Concert Review

Last Wigmore Hall Concert of the Century

Schubert Songs from Schwanengesang; Auf der Strom; Piano Sonata D960; Arpeggione Sonata; String Quintet D956. Steven Isserlis, Levon Chilingirian, Stephanie Gonley, Garfield Jackson, David Waterman, John Mark Ainsley, Roger Vignoles and Stephen Hough. Wigmore Hall, 30th December 1999

It was an inspired thought to end the notional millennium with the one favourite piece of music that many would choose as the last they might hope to hear on earth. For solo cellists, an inexhaustible pleasure is to participate with different companions in Schubert's final masterpiece, the String Quintet completed shortly before he died. For this special performance Steven Isserlis did not recruit an established string quartet, but performed the 2nd cello part with musicians who must have few opportunities to play with each other, leaders of two of Britain's most prestigious quartets (The Chilingirians and the Vellingers) and the violist and cellist of another, the Endellion. This led to a spontaneity, which might have reflected Schubert's own famous Schubertiades with his friends. This quintet has featured in many significant occasions, and here made its usual magical effect, whether in the rapt meditation of the adagio or the satisfying peroration of the finale with those scrunching cadences which anticipate those of William Walton's symphony and Belshazzar's Feast - (a lateral thought I've never seen noted).

I suspect the three-part programme, devised by Steven Isserlis, may have been built backwards. This was no light Christmassy or pre-millennial jollification; instead the chief focus was on masterpieces of 1828, Schubert's miraculous and tragic last year, lightened only by the cellists appropriation of the sonata composed for the six stringed, fretted Arpeggione, borrowed by every cellist to swell a limited repertoire of the period. With Stephen Hough, he gave a suave, elegant account, concentrating on melody and line, with no exaggeration to grab attention.

Before the supper break, Stephen Hough had given a fine performance of the last Bb piano sonata, one that satisfied expectations and avoided extremes like Richter's perversely slow tempi. We were reminded by a letter to his publisher that this all time favourite may have been played privately, but was published posthumously only a decade later.

Ending with the beginning, John Mark Ainsley with Roger Vignoles had begun the long evening with Schubert's seven Rellstab settings D957, including such favourites as Liebesbotschaft, the ever-popular Standchen and the final Abschied. This entirely effective grouping was completed with the Seidl Die taubenpost, the group as a whole reflecting unease and restlessness and expressing Schubert's desolate philosophy as a he confronted his final illness and his disappointments in personal relationships. And a rare opportunity was taken to end John Mark Ainsley's section of the concert with another of Schubert's last Rellstab settings, Auf der Strom, a sombre departure from home and safety down a river towards a storm tossed sea, the river's waves rushing without respite, a mood of impending tragedy waiting to overwhelm him. The pessimistic message of this 'shockingly seldom' performed minor masterpiece was perhaps clearer with the obbligato appropriated by Steven Isserlis and his cello, less distracting than the original French horn and musically in perfect balance with singer and piano.

This final concert epitomised the central importance of Wigmore Hall in London's concert life, offering the best of vocal and instrumental chamber music in congenial surroundings, the acoustic supported and concentrated from the semi-circular stage below the famous arts and crafts cupola. Seen&Heard will also report next week from the opening concert in the Wigmore Hall's forward looking season 2000. Once it was best known as London's hall for debut recitalists; nowadays it is an essential staging post for the finest international artists of today.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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