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Sir John Tusa 70th Birthday Concert:  Richard Strauss Lieder; Mahler 5 Rückert Lieder; Ligeti 7 Etudes; Schubert String Quintet in C, D956. Joan Rodgers (soprano) Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano) Julius Drake (piano) Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) Anthony Marwood (violin) Lucy Gould (violin) Lawrence Power (viola) Paul Watkins (‘cello) Thomas Carroll (‘cello). Wigmore Hall, 3.3 2006. (ME)


‘I knew it would be good, but I had no idea it would be as glorious as this.’ Thus the Birthday Boy, aka the Wigmore Hall’s much loved and respected Chairman, in his typically self-effacing, brief but moving thank-you speech. Of course, it was going to be a good concert: Alice Coote singing Mahler, Joan Rodgers singing Strauss, both accompanied by Julius Drake; Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Ligeti… and a specially assembled quintet of distinguished soloists coming together for Schubert’s quintet – of course we’d all love the chance to put together such a dream list, rather in the manner of privileged sultans who can command their every desire, and fortunately some of us get to share in this particular kind of wish fulfilment. It was indeed glorious.


Joan Rodgers began with a group of songs mostly based around the imagery of flowers, and mostly culled from the composer’s youth. Die Georgine  (The Dahlia) and Allerseelen, to poems by the aristocrat Hermann Gilm zu Rosenegg, were probably inspired by his love for Dora Wihan, and their fervent, passionate character was finely brought out by Rodgers’ committed singing and Drake’s limpid playing: the lines ‘Wenn ich dir jetzt den Frühling brächte, / Du feuergelbe Träumerin’ in the first song were delivered with wonderful candour and directness, and the closing ‘Ob spat, ob früh, es ist dasselbe / Entzücken und derselbe Schmerz’ (late or early, it is the same enchantment, and the same pain) showed the singer at her finest, her diction crystalline and her phrasing eloquent. Allerseelen never fails to move, and this was a classic performance, the tender vorspiel played with such touching grace and the singing so poetically melancholy: the longing of the final ‘Wie einst im Mai’ was almost palpable. Schlechtes Wetter closed this group on an ideally witty note.


Mahlerians always argue about whether the ‘Rückert Lieder’ are best sung by a mezzo or a baritone, but Alice Coote is one of those singers whose art is in such a class of its own that she banishes all dispute and makes you think that hers is the only way to perform these songs. This is not to say that she is either wayward or egotistical with the work – far from it, for hers is a style of singing closely allied to that of another great Mahler interpreter, Matthias Goerne, in that she is faithful to the score, and she renders the music and poetry with searing intensity and a complete absence of shabby theatrics. In the first song, she refined her luxuriant tone to the merest thread of sound: in the second, she conveyed the sly wit of ‘Dann vor allen nasche du!’ without recourse to coyness: in ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ she soared up to those ecstatic final phrases with confident skill, and in the final song she conveyed the exact sense of someone, as the poet says, ‘lost to the world.’ Appropriately, her finest singing came in ‘Um Mitternacht’ where ‘O Menschheit’ was full of compassion and the glorious ‘Herr über Tod und Leben’ could not have been more rapturously sung. In all this, as might be expected, Drake was her equal in phrasing, sensitivity and eloquence.


Pierre-Laurent Aimard brought the first half to a close with a stunning performance of seven of Ligeti’s ‘Etudes,’ and whatever you may feel about this music, you would have to admit that the playing was dazzling. The most remarkable pieces were Fém where Aimard brought the syncopations to nervous, pulsating life, and Automne à Varsovie where the melancholy, introspective character of the music was wonderfully delineated.


Schubert’s Quintet in C is one of the most frequently heard works at the Wigmore, but we can rarely have heard such a performance as this one. Each of the players is a ‘star’ in his or her own right, so you could hardly expect any kind of self-effacing ensemble here – nevertheless, it was truly remarkable that five such disparate musical personalities managed to achieve such unity of purpose. In fact, the slight competitive edge at times provided genuinely exciting music-making, nowhere more so than in the ebullient recapitulation of the Allegro and the headlong rush of the penultimate page of the Allegretto. The wonderful Adagio – I recall John Tusa once saying that this was the music he wanted to hear in his final moments on earth – was played with that perfect blend of serenity and melancholy which characterizes all that we mean when we say ‘Schubert.’ A wonderful performance, and a fitting tribute to a man whose commitment to the Wigmore Hall will surely inspire many more evenings of such refined musical excellence. 

Melanie Eskenazi




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)