Recitals for only a single violin and a solitary viola are so rare that, in 50 years of concert going, I have never been to one before. However, Isabelle Faust and Antoine Tamestit performing at the Wigmore Hall on 3rd November made me realise what gems I have been missing. They are two of the most thoughtful musicians around, as well as being technically immaculate. Importantly, they are constantly conscious that they need to adapt their technique to the style of the age in which the music was written. Their programme ranged in each half from the 17th to the 21st centuries; a club sandwich of Mozart, Martinu and Kurtag between layers of the Parisian composer from the 1680s known as the Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.
For his music they did not switch to baroque instruments but they did change the way they gripped the bow, instantly altering the pressure on the strings and the length of phrases. When they changed back to what is thought of now as normal bowing for Mozart’s duos, written in 1783 at the height of his inventiveness, the contrast made his music feel almost uncomfortably modern. Oddly, the real modern music by Georgy Kurtag from only 20 years ago and Martinu’s from 1947 came over as far closer to the explorations of Sainte-Colombe. In Martinu’s case, his Three Madrigals (a much more substantial work than the title suggests), the link to the past was deliberate, but Kurtag roved between melancholy and aggression and in Vie Silencieuse asked the players to mute the strings to create a cobweb of sound. What a joy the evening was!
In Chelsea, two evenings before, there was more conventional fare at the Cadogan Hall but still some impressive string playing, this time from Jennifer Pike in Bruch’s First Violin Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO). She came to prominence so young that it is a jolt to realise she is still only 32 but it also means she is able to approach this most gorgeous of romantic concertos with mature sensitivity: sumptuous singing lines maintained by judicious but not intrusive vibrato. Sadly her exemplary technical skill contrasted with that of the ineffective conductor, Chloe van Soeterstede who, frankly, needs some stern words from a fierce teacher. The RPO were left playing as individual sections, each doing their job but rarely as an integrated unit. Sensibly, they relied on Pike in the concerto but in Smetana’s Vltava and Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony there was no such help available.
It is surprising to realise that the National Gallery has been holding piano recitals for around 80 years, ever since Dame Myra Hess began them as morale boosters in the middle of the Blitz. It has plenty of spaces large enough for an audience and a piano but it does help if the room chosen has doors to keep out the chatter of wandering picture viewers. Clare Hammond, on the 4th November, was placed in Room 32, not the most cosy chamber just off the central lobby, and the audience’s attentiveness was a tribute to her brilliance, given the rumble of noises off. Right in the eyeline too was a vast and gruesome painting of a beheading by Giordano that rather undermined the graciousness of the music. Luckily, Hammond plays with her eyes closed most of the time.
She was presenting a remarkable programme of Études, mostly of astonishing difficulty, published in 1816 by the French virtuoso, Hélène de Montgeroult, whose teachings shaped the generation after – Chopin, Clara Schumann and Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn. Hammond made the connections so clear that it is astonishing that they are only being made seriously now, largely through her recording of them. Montgeroult was famous in her own time but has been firmly ignored by 150 years of misogynist critics. The works are much more than mere technical studies: first rate examples of chamber music from its golden period, though sometimes they sound as if they are being played by six hands, not two. Clare Hammond is the ideal interpreter for this music and, from the way she delivered some Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, with gentle affection without wallowing in sentiment, I look forward to hearing her explore much more of it. The six foot Bluthner grand she was using has the right timbre too, less percussive than some other makes, but if she is to perform them in such a gallery in future she should be offered a longer instrument to fill space.