Soile Isokoski / Allison Bell / Members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski - Wigmore Hall, 10 June 2010
What a pity that the typically intelligent and stimulating programme Vladimir Jurowski had devised for his LPO chamber ensemble this evening wasn't matched by equally thoughtful planning for its execution.
The most effective item was the least ambitious, and perhaps not coincidentally the only one Jurowski didn't conduct. The Sextet from Strauss's Capriccio was played with great warmth and vitality by six of the LPO's top string players.
A few more musicians had to squeeze on to the tiny Wigmore platform for Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, and it was here that the problems began. Soloist Allison Bell, instead of standing up front, joined them in a line curving behind the conductor.
In other venues, or perhaps with a more forceful vocalist, this would have been a perfectly uncontroversial arrangement. But one of the reasons the Wigmore is such an ideal recital venue is that the acoustics favour the typical position of the singer at the front of the platform, creating a perfect balance automatically. Stick them anywhere else and the Wigmore's democratic acoustic blends the voice seamlessly with whatever else is around. It would be an exaggeration to claim that Bell was inaudible, but she was certainly hard to hear, at times dipping beneath the level of the scant instrumentation. The problem was compounded by Bell's (quite correct) election for a true, speaking tone sprechstimme, meaning her voice rarely projected as far as pure singing would.
Soile Isokoski's rendition of Strauss's Four Last Songs fared even worse. For some reason, Isokoski was jammed up against the back wall. There were only thirteen musicians in front of her in James Ledger's new pared-down arrangement, but they were enough to drown her out almost totally. Christine Brewer in the vast barn of the Royal Albert Hall with a hundred instruments behind her came over more strongly.
Not only that but the wind instruments, a particularly strident piccolo especially, all but submerged the strings. Whether the Wigmore acoustic or the new arrangement was responsible, the effect was the same - the honeyed glow of Strauss's lush, string-heavy sound was all but eradicated.
Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie suffered from similar if not even more exaggerated balance problems, and, for the audience at front left, the additional merely visual obstacle of a grand piano (unused) blocking their view of the stage.
Maybe those at the back of the hall had better luck with the sound - it's sometimes the case - but in a venue noted for the quality of its acoustic really everyone should enjoy at least acceptable sound balance.
How ironic that the acoustic hotspot at centre front was occupied by the only musician who remained silent all night - the conductor.
This isn't the first time the cut-down London Philharmonic have failed to master the hall's acoustics, so why haven't lessons been learned?