Great pianists often gravitate to chamber music in their maturity, as though the satisfactions of communal music-making finally outweigh the thrills of solo achievement.
This is how Wilhelm Backhaus and Claudio Arrau rounded off their careers, and how Martha Argerich is gracefully doing today. Maria Joao Pires is still going full blast as a soloist – she’s one of the few pianists capable of packing out the Royal Albert Hall – but she too is increasingly turning to chamber music, in addition to the unique form of tuition she has developed at her arts centre in the wilds of rural Portugal.
Pires was undoubtedly the reason why the Wigmore was sold out for her concert with cellist Antonio Meneses, but this was always going to be a landmark event, since Deutsche Grammophon were making a live recording: typical that she should choose this intimate venue rather than a big hall or an antiseptic studio, and typical, too, that she should replace the Wigmore’s dark-toned Steinway with a brighter-sounding Yamaha.
Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione Sonata’ may be a late piece, but rather than being shot through with valedictory despair it’s sunny and urbane, with the piano supporting the cello as it does the singer’s voice in the Lieder. Meneses and Pires gave it a Viennese decorum: Meneses’ warm sound had barely a hint of vibrato, and at those moments when the piano was called on to shine, Pires did so with exquisite tact. Then – after a quick switch as in a drawing-room entertainment – she delivered Brahms’s ‘3 Intermezzi Opus 117’. ‘Lullabies of my sorrows’ may have been the composer’s own description, but Pires wasn’t going to vamp up the emotion: the first had a metronomically steady pulse, and the second was only allowed to catch fire sporadically. She smudged some high notes in the third – not looking too pleased with herself – but her playing gained in expressiveness through its emotional restraint.
The second half began with Mendelssohn’s piano-and-cello ‘Song Without Words Opus 109’ - light and agreeable but, as usual with that composer, not touched by the divine spark; they wound up with a majestically laid-back account of Brahms’s first cello sonata, followed by a Bach Pastorale which showcased the mellow amplitude of Meneses’ sound. With a little patching, the Cd should work a treat.