Steven Isserlis Birthday Concert (Radu Lupu / András Schiff /Joshua Bell / Dame Felicity Lott / Mark Padmore /Jeremy Denk) - Wigmore Hall, 16 December 2008
Bach Italian Concerto in F BWV 971 (Schiff); Haydn She never told her love; The spirit's song; Dvorák Die Stickerin Op. 82 No. 2; Frühling Op. 82 No. 3; Am Bache Op. 82 No. 4; Lasst mich allein Op. 82 No. 1 (Lott/Padmore/Schiff); Schumann Arabeske in C Op. 18; Kinderszenen Op. 15 (Lupu); Janácek Violin Sonata (Bell/Denk); Fauré Clair de lune Op. 46 No. 2; Nell Op. 18 No. 1; Soir Op. 83 No. 2; Mandoline No. 1 from 'Cinq mélodies de Venise' Op. 58 (Lott/Padmore/Lupu); Schubert Fantasie in F minor (Lupu/Schiff)
Encore: Schubert Rondo in A Major (Lupu/Schiff)
Extra: Beethoven Bagatelle Op.119, No.10 (Schiff)
This concert was by some distance the hottest ticket of the Wigmore season. Just look at what was on offer. To start with, András Schiff, Joshua Bell, Felicity Lott and Mark Padmore, any of whom could sell out the hall in no time on their own. Plus the elusive legend Radu Lupu, rarely seen, ever coveted. And it was all in honour of the fiftieth birthday of the much-loved Steven Isserlis, here of course in person though not on stage.
Normally, it's not hard to pick up a returned ticket from the Wigmore Hall website close to the day, even for sell-outs, but not this time. There was a long and mostly to be disappointed queue for last minute returns in the foyer when I arrived. How I treasured my own ticket. A crappy corner seat, but a seat, nonetheless.
A swift Happy Birthday from the audience, accompanied by house manager David on piano, then it was on to the real business. Or not quite. After reminding us that it was Beethoven's birthday today, not Steven Isserlis's (which is really on Friday) András Schiff paid tribute with an unscheduled dash through a tiny Bagatelle (Op.119, No.10) - then ran through it again for luck. Here it is - the whole piece:
Schiff began the programme proper in celebratory mood with Bach's sunny Italian Concerto, enriching it with luxuriantly arpeggiated chords. Here's one he made earlier, for Japanese TV:
He was joined by Felicity Lott and Mark Padmore for a group of Haydn and Dvorák songs. Schiff, always a generous and intelligent collaborator with singers, captured beautifully the veiled resignation of Haydn's lengthy prelude to the first, She never told her love (from Viola's speech to Orsino in Twelfth Night). It tells the story almost better than the words do - delivered here compellingly and occasionally stridently by Mark Padmore.
Felicity Lott handled the eerie chromatic runs of The spirit's song, as so often with 'minor' Haydn sounding at moments about a century before its time. Her voice is now sounding rather fibrous at the top, but still has great allure, and the ability to shape a song intelligently remains entirely undimmed.
The biggest draw of the evening though was Radu Lupu, who appears to favour village halls far from London for his rare UK appearances these days. Unassuming to a tee, he shuffled looking like Fidel Castro's chubby elder brother. He settled into his habitual sawn-off chair to commune with the piano, singing quietly to himself as he played - as if he were in his own front room playing to an audience of none.
Just as you lean in to listen to someone who speaks quietly, so Lupu's playing invites almost conspiratorial attention. It's not just that he plays quietly (though that he does), it's the near-fetishistic attention to detail that pulls you in. Lupu observed Schumann's markings rigorously but entirely without the least breath of exaggeration. It was his own subtle inflections of these - an near-imperceptible acceleration into a ritardando for example - that turned every note into something intensely personal.
As with the Kurtág miniatures Isserlis himself exquisitely performed a couple of weeks ago in this very spot (a concert I didn't find time to write up), there was the sense that every single note of Schumann's Arabeske and Kinderszenen counted, that each had been considered and justly weighted. Even the usually brash tones of the Wigmore Hall Steinway seemed subdued beneath his fingers. Science tells us that because the piano is a percussion instrument, the tone quality of a note is the same whoever hits it, but those rare few like Lupu - and Sokolov is another - seem able to defy even the fixed laws of the universe.
Time for an ice-cream.
After the interval, Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk were the unlucky pair who had to Follow That. If their immaculate and spirited gallop through Janácek's Violin Sonata didn't quite hit the spot, comparison was at least partly to blame.
Back came Radu Lupu in the unaccustomed guise of accompanist to Mark Padmore and Felicity Lott in a selection of dreamy Fauré songs. Mark Padmore found himself rather high up the stave for comfort, and though the notes themselves were achieved, his vowels suffered as a result in Nell and Soir. Felicity Lott demonstrated her expertise in this repertoire with the serene beauty of Mandoline and Clair de lune underpinned by Lupu's sympathetic piano. If he had seemed entirely self-contained for his solo performance, here he proved he could be a painstaking listener too as he cushioned and conversed with the vocal line.
The finale found Lupu's chair to the right of Schiff's more conventional piano stool for Schubert's four-handed Fantasie in F minor. Could they do better than the last pairing I heard, Lang Lang and his mini-me at the Proms? The bar could hardly be set lower - and the response could not be more contrasted. The sympathy and generosity of both pianists was evident in their extreme restraint, even the epic climaxes handled with delicacy.
The loudly-demanded encore saw Lupu and Schiff swapping seats for Schubert's Rondo in A Major, in some aspects even more perfectly weighted than the Fantasie.
Some birthday present. Happy birthday Steven Isserlis!
Steven Isserlis leaves the stage, followed by András Schiff: