Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Wigmore Hall Refurbished
Belcea Quartet with Imogen Cooper 10 October 2004
Haydn: String Quartet in E flat, Op. 71, No. 3
César Franck: Piano Quintet in F minor

Florestan Trio 11 October 2004
Mozart: Piano Trio in C, K. 548
Dvorák: Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90 'Dumky'

This subtle and discreet refurbishment has been completed "on time and in budget" and afficionados will be relieved that the essential character of the well loved hall itself is unchanged, as is its admired acoustic; the hopefully unobtrusive air conditioning will be welcome in the summer. The more obvious changes are to the downstairs facilities, gleaming bare walls will hopefully have the fascinating historic posters back in place in due course.

Two lunch-time concerts in its opening highlight the subjectivity of concert reviewing. For both I was given the excellent seat X16 at the back - some reviewers complain about Wigmore Hall's policy; I do not share their concerns. Sight-lines in this flat auditorium have not, and cannot be, magically improved, and generations of enthusiasts have accepted that it is more important to hear well than to see everything. I like the consistency of the arrangements, which makes it easier to compare one event with another, and facilitates the quick exit some critics need to make.

Few chamber groups are absolutely consistent; the Belcea Quartet was in top form on its own and with Imogen Cooper and their's was a magical coffee concert. Haydn wrote so many marvellous quartets that there is always the chance to come upon one fresh as new; this was such a case, and within five minutes of the first movement I had dismissed doubts about making the long journey for a concert of about an hour. It was packed with standing, as were the Florestans next day.

The lure was the Franck quintet, popular when I was young, quite a rarity now. French piano/strings chamber music of the period tends to have so many notes for the pianist that tiring can supervene and balance go awry. Not this time; Imogen Cooper achieved perfect balance with wide dynamic range, but the strings remained to the fore aurally as well as in their placement front stage. No feeling of excess or longeur; they should record it together, but I doubt if the sound on CD will be better than reached my ears in the back corner of the hall.

Were The Florestan Trio equally happy for their BBC lunchtime recital? The Mozart trio came to me as a piano concerto, Susan Tomes claiming attention almost exclusively, probably without trying to, her filigree accompanying figures so delicate, but her attack when leading so dominant and authoritative as to make me wish they were not wedded to Steinway. Would it have sounded quite different the other (keyboard) side, or as broadcast? Tell me.

I have heard them more at ease, and seemingly relaxed and totally at one, on other occasions, notably at Cheltenham. Anthony Marwood was at times less than secure in tone and intonation. The Dumky went well, but was not so entrancingly idiomatic as Dvorak with the Guaneri Trio Prague, one of my top favourite chamber groups, especially in Czech repertoire.

There was little of eye contact yesterday and smiles were few; might the Florestans have become a little self-conscious about the visual aspects of performance since Susan Tomes explored how players gesticulate and look at each other (or don't) in her new book Beyond the Notes: Journeys with Chamber Music, on sale at the Wigmore Hall afterwards (Boydell & Brewer 2004).

This is definitely my music book of the year, and its wisdoms come to mind and reverberate again and again, as does the picture of life enjoyed and suffered by Susan's younger self, when she travelled with the portable dome structure which gave its name to the ensemble and subsequent piano quartet Domus, with which she and her then colleagues started their triumphant recording career with Hyperion; continuing to equal acclaim for the Florestan Trio (their recording of the Dumky Trio appears on Hyperion CDA66895, coupled with Dvorak's F minor Trio, B130).

She explores mercilessly, but not self-pityingly, many daunting aspects of her specialised professional life, with its ageing audiences and meagre financial rewards, dissecting the relationships in rehearsal and concert within dedicated chamber music ensembles, and holding firm throughout to the satisfaction of striving ever on towards ideal perfection, never quite in reach.

If you ever go to the Wigmore Hall and collect chamber music on CD (or don't?) make sure that this book is on your Christmas list; it is a compelling read, revelatory in chapter after chapter and ultimately inspiring.

See a link to one of Susan Tomes' essays, recently re-published in Beyond the Notes,
in an earlier review of The Florestan Trio.

© Peter Grahame Woolf