Monica Huggett / Norbert Brainin & Friends, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Significant anniversaries of two leading violinists - but how very different! On the one hand, we had that sprightly pioneering baroque violinist Monica Huggett, celebrating her 50th birthday before setting out to cycle westward across the United States in aid of the children's charity Jessie's Fund. And on the other, there was the venerable 80-year-old Norbert Brainin, harking back over the 40 golden years of his leadership of the Amadeus String Quartet, which he founded in 1947, to the musical world of his pre-war, Viennese youth.

Starting with a lithe reading of JS Bach's Concerto for Three Violins and Strings, BWV 1064a, Huggett's programme proved very much a shared affair with the varied talents of the period-instrument Ensemble Sonnerie, which she founded in 1982. And in two substantial Purcell selections, from Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy Queen, she was content to yield the spot to the soprano Nancy Argenta - in less than purest voice, for once, but sustaining a mood of anguished elegy in Purcell's long arioso "The Plaint".

Only in the final item was Huggett prepared to step forth as the fizzing virtuoso she can be, in Vivaldi's extraordinary Violin Concerto in D major, RV208 (Il Grosso Mogul), in which brief tuttis frame a series of extended, wildly improvisatory cadenzas. Yet, to these ears, it was the flexibility of rhythm and sensitivity of nuance with which Huggett inflected François Couperin's early quartet-sonata La Sultane that lingered most memorably.

After her light-bowed style with its sparing use of expressive vibrato, the sweetly vibrant intensity of Norbert Brainin in his prime would have come as a maximal contrast. But time takes its toll: the tone is thinner now, the intonation less reliable, and even at the immensely broad tempi he set for Schubert's great String Quintet in C major, D956, we sometimes had to take the expressive wish for the deed. He was warmly supported by second violinist Madeleine Mitchell and violist Garfield Jackson, and there were lovely things from cellists Stefan Metz and Robert Cohen.

Mozart's Sonata for Piano and Violin in C major, K296, in which he was joined by the pianist Clive Britton, also came over uneasily, with the piano sometimes dominating Brainin's more tentative phrases. It was Brahms's sweepingly inventive early piano quartet No 1 in G minor, Op 25, with Britton's grandly scaled playing holding the structure together that brought the heartiest string playing of a long evening.

But a capacity audience of admirers seemed happy to have heard a living legend, and doubtless the Norbert Brainin Foundation will have benefited handsomely.

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