Worldly wise. I have enough concerts at Wigmore Hall under my belt to qualify as a Wiggie (not that I could ever vote Tory), if it's not too cheeky to nickname the knowing regulars at this, the best hall in London. The seating capacity is only 540, a minnow that would disappear in the maw of Albert Hall, so the stars who appear here do it for love, not to mention the warm, enveloping acoustic—this must be the closest that a Pollini or Tetzlaff comes to singing in the shower. We are just a week past Pollini's recital in Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, but the chills and tingles he failed to supply, sadly, came with a rush at Wigmore last night.
Borscht and tears. It's always fascinating — and enigmatic — to hear what a pianist will do with Schubert. The scores have few markings to lead the interpretation, and Schubert's balancing act between simplicity and subsumed emotions is precarious. For a long time he wasn't given the benefit of the doubt when it came to the basic issue of whether he knew how to write for the instrument. His sonatas, early and late, are marked by repetitiveness, peculiar key changes and abrupt mood swings that can seem eccentric, unless you accept that a genius knows what he's doing even if we sometimes don't. Beethoven tests a pianist's moral character; Schubert tests a pianist's ability to solve riddles.
Sterling or plate? Great singers will always be rare, and if they take up German lieder, their scarcity reaches the vanishing point. In the opera house one never has to worry about a shortage of cheers from, well, people who don’t know any better. But lieder aficionados are specialists. A singer faces a hall, usually small, packed with sharp tastes and sharper tongues. I am of that breed. It’s not something I care to put on my resume when I give an account of my soul to Saint Peter, but no doubt I’ll make a remark about the acoustics in Paradise and spoil my chances anyway. Acoustically, London has some fine small halls, the most golden being Wigmore and Cadogan, the latter a miraculous accident when it opened in the nineties, since the building’s original use was as a Christian Science church. London appears equally lucky in the number of dedicated song recitalists it contains, but there’s the rub.
Day for night. The young Pavel Haas Quartet from the Czech Republic, has been winning prizes and rave notices for eight years now, the flicker of an eye in the usual lifespan of renowned string quartets. We are in the midst of a glut of rising young ensembles of this kind, but the Pavel Haas sets itself aside. It doesn't come on stage dressed in matching black Dolce & Gabbana or play with the impersonal precision of a machinist shop. Their style is a throwback to the forceful, romanticized sound of Russian groups like the Beethoven, Borodin, and Shostakovich Quartets. Like the last, they took their name from a modern composer. Pavel Haas (1899-1944) died at Auschwitz and has a noted place in Czech music. The group has recorded his three string quartets, which were the impetus for choosing Haas's name, we are told, rather than as a statement about the Holocaust.
The hollow man. Shostakovich was demoralized and spent after suffering a serious heart attack in 1964. The politically craven Symphony No. 12 and the politically courageous Symphony No. 13 had dangled him between the two poles of his nature. A visit from Benjamin Britten revived his spirits in 1967, and two years later Shostakovich produced one of his late masterpieces, the Violin Sonata, a severe work based, after Britten’s instigation, on the twelve-tone system. But as with Agon, which is twelve-tone but sounds every note like Stravinsky, the sonata’s gray, spare lament could have come from nobody but Shostakovich. It exhausts an audience, even the redoubtable Wiggies (that is, the faithful patrons of Wigmore Hall) but when a committed soloist plays it, a soul beats loudly inside the enervating despair.