Uppers and downers at the Wigmore Hall

We dropped into the Wigmore Hall last night for an interesting programme from the Nash Ensemble and Susan Gritton.  Adolescent Tchaikovsky met Beethoven, whilst Shostakovich provided both a surging finale and some of the most gloomy songs ever encountered.

Throughout, the Nash Ensemble were a riveting bunch to watch, with demonstrably intense music-making, incisive and energetic.  This gave lift to the Beethoven – the Op70 piano trio ‘Ghost’ – which probably suffered in my experience from the time taken for me to ‘settle’ into the concert.  It’s most riveting moments came in the slow movement, when a stillness crept around the auditorium which really brought things into focus.

I can’t report quite so happily on the Shostakovich ‘Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok’.  It was a hard slog, though not without some compensations.  In past encounters, I have tended to hear a slightly hard-edged tone to Susan Gritton’s voice.  I was more pleasantly surprised here.  In the more intimate space of the Wigmore, she had heft and power in abundance, which Shostakovich was all too happy to press into service.  However, she also displayed a richer, more fulsome tone than I’d noticed before.  Despite singing from the score, she was definitely ‘inside’ these difficult pieces, ranging from moments of melodic intimacy, to roaring, angular outbursts.  The dominant mood was, however, gloom.  Allow me to quote from ‘The Storm’:

Dreadful night! On a night like this
I feel for all the homeless,
and pity drives me outside
into the cold and wet.

It was risky programming for an audience coping with the murk of January, and the post-Christmas come-down.  It might all sound more engaging in July.

After the interval, in case the wine hadn’t lifted the mood, we were treated to some pretty little lollipops by a 23-year old Tchaikovsky, toying with different combinations of instruments.  It was at its most effective when the familiar sound-world of the string quartet was lifted by the piquant addition of a harp, in a very brief appearance which probably took less time to play than it had done to unpack the instrument.   Still, not often you get to hear the UK premiere of pieces by Tchaikovsky…

The main draw, then, was the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor.  I had heard parts of this on ‘in the background’ at home: it’s one of t’other half’s favourite works.  I was quite bowled over by it.  That ability, unique to Shostakovich, to accost you with arch, clever, angular, jarring rhythms and tonalities, only to suddenly and unexpectedly burst into something so sweeping and melodic that you have to smile.  It’s akin to someone you respect and are dying to impress, a senior work colleague perhaps, who has always been aloof and distant, and suddenly you find yourself in a room with them sharing jokes and gossip.  It’s disarming and enervating at the same time.  The Nash Ensemble drew out every drop of vigour that the music had to offer us, with incisive playing and clean textures.  The piano sound could have been a little more distinct, but that was perhaps the acoustic where we were sitting, since throughout its bass resonances had seemed consistently to be slightly clouded.  The Scherzo was especially glorious.

Anyway, the concert is on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday, 20 January (and presumably thereafter on iPlayer for a time).  It’s worth a listen, though if you’re going to put the lights down low and listen alone to the Shostakovich songs, you may want to make absolutely certain you’re feeling in good spirits or have a trusted friend on speed-dial.

Postscript: a note on the Wigmore Hall audience.

I do like the firm emphasis on behaviour at the Wiggy: the House Manager’s firm (and rather amusingly ‘arch’) exhortation to switch OFF mobiles, not just silent, and no checking emails or texting (“or anything else naughty”), as well as to stifle coughs.  The whole seriousness of the endeavour.  It doesn’t protect you from a nearby wheezer, which the age and general corpulence of the Wigmore Hall audience makes a greater risk here than elsewhere, but frankly, we could do with more of this emphasis on serious attention to the music at Covent Garden, which is coming more and more to resemble a particularly unruly cinema.

That said, and with all due respect, some of the members of the Wigmore Hall audience are, to be blunt, bonkers…

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