Credit: Jack Lewis Williams

The Wigmore Soloists

Wednesday 21st September 2022

Chamber music is perhaps at its most exhilarating when it is symphonic in scope. The Wigmore Soloists, never numbering more than six on stage, brought a richness of sound to the Memorial Hall that could scarcely be believed. The opening piece, Mahler’s single movement Piano Quartet in A Minor, is a rare piece of juvenilia by the composer who is better known for works of a considerably larger scale. The piece begins with a sighing three-note motif in the bass of the piano coloured by a pulsating right hand. Before long, with the addition of the string trio, themes intertwine in melancholic counterpoint foreshadowing some of the emotionally devastating passages he would later include in his vast symphonies. Kristina Blaumane’s darkly sonorous cello was particularly moving here and, together with the lyricism of violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and violist Philip Dukes, almost gave the impression we were in the presence of an entire orchestra.

The Brahms Clarinet Trio in A minor saw clarinettist Michael Collins take the stage for the most intimate piece in the programme. During the first movement, we felt we were eavesdropping on a private conversation between two dear friends; cello and clarinet reminisced in touchingly doleful and occasionally playful imitation. After the movement had gently petered out, the Memorial Hall lights were dimmed and a communal silence in memory of Her Majesty the Queen, whose image was projected on to the back of the stage throughout the concert, was respectfully observed. It was somehow extraordinary that a fitting moment in the programme was identified to coincide precisely with the nationwide event. The programme resumed with a poignant adagio; only truly great composers are able to construct melodies of such simple pathos. A lilting third movement preceded the invigorating finale which was full of strident semiquavers and Brahmsian triplets.

Following the interval, the performers were joined by Alberto Menéndez Escribano on French Horn for the extraordinary Sextet in C Major by Dohnányi. Less well known than the other composers on the bill, he wrote this joyous work in 1935 while bedbound. A piece full of cinematic texture, wit, joie de vivre, and mischief, its opening unison theme is an impish ascending sequence constructed from a three-note motif. Renowned as an accomplished pianist, Dohnányi demands virtuosic flourishes from this instrument throughout; Michael McHale relished the opportunity to unleash the brilliance of the Steinway adding vivid colour to the ensemble. At times, the piece feels as though it has been curated by the most eager of musical magpies; some pizzicato from Tchaikovsky here and a Richard Strauss horn call there. A delightful theme and variations give way to a recap of the opening theme before all decorum is thrown out of the window in the finale. A jazzy melody delighting in syncopation is interspersed with a waltz akin to a Viennese coffee house in an invigorating melee. Before long, the three-note motif breaks through again in heroic form (with perhaps a hint of Korngold) leading to an outrageous hoax cadence that many in the audience fell for – hook, line, and sinker. Rapturous applause was already underway before The Wigmore Soloists managed to play the sextet’s final two chords.

Owen Elton

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