It would be misleading to characterise classical music as either masculine or feminine, but the distinction was unmistakeable in the style of performance at this birthday bash. As the Wigmore Hall’s director, John Gilhooly, noted in a speech at the end, the hall is custodian of a great tradition of chamber music, suitably reflected in the calibre of performers it continues to attract – not just household names such as Daniel Barenboim, but also the five distinguished soloists who joined forces for this recital.
Two of the five, violist Tabea Zimmermann and violinist Pamela Frank, were women. Was it mere coincidence that the pieces in which they were involved were noticeably less strident? When the three men – violinist Joshua Bell, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Jeremy Denk – joined forces for Schubert’s Piano Trio No 2, the result was not so much espressivo as aggressivo.
This is one of the jewels of the repertoire, renowned for its inwardness and tranquil lyricism. Here it had a hard-edged, bipolar quality, all nerves-a-jangle, constantly racing between noisy garishness and exaggerated softness. There was no middle ground, even in the finale when Isserlis tried to temper the storm whenever the cello restated Schubert’s calm theme. Denk’s “I’m here” playing, stuffed with hammering chords and grandstanding gestures, was matched by Bell’s beefcake intensity.
Elgar’s Piano Quintet, the main work in the second half, began in much the same way – all primary colours and in-your-face emotion. But Zimmermann’s fragrant steering of the adagio inspired Isserlis to a touching show of Elgarian restraint, and the performance suddenly began to breathe. These two had drawn a similarly virtuous thread of understatement through the little-known Beethoven Duet for viola and cello at the start of the evening, while a charming Dvorák jeu d’esprit, the Four Romantic Pieces for two violins and viola, found Frank and Zimmermann nourishing the warmth in Bell’s artistry.
On this reckoning, what could be typecast as the feminine side of music-making added up to much more than the superficially dominant male qualities.