Chicken soup for the soul (in E flat)

Maria João Pires | Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

The key of E flat united a compact concert of chamber music at the Wigmore Hall given by Maria João Pires - an all-too-rare visitor - and friends last week. Coming after a chilly performance by Maurizio Pollini of Brahms's B flat concerto in the Royal Festival Hall, Schubert and Schumann in the focused sound of the Wigmore was pure balm.

The key of E flat united a compact concert of chamber music at the Wigmore Hall given by Maria João Pires - an all-too-rare visitor - and friends last week. Coming after a chilly performance by Maurizio Pollini of Brahms's B flat concerto in the Royal Festival Hall, Schubert and Schumann in the focused sound of the Wigmore was pure balm.

Both Schubert's E flat piano trio and Schumann's E flat piano quintet were written in moments of extraordinary creativity for their respective composers. Schubert was dying but in his last two years produced two piano trios, the string quintet, the three great piano sonatas, Winterreise, and the E flat Mass.

Schubert, unlike Schumann, was no pianist - "He belonged to the old school of good pianoforte players whose fingers had not yet begun to attack the poor keys like birds of prey", it was said at the time - but pianism of a special kind is required to play his music, in particular, lightness and clarity. At the Wigmore, the ear was constantly drawn to Pires' bell-like sound, the rippling arpeggios, the springy octave unisons.

In the sublime slow movement, the cellist, Jian Wang, seemed too restrained, confirming a nagging suspicion that the trio was not well balanced, more power required to match the sometimes vigorous playing of the violinist, Augustin Dumay.

Schumann's piano quintet, written in under three weeks, was the first work of its kind. The keyboard writing is fuller blooded and coming after the Schubert, sounded positively symphonic. Gérard Caussé, viola, and Jian Wang revelled in the shared writing between them in the first movement, and the group as a whole brought luminous lyricism to the slow movement.

Two days later, Kathryn Stott and the Skampa Quartet played the first piano quintet in the history of French music. Considerable skill is needed to lift a second-rate work to a level of charm. But this was a performance of César Franck's piano quintet to challenge received opinion. Damned by its dedicatee, Saint-Saëns, who made a hasty exit at its first performance, it has remained a neglected work.

But on a stormy night, a warm wallow in Franck's repetitious, harmonic meanderings is a treat. Stott and the Skampa lovingly shaped Franck's romantic themes, bringing tenderness and passion to an otherwise awkward child. Stott is a marvellous chamber-music player, her years with Yo Yo Ma shining through in her ability to avoid drowning the cello in its lowest register.

In a fresh and airy Beethoven Op 18 no 2, and a marvellously coloured Prokofiev 2nd quartet, the Skampa came into its own.

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