As the world’s top venue for chamber music, the Wigmore Hall had a lot to celebrate on its 110th anniversary. But when it opened in 1901, it had a different name and purpose.
As the Bechstein Hall, sitting next door to the Bechstein showrooms, it was created as a shop-window for Europe’s leading piano-maker: it took a few years before the penny dropped among the virtuosi that here was an acoustic second to none. Alfred Cortot, Walter Gieseking, Pablo Casals, and Andres Segovia made frequent appearances there in the Thirties; the inspirational Myra Hess led the field during the Second World War, then came that golden age when Benjamin Britten made the hall his test-bed for premieres. Fifteen-year-old Daniel Barenboim played Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ there in short trousers, to be followed by a 16-year-old Jacqueline du Pre, and by an only slightly older Mitsuko Uchida.
The big guns wheeled out for this celebratory gala were the Takacs Quartet – playing Haydn’s late String Quartet in D Opus 71 No 2, and Beethoven’s final string quartet – with pianist Stephen Hough joining them for Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A. The outer movements of the Haydn had an energetic full-bloodedness; the beauty of the Adagio unfolded seamlessly. For the Beethoven, the Takacs deployed a different range of timbres, creating a frozen sublimity in the slow movement, and such abandon in the Trio that one sensed the hair on their bows. The drama of the final movement, where the phrases ‘Must it be?’ and ‘It must be!’ became a duel between doom and liberation, acquired majestic force. And it was good to be reminded how strikingly modern Dvorak’s piano quintet is, as well as how nostalgically Schubertian: Hough’s playing was at its commanding, charming best.
A brilliant evening - but the point about the Wigmore is that it’s brilliant several times a week. The previous day I had attended a lunchtime recital in which the Israeli pianist Shai Wosner did thrilling things with Beethoven and Brahms, and an evening concert in which the young Malaysian pianist Bobby Chen made magic with Prokofiev. A few days before that, the 22-year-old Ukrainian pianist Alexej Gorlatch gave the most poetically expressive account of Chopin’s Etudes I have ever heard: none of pianism’s big beasts, past or present, could have done better. Keep on truckin.