CLASSICAL MUSIC: Brahms Cycle / Andras Schiff: Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
Andrs Schiff's Wigmore Hall Brahms festival opened splendidly last Saturday week with memorable performances of the Clarinet Trio, First Violin Sonata and First Piano Quartet. By the end of the centennial celebration, we will have heard all the chamber music with piano, as well as the results of an enterprising education scheme in which young students from Pimlico School and Kingsway College were asked to write pieces inspired by some of that music. All in all, a project to be proud of.

Encompassing the fiery inspiration of Brahms's youth, as well as the majestic command of his middle years, and the special poignancy that characterises his last phase, the opening programme constituted an in-depth study of the composer's creative development. The performances were worthy of the music in all its aspects, ideally combining the flare and brilliance of public virtuosity with the caring intimacy of domestic music-making.

The instrumental virtuosity needed in the Trio is real enough but, for the listener, it takes second place to the poetic sensitivity that can reveal the work's veiled melancholy and emotional instability. Here, Schiff and his clarinettist, Elmar Schmid, and cellist Boris Pergamenschikow, responded with profound understanding, allowing a watery sunlight to offset the autumnal shades, and focusing Brahms's rapidly changing emotions and remarkably compressed structures with the immediacy of their playing.

There is more of an unguarded passion in the writing of the young Brahms, and the element of virtuosity, too, lies nearer the surface. In the magnificent Piano Quartet in G minor, Schiff and Pergamenschikow, together with violinist Erich Hobarth, and violist Nobuko Imai, rose to the demands of the composer's youthful turbulence and touching tenderness and exuberance quite magnificently.

One of the turning points in the Quartet's expansive structure is, to use the phrase of the festival's excellent programme note-writer, Calum MacDonald, the colourful parade that emerges quite unexpectedly in the middle of the slow movement. It expands mightily the work's hitherto darkly troubled world, and makes possible the scintillating Hungarian finale. This was superbly engineered by Schiff and his team, yielding a truly visionary sequence, and their playing later in the finale was of unforgettable bravura.

On the subsequent Thursday, with a different violinist and cellist in Yuuko Shiokawa and Mikls Perenyi, we heard the companion Piano Quartet in A, and here, too, interpretative mastery was complete: its more discreet material and even broader structures and lyrical line were handled with a majestic calm. How different the explosive, concentrated statements of the Piano Trio in C minor, where the playing captured magnificently Brahms's range of contrasting emotions: now angrily protesting, now tender, fleeting and always capable of breaking into heartfelt lyricism. Each programme was completed with a duo sonata, and we heard golden playing from Shiokawa in the First for violin and from Imai in the Second for viola, both magnificently supported by the indefatigable Andras Schiff.

Series continues 7.30pm tomorrow. Booking: 0171-935 2141