Robert Schumann and Gabriel Fauré, the two composers showcased in this exceptional concert, seek out ecstasy but in very different ways. Schumann tends to present his musical ideas through a gleaming, energetic veneer, Fauré’s music starts from a place of melancholy but finds its energy through an intensifying of the thematic and harmonic progressions. At Wigmore Hall, Steven Isserlis and friends clearly understood this parallel and exactly how to draw out the best in both composers. The result was a very high level of musicianship and a thoroughly entertaining evening.

Steven Isserlis © Satoshi Aoyagi
Steven Isserlis
© Satoshi Aoyagi

Schumann's Op.73 Fantasiestücke seemed to effortlessly emerge into the aural world as if it had been playing somewhere else all along. Veronika Eberle and Connie Shih were totally relaxed, never pushing the work to sound like a sonata, producing a stream of beautiful sound, disciplined yet spontaneous.

Fauré's Piano Quintet no. 1 in D minor receives fewer outings than this later C minor Quintet. It is a more difficult work to grasp and for performers to bring off successfully, occupying a murky post-Wagnerian harmonic world, with chromaticism piled up almost in the manner of early Schoenberg. Its contours, especially in the first two movements, are shadowy and smooth, rising to moments of ecstasy in waves. The structure of all the movements is not obviously signposted, but there is a constant sense of development of relatively sparse thematic material. Isserlis' ensemble rose to the challenges at every turn, most impressively achieving the homogenous sound world the piece cries out for. There were no soloists here, although Connie Shih's pianism was particularly notable for its sensitivity in seeking out a balanced place within the string sound.

After the interval, Isserlis was given the chance to shine and persuade us – not that we needed persuading – that he is one of the most extraordinary of cellists. Fauré’s beautiful miniature Romance and his famous Élégie were delivered with such intensity and sincerity that the audience seemed stunned.

The final work, Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat major Op.47, is one of the works that came from 1842 when the composer produced a veritable deluge of wonderful chamber music. Less often played than its companion piece, the Piano Quintet, it possesses much of the same positive dynamism and has the added bonus of the most glorious tune in its slow movement.

Everything about the performance spoke to Schumann’s strengths. There was plenty of energy when there needed to be and touching delicacy when required without interrupting the rhythmic flow. The Scherzo was fantastically fleet-footed and accurate in its tricky doublings of lines. The slow movement was notable for the main theme finding a glorious home with all three of the string players, returning eventually to the lustrous tones of Isserlis' cello. The finale, with its slightly manic fugal writing, was playful and worrying at the same time. The group found ever increasing levels of excitement and, once the home key was eventually rediscovered, the sense of completeness was achieved.

*****