Compared to wilder habitats, the world of chamber music might appear one of serenity and safe harbour. No operatic blood on the floor or podium tensions. Musicians who play as duos or small ensembles are often friends with a fervent desire to collaborate. In its scale and risk, chamber music can drill deeper, or with greater particularity and intensity, than any other form of live performance. The question is how to keep the repertoire alive and vigorous. Concerts last week at Wigmore Hall, Kings Place and the Oxford lieder festival showed compendious range and invention. The idea that the UK is currently enjoying a golden age at something – intimate programme-making – might cheer us up right now.
At Wigmore Hall, musical threads dive and weave across days or weeks or seasons. On Monday evening the star American cellist Alisa Weilerstein and American/Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan gave an untypical recital in which only one work, Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D minor, Op 40, was written for the cello. Six Lieder by Brahms became songs without words in the performers’ own arrangement, structures and complexities revealed with new clarity. One, Regenlied, linked back to the composer’s “raindrop” Violin Sonata No 1 in G, Op 78 with which Weilerstein opened the concert. The change of key (to D) and lower timbre, in this arrangement by Paul Klengel, didn’t wholly communicate the work’s lyrical outpourings. On the other hand, Shostakovich’s final work, the austere Viola Sonata, Op 147 (arr Daniil Shafran), sounded beautiful, mournful, tender on cello. Weilerstein’s performance held us spellbound.
Earlier in the day, in a sold-out Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert (available on BBC Sounds), another cellist, Jean-Guihen Queyras, and the admired pianist Alexandre Tharaud, shone light on their own French tradition, with Marais’s Suite in D minor – both players invoking the ghost-white mood of the viola da gamba and harpsichord for which it was written – as well as Debussy’s Cello Sonata. Where Weilerstein has instinctive warmth and freedom, making the instrument sing, Queyras’s approach is more analytical, almost detached: great and distinctive players, both.
Themes at Kings Place run for a year. Its ambitious Venus Unwrapped, with two months still to run, has more than 60 events focusing on female composers (but not to the exclusion of men). Yet another stellar cellist, the British player Natalie Clein, was joined by pianists Julius Drake and Matan Porat and soprano Ruby Hughes for a fluid programme ranging from Schumann – his poignant late songs, affectingly sung by the superb Hughes – to a world premiere by Judith Weir. Her On the Palmy Beach, a Kings Place commission, sets four poems about the sea and shore by Wallace Stevens, Kathleen Jamie, Norman MacCaig and Emily Dickinson. Voluptuous and witty, salty and bracing, with a delicious personification of a jellyfish, this short song cycle should go straight into the repertoire. So too should the Cello Sonata by the Dutch composer Henriëtte Bosmans (1895-1952), whose troubled career was oppressed by war and prejudice. This work of grand romantic gesture, surely new to all of us, was played with characteristic passion and compelling authority by Clein.
The annual Oxford lieder festival, described as “celebrating song” but embracing every kind of chamber music, is the brainchild of the pianist Sholto Kynoch. This is its 18th year. Schubert remains at its heart, but new commissions, the involvement of local schools and the support and nurture given to young artists make this an event of spine and importance. The German soprano Dorothea Röschmann, with pianist Malcolm Martineau, took a while to settle, but all her experience and gift for nuance came into play in Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and, magnificently, in Schumann’s bleak Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart (Songs of Queen Mary Stuart), Op 135. Written in December 1852, they reflect Schumann’s deep depression, intensified by the onset of syphilis.
A few diehards braved stormy weather to attend a late-night concert by the British soprano Gweneth Ann Rand and pianist Simon Lepper. They performed Messiaen’s early, Wagner-related cycle Harawi: Songs of Love and Death. Together, Rand’s sumptuous voice, technically brilliant, verbally agile and expressive, and Lepper’s sonically potent pianism, conjured the entire Messiaen gamut from apes’ cries and birdsong to the sounds of ankle bells used in Peruvian dancing. Head full of Schumann and Wagner, I nearly skipped it. Lucky I didn’t. The concert turned out to be a contender for the fast-approaching best-of-year list.
Star ratings (out of five)
Alisa Weilerstein ★★★★
Jean-Guihen Queyras ★★★★
Natalie Clein ★★★★
Oxford lieder festival ★★★★