First Violin Sonata. Fauré is usually described as somehow more rarified and restrained than most composers, but here he simply sounded stirring and passionate – almost German. Bell’s gleaming tone and incisive drive was a call to arms, right from the long opening cantilena, Denk a committed partner. There were plenty of half-lights in the Andante though, with its barcarolle rhythms reminiscent of the composer’s piano music, and Denk produced some particularly poetic playing as it faded away. The Allegro vivo Scherzo was fast and fleeting, even sounding a bit of a scramble at the outset. But the violin’s sudden bursts of pizzicato and tricky cross-rhythms were skilfully touched in. The finale’s coda brought the most virtuosity from the violinist, the mostly quiet rapid spiccato passages in the coda brilliantly thrown off.

Enter Steven Isserlis with his cello, and Robert Schumann with his First Piano Trio. The lyrical opening is deceptive since we soon learn why this intense movement is marked ‘With energy and passion’. There was a dancing lilt to the Scherzo with Schumann’s trademark dotted rhythm, and in the melancholic slow movement the the falling phrases in the violin benefited from Bell’s occasional manner of attacking a note from below, to expressive effect. “With fire” is the finale’s marking and a few melodic embers gradually glowed into an exhilarating closing conflagration.

There is an eerie passage in the first movement where the two string players play near the bridge, which was slightly compromised since the cellist had positioned himself almost to face the pianist and his sound did not directly enter the auditorium. The balance was slightly awry elsewhere too. This led to heretical thoughts that perhaps it is possible, after a century of repeating the mantra, to overstate the perfection of this hall’s acoustic. Though that might be a hangover from my having so recently heard concerts in the chamber music room of the Beethoven House in Bonn.

But after the interval Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston (Five Pieces in Folk Style) made ample amends. Now facing us all, Isserlis brought all his warm communicative skill and experience to pieces ostensibly aimed at (very able) amateurs. Above all he never condescended to the music but revealed all its considerable charms, especially in the lyrical second and third movements, which he made sound like songs without words, which, this being Schumann, they might almost have been. Oh, for the rediscovery of some lost cello sonata by Schumann, perhaps with movements founded on some of these five pieces.

The cellist born in the 1950s, the violinist in the 1960s and the pianist in the 1970s were now joined by a viola player born in the late 1990s. Timothy Ridout, already a rising star, was a worthy addition to this trio of his distinguished seniors, even though he has travelled only a fraction of their concert miles. Fauré’s great Second Piano Quartet brought more passion from the Frenchman, and right at the outset with the three string players in a soaring first subject in a unison fortissimo. Gabriel Fauré is still most admired for his wonderful songs, but it is surely in the heavenly slow movement, inspired by church bells heard in childhood, that he becomes the Angel Gabriel. From the opening strains of Ridout’s warm and sonorous viola, this music distilled a profound calm and contentment, before the spirited finale closed the concert with an exultant flourish.

Settling down for the second half, I half-overheard an intelligent and well-informed conversation extolling the considerable merits of Joshua Bell and Steven Isserlis. These works place the string players to the fore, of course – literally in the physical sense. But much of the music has the pianist as an equal partner, not surprisingly since that was the instrument of both these composers. Jeremy Denk was the only performer on stage throughout, and the length of this concert exceeded that of most piano recitals. Much more than an accompanist, Denk was the rock on which the success of such a demanding programme was built. Next time he joins these colleagues he should insist on concert billing in alphabetical order – by first name.

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