More about the Lockdown Wigmore Hall Concerts

I was originally going to write at length (again) about the Wigmore Hall concerts this week. But, you’ll be relieved to read that I won’t.

There isn’t too much more to say, other than how the mere experience of them as a viewer after an extended period of time denied access to high quality live performance virtually, digitally or in person triggers all sorts of thoughts and feelings in response.

The elegant simplicity of Wigmore Hall’s live stream video presentation makes the story that emerges from the gaps in the concert experience electrifying. This week I’ve been obsessed with the things I can’t experience first-hand and the way my imagination leaps in to fill the resulting vacuum.  

I’ve spent most of this week watching the YouTube stream wondering about how WH Chieftain John Gilhooly, presenter Andrew McGregor and the assembled musicians say to one another on arrival at Wigmore Hall. Nobody hugs, I’m sure. But how do they greet each other? Do they smile apologetically? Do they jump up and down with excitement? Do they, like I think I’d probably do, sob in front of one another? Or do they just shrug their shoulders and resolve to just get on with it?

The theatre of the visuals only adds to the pathos. Concert producer, concert presenter and performers appear ‘in vision’ – without an audience what we see is a sort of laboratory version of music-making.

As an audience member I find that difficult, on the one hand, though not necessarily for the reasons you might at first think.

Classical music actually does poignancy really well. We can create an unifying event with music, especially when it’s been denied for a while. You only have to look at Menuhin and Britten in the aftermath of the Second World War, or Barenboim and du Pre in the sixties and seventies to see that classical musicians have an enviable range of repertoire at their disposal to help heal wounds and map out a path.  

So, when I see an empty auditorium I don’t think that me and others like me should be there. I see a narrative in flow: that those on stage are keeping everything warm for us the audience member.

There was a sense watching Nicholas Daniel, and pianists Pavel and Sampson that they and others like them would continue to play for as long as they needed or wanted to. That they would play – patiently, resolutely – until we the audience returned.

Musicians right now whether it’s in locked-down concert halls or playing live from their front rooms and giving us the audience a call to arms. The rest of us are waiting for the barriers to be dismantled. And they will. Eventually.

Biss at Wigmore

I’m 47. I didn’t ‘go out on a Saddurday night’ until my second year sixth. I didn’t understand the appeal of pop music for a long while after my contemporaries (by which I mean years), and it wasn’t until I was 20 I understood why women needed to use more than one tampon a month.

I blame my parents for all of this. My father adored the music of Glen Miller (and latterly Syd Lawrence), my mother considered even the televised diaries of Adrian Mole risqué, and the family never really talked about bodily things either.

Similarly Beethoven. As a result my perception of Beethoven is misty. It’s shrouded in a cheap net curtain that diffuses the true image underneath.

There’s so much bollocks assumed about Beethoven. The tropes, trite phrases and cliches mask the detail. It is the detail in Beethoven’s music that yields the pleasure. If only we could trust ourselves and others to focus in on that detail.

Jonathan Biss’ Wigmore Hall recital pulled back a lot of that net curtain for me.

It wasn’t ‘on paper’ perfect. Sometimes the breakneck speed resulted in a momentary lack of clarity in the right hand. Sometimes I wanted to hear more of the gaps in between the semi quavers. And yet, it was terrifyingly taught and controlled. It wasn’t flabby around the edges by any means. It was a firework display.

Ten days of stomach flu had prompted a last minute change of programme. Biss shared this news with the audience before the second half. I’d argue it wasn’t necessary to be quite so transparent to explain at the beginning of the second half: a more cynical individual than I would describe such an act as an apology. Or better, ‘managing expectations’.

There really was no need. Biss is a consummate storyteller, pinning you against the wall with a statement he probably wasn’t aware he needed to make until an hour or so before the recital got underway. In that way these Beethoven sonatas were short stories or librettos all given a set, a cast, an orchestra and a conductor for a ‘flash’ production. Electrifying. Hutzpah. Gripping.

There were errors. Two. Maybe three. That feeling one gets when one thinks there might be an error was prevalent, but it did rather make it exhilarating.

The errors didn’t matter because the emotional connection between music, interpreter, and audience member had already been established. The errors triggered a sense of jeopardy, which in turn made us feel for him, and when he’d recovered, a sense of relief.

In that way Biss was captivating. Ridiculously fast (even when it said Andante). Sometimes it felt like it might even be out of control – on the brink of falling apart. But that still didn’t matter. Because at such a pace we saw Beethoven composition in a different way – dramatic statements, constantly shifting material, and relentless variations. And we had to cling on as we listened.

That is what live performance is all about. If only I could have learned that twenty years ago.

How Stephen Hough and the Castalian Quartet touched the soul at Wigmore Hall

The quest to identify the music that helps create meaning for me in 2020 is now underway. Last nights Brahms Piano Quintet live from Wigmore Hall unexpectedly hit the spot.

First was the impact hearing Hough and the Castalian Quartet had on my ears.

Sure, there’ll be some I know who might consider a pretentious thing to say, but that view is just redolent of lack of practice actively engaging with live performance.

The sound refreshed my ears – similar to the experience of hearing straight after having your ears vacuumed out. In that way it reunited me with listening, bringing my listening alive, kickstarting the heart and nourishing the soul.

Here were human beings all collectively engaged in a battle of wits, a kind of fight to the death, and convening in a joyful concluding celebration. It was like a friend had burst through my office door, apologised for missing Christmas, and presented me with a gift as wide as his eager smile.

I’m reminded of a remark made by a colleague to me this week, berating me for referring to the ‘classical music world’ because it confers a sense of superiority. The coach in me would challenge that and ask whether that was an assumption, perception, or whether he had any evidence that I was actually conferring superiority.

The rub (which I will spell out to him when we next converse over wine) is that the thrill I experienced hearing what amounted to only 25 minutes of live music wasn’t to do with knowledge of the repertoire, or being a fan of Stephen Hough.

It was the effect the sound had on my soul. The physical sensation of hearing the sound (if you’re not at least aware of the principles of NLP then that sentence will appear like a contradiction). It was the way it triggered a sense of reassurance. How space in my mind had been momentarily reclaimed. And most importantly of all, how I reacted to it in the moment.

And that’s listening out for it not for the music but for the self. It’s about personal awareness. It’s about actively engaging in the experience of listening. And we can all do that in an instant, can’t we?

I’m not saying this is the way it needs to be listened to. Rather, this is one of the ways it can impact. And it’s softened the hard edges of the new year too. And its Brahms. And of course Brahms is just brilliant anyway.

Listen to the concert via Wigmore Hall’s Live Stream on YouTube

Review: Violinist Daniel Pioro plays Beethoven Sonata Op.96, Biber and Lark Ascending at Wigmore Hall

Daniel Pioro is an intriguing performer with a gentle presence on stage. He moves and speaks with intent. His body follows the trajectory of the music he’s playing. And he plays with a delicate kind of sweetness I’ve not heard before.

These characteristics alone made the cool clear air of Wigmore Hall an ideal setting for Pioro’s performance style.

But there was, from the moment he walked on stage, an other-worldliness to Pioro that made this an unusual experience for the listener.

Pioro has a stillness about him that sets a slower pace for the audience member long before he starts to play.

There is no flourish, razzmatazz or affectation when arriving on stage, only natural rhythm. Calmness descends, the bow rises and falls, and the notes sound. The mechanics of the process are left far behind (in the dressing room). What we see is music being drawn in front us.

It’s clear where Pioro most feels at one: long expanding melodic material that expands over a long period of time, supported by an emotional maturity that was solid and unwavering. The adagio of the Beethoven violin sonata in G was a case in point, though his most sonorous sound was reserved for Clare O’Connell’s deft arrangement of Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending for violin, viola, cello and piano. Here Pioro exchanged the bright sweetness he’d deployed in the Beethoven with something richer and rounder.

The pathos of the Lark Ascending was brought to the fore inducing a few tears to roll down the cheek. But, it was Biber Passacaglia in G minor that opened the programme that I especially enjoyed. More and more I’m appreciating those musical introductions which transition the audience from outdoor to indoor experience.

Here Pioro thrived, at ease on the stage bringing that trademark stillness to bear at the beginning of the work before making small moves from left to right of stage as he played. This created an unexpected sense of inclusion and intimacy to proceedings. At tones during the Biber there was even the sense that he was accompanying the music on stage rather than playing it. Again, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before. A quite moving affair.

That I found Daniel Pioro’s performance intriguing wasn’t entirely down to his rare sense of style (it’s worth flagging that the suit was a nice looking thing too), but the range of music he offered up and one or two biographical details too.

A recent Bedroom Community release entitled Dust sees him play a new work written for him by Edmund Finnis – Elsewhere. (Be sure to listen to the unusual arrangement for Lark Ascending there too.)

He’s also appearing at the Proms this summer with a new work by Jonny Greenwood (it will be interesting to see how that stillness translates to the Royal Albert Hall).

And personally speaking, I recall marvelling at his musicality in an ensemble setting during a stunning SCO concert in Kings Place last year. He also has connections with Manchester Collective. The man can switch between genres and locations with relative ease it seems.

One to watch.