CLASSICAL MUSIC: Schubert Birthday Concert; Wigmore Hall

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The Independent Culture
If ever a birthday celebration spelt "undying love", it was Friday's Schubert Bicentenary marathon at the Wigmore Hall. Romance, laughter, prayer, terror - all touched our hearts in three colourful programmes, judiciously arranged by Andrs Schiff and Misha Donat, and performed with unflinching dedication by all concerned. The hall was packed, the stage too, at least when the BBC Singers under Stephen Cleobury intoned the delightful Mondenschien with McCormack-soundalike Eugene Ginty as the tenor soloist. But that was in the third part, by which time we had already heard much of what was best: piano-duettists Schiff and Bruno Canino, for example, who opened the evening with three large-scale Grand Marches, the first boisterous, the second decidedly Schumannesque (with a gorgeous trio) and the third, a gentler, more reflective essay. Schiff's warm cantabile contrasted against Canino's more outgoing style, differences that registered later on when Schiff caressed the lovely Allegretto in C minor and Canino rode a dizzy merry-go-round of 16 waltzes. Their best joint-effort was a lean, fairly animated account of the hauntingly beautiful Fantasy in F minor.

Song was of course central to the proceedings. In Auf der Bruck, the tenor Christoph Pregardien had difficulty keeping pace with Schiff's canter "through night and rain", though he regained composure for that exquisite parable of music, age and death, Nachtstuck. Nacht und Traume was suitably sublime and Schiff's predilection for subtle tone-painting brought Ganymede's nightingale vividly to life. Better still was a sequence of songs featuring the mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager. Gretchen am Spinnrade opened with a pensive but artfully moulded "Meine Ruh ist hin..." then blossomed to full-blown drama, while Die junge Nonne facilitated histrionics tempered by finesse. Kirchschlager would turn from the audience between songs as if changing masks, but the evening's most transcendent vocal event - where a diminutive and disabled body assumed awe-inspiring presence - featured baritone Thomas Quasthoff. To hear Quasthoff re-enact regretful vengeance on a beautiful woman in Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) or fake a fight with death in Erikonig was both heartening and humbling. Quasthoff's voice is burnished gold, his manner dignified and his feeling for line and language fully on a par with his finest peers.

The third lap opened with the rarely-heard Gesang der Geister uber den Wassern of 1821, scored for chorus, violas, cellos and double-bass. Goethe's verses are variously treated and the sum effect anticipates the mature choral works of Brahms (the piece was actually composed 12 years before Brahms was born). I had wondered how the Wigmore's acoustic might cope with such generous forces, and yet, even from the rear of the hall, everything sounded with perfect clarity. Radovan Vlatkovic's accomplished horn-playing lent Pregardien and Schiff mellifluous support in Auf dem Strom and Kirchschlager returned for the evening's closing item, a charming but unfamiliar Serenade with chorus and piano. Grillparzer wrote the poem, just as Seidl, Schober, Collin, Claudius and others had done for earlier items on the programme. But the greatest story of all dispensed with words and shared its terrifying vision among four string players. Schubert's last string quartet is a tensed bow aimed at the future; it launches us skywards on a crescendo, hovers above an icy hinterland and ends in equivocal victory. Who else in 1826 could pierce a songful slow movement with desperate dissonances, or pen such a wildly chattering scherzo, or cap the lot with a finale that mixes ribald humour with Beethovenian muscle? And I doubt that many players have tackled its 50-odd minutes as perceptively as the Takcs Quartet did on Friday night. They even gave us the first-movement repeat, a sort of musical double-take at Franz Schubert's unprecedented journey into the abyss.

Robert Cowan