In the grim cultural wasteland of the ongoing pandemic, concerts have defiantly continued in London’s Wigmore Hall. A bastion of intimate performances on its minute stage, surrounded by its famed alabaster and marble walls, Wigmore Hall, against all odds, presented 126 concerts in 2020. This may well be the only concert venue anywhere in the world that offered a professional concert on average once in every three days.

Wigmore Soloists perform Schubert
© Wigmore Hall

As a new initiative, three associate ensembles has recently been formed; the first of which – the Wigmore Soloists – stepped on stage for their debut concert on Friday. Under the joint leadership of the vastly experienced Isabelle van Keulen (violin) and Michael Collins (clarinet), the quality of both personnel and repertoire is all but guaranteed. The newly founded group entered the overcrowded world of high-grade chamber ensembles with a single composition, the Octet in F major, D.803, by Franz Schubert. It is a formidable work, outnumbering the players of its model, Ludwig van Beethoven’s legendary Septet, by one, a second violin, in addition to violin, viola, cello, double bass and three wind instruments: clarinet, bassoon and French horn.

In the Octet (as in Beethoven’s Septet), the strings are mostly used in traditional ways, the majority of the melodies given to the first violin, with the second violin and viola providing the typically rhythmic and harmonic stem of the musical progress, whereas the cello either plays sinuous melodies, extending or even competing with the violin themes or joins the double bass, as a second bass instrument. However, Schubert’s treatment of the other three instruments is unique and well worth observing: the clarinet becomes a second “prima donna”, sharing or repeating most of the first violin’s melodies; the French horn’s role is significantly larger than in most contemporaneous compositions, as it frequently plays soloistic parts; finally the bassoon, traditionally doubling the lower string instruments’ line, almost never plays the same line as the cello or double bass, but becomes an independent middle range voice.

The first movement felt unsettled, which could be due to the extraordinary circumstances of playing in one of the most famous concert venues in the world without a live, breathing, clapping audience. The tempos taken occasionally felt faster than comfortable and the intonation of van Keulen’s fast runs were occasionally (and unusually) insecure. Later though, things improved and, for example, the third movement sounded delightful and easy going, defined by that cheerful and at times cheeky playing with time (called agogics) that was often lacking in the first movement.

The re-imagination of the wind parts and their role brought new opportunities to the internal balance of the work, eminently utilised by the ensemble. Horn player, Alberto Menéndez Escribano, confidently and with a sonorous tone excelled in his significant solos, while both he and Robin O'Neill on bassoon fitted well into their accompanying role when necessary. The bassoon has relatively few soloistic moments in this composition but O'Neill used every one of them with delicate sensitivity.

The superb clarinet sound of Michael Collins was mellow in the soft passage and stentorian in the great tuttis. He regularly challenged his colleagues with extremely soft dynamics, for example in his dreamy soliloquy at the opening of the second movement; a tone almost, but not quite, matched by his colleagues. He seemed not to need a new breath for extended passages, which created many unbroken and gentle musical lines.

The sense of ensemble playing was strong, although the many individual and shared themes between the clarinet and the first violin offered them the most occasions to shape melodies according to their individual taste. Van Keulen’s warm sound was eagerly supported and matched by Laura Samuel (second violin) and Timothy Ridout (viola). Kristina Blaumane’s cello solos were lovingly played, if less distinctive in their phrasing than one could hope for. She and the unfailingly attentive Tim Gibbs (double bass) in perfect understanding provided a solid foundation of the bass line.

This performance was reviewed from Wigmore Hall's live video stream