Taneyev Festival, Wigmore Hall, London

The stars come out for 'the Russian Brahms'
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The Independent Culture

For his Taneyev Festival – a short series of three concerts at the Wigmore Hall – the cellist Steven Isserlis has assembled a very starry list of players. Isserlis has good reason to make a special plea for the Russian composer, for Taneyev taught his grandfather. That said, there is only one work by Taneyev, albeit a substantial one, in each programme, which sets the composer in the context of his contemporary fellow Russians, including his teacher, Tchaikovsky, and his pupils, who included Scriabin.

Taneyev is known as the Russian Brahms, and on Wednesday his String Quintet No 1 in G showed why, with its chunky counterpoint and vigorous development of motifs. There is, however, more Brahms-like music in the late 19th century – some of Stanford's, for example – and Brahms would never have made the unexpected change of key just before the end of the Scherzo, nor written the percussive passage with the wood of the players' bows tapping the strings during the finale.

Dedicated to his friend and professional rival Rimsky-Korsakov, the Quintet may well have been meant to display Taneyev's compositional resourcefulness, but its most memorable touch is when it quotes one of Rimsky's own melodies in the picturesque close. Perhaps, too, the second cello's flowery upward accompaniment at that point was taken knowingly from Schubert's Great C Major String Quintet.

The performance was nothing if not committed – in fact it was positively gushing, with Isserlis and the first violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, competing in attention-seeking body language, but Kuusisto's acidic tone, with very sparing vibrato, was less than ingratiating.

It was not an evening for lovely violin sound, for after the interval, Isserlis and the pianist Nelson Goerner were joined in Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio by the veteran Israeli-born violinist Ivry Gitlis. At the age of 79, you don't expect a violinist to show the control he might once have had, and apart from the odd sound which was frankly like a beginner's, Gitlis played sharp for a great deal of the time, so that passages with violin and cello in octaves were really painful.

Granted, a powerful musical personality was still detectable (Gitlis has had a distinguished career), but with its gypsy-like swagger and a tendency to reduce tone abruptly after each attack, his playing was totally at variance with Isserlis's more mellifluous and consistently singing style. And while Gitlis's piercing sound could have cut concrete, Isserlis often couldn't be heard. It was left to Nelson Goerner at the piano to carry the music's burden, which he did lightly and with an unfailing grace.

Further concerts: Saturday 19 January, Wednesday 23 January (020 7935 2141)

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