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Bertrand Chamayou, Wigmore Hall

With the horizon echoing to carols by candlelight, and with the Gubbayfication of the Albert Hall and Barbican, this is the time of year when one gives thanks for the Wigmore Hall, where there is no falling-off in musical quality.

Moreover, to read Gerald Larner’s programme-notes for Bertrand Chamayou’s recital is to realise something else about this establishment which tends to be taken for granted: here is a retired critic delivering miniature essays which illuminate the works more coruscatingly than many a learned tome could have done. Given the rarity of several pieces in the programme, this sort of guide is enormously useful, and you’d be lucky to find one of its quality anywhere else.

But Chamayou led us in gently, with a work more usually heard as an encore: Mendelssohn’s ‘On the wings of song’, modestly and respectfully arranged by Liszt, to which Chamayou brought a delicate touch and a clean, singing line. Then came three movements from Liszt’s ‘Annees de pelerinage’: ‘Au bord d’une source’ (Beside a spring) rippled brilliantly, if not with the evenness which turns it into magic. But what Chamayou did with ‘Orage’ (Storm) took the breath away, as did his treatment of ‘Vallee d’Obermann’, the first appearance of whose theme suggested a cello’s compelling warmth. By letting this work unfold at a leisurely pace, and by deploying the biggest sound I’ve heard in this hall for years, he allowed Liszt’s creation to expand to its full magnificence.

Chamayou completed his foray into Liszt with ‘Venezia e Napoli’, three fascinating rarities. The barcarole melody of ‘Gondoliera’ emerged gracefully from the mists before ornamenting itself with trills and covering the keyboard; ‘Canzone: Lento doloroso’ rumbled balefully, and ‘Tarantella’ simply tore along, changing colour all the time. Not many players could have brought this off with such casual aplomb: as an opener for the celebrations of Liszt’s anniversary year, this 29-year-old French pianist’s London debut has set the bar high.

The rest of his programme was no less impressive. Saint-Saens’s ‘Les Cloches de las Palmas’ and ‘Etude en forme de valse’ scintillated, while Franck’s ‘Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue’ came bathed in organ-like splendour. Meanwhile, Chamayou’s new Cd ‘Franck’ (on the Naive label) holds up to the light some hitherto-neglected gems from this underrated composer.