It’s good when chamber musicians break the mould and dare to do something different, and Philip Venables’s ‘Romanticism’ deserved a hearing, particularly as it was a Wigmore commission.
But before a note had sounded, one had doubts. This, we were told, would be a ‘chamber music response’ to a ‘text’ (including clunky publishing references) by Simon Howard which eluded classification. By turns O-level philosophy and stream-of-consciousness prose-poem - ‘when I shall die when I have died when I am dyeing when I dye dying am dyed dead in the owl’ - it would have belonged more naturally in Pseuds’ Corner. In the event it was read out (beautifully) by horn-player Stephen Stirling, while single notes were softly sounded on the piano; periodically the Endymion ensemble took over with a strident phrase or two. The musical rationale sort of worked - it was all predicated on the opening four bars of Schubert’s last piano sonata - but the whole thing was terribly thin gruel, reminiscent of nothing so much as the teenage amateur dramatics sent up by Chekhov in ‘The Seagull’. The other two works in the Endymion programme were a reminder - though neither Vaughan Williams’s ‘Quintet in D’ nor Dohnanyi’s ‘Sextet in C’ is a diamond of the first water - of what an excellent ensemble this is.
The young Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova drew a capacity audience for her unaccompanied Bach the following night, offering the first two pairs of sonatas and partitas from what is the fons et origo of violin virtuosity. Ibragimova’s renunciation of vibrato may be fashionable, but if you remove that expressive tool you have to work all the harder to achieve expressiveness - though, from the way she played the first sonata, one wondered if this player was bothered about expressiveness at all. Her sound cut through the air like a knife, and the movements were only vestigially characterised.
Gradually some warmth crept in, and some light and shade - maybe she had been too tense - and the second sonata had some brilliant polyphonic effects; the Giga went like the wind. Technically this recital was dazzling, but it was also strikingly joyless, as though Ibragimova had no awareness of these works’ rich layers of meaning. And these - above all in the final Ciaccona - can take a lifetime to tease out.