Two Concerts at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall is undoubtedly my favourite London venue. It’s tucked away just round the corner from the increasingly gaudy Oxford Street, a place that exemplifies the devastating effect overcrowding, motor vehicles and chain stores can have on an area of otherwise incredible architectural beauty. Wigmore Hall is a sanctuary from all the bustle. Tardis-like, its modest entrance conceals a remarkable interior. When you first walk into the hall your eyes wander around the room, taking in the alabaster and marble walls, the plush red seats and carpet. Soon enough your eyes are drawn upwards to the cupola above the stage, where they become fixed on the most extraordinary mural. It is impossible to find a picture that does it justice, but this will give you an idea if you’ve never been:


The sound is astonishing and the ticket prices exceptionally reasonable (especially for those of us under 35 — £5 tickets!).

Last week I finished reading Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music, in which Wigmore Hall plays a somewhat important role. I was really quite excited to visit the place where the Maggiore Quartet had performed, where Michael and Julia’s romance was rekindled and severed and then– well, we never do find out… It is, I suppose, how Harry Potter fans feel when visiting King’s Cross station. Though I had been to Wigmore Hall before, it felt like I was returning to a different place, somewhere even more magical. Life is wonderful like that: the way two things, begun independently, unexpectedly come together, even if just for a brief time…

The first concert I saw was L’Arpeggiata performing arias from Luigi Rossi’s operas Orfeo and Il palazzo incantato (as well as some Cazzati and Allegri). Not exactly well-known stuff. In fact, I can’t seem to find any recording of Il palazzo incantato. I was desperate to hear it again as it was such exhilarating music, especially the way L’Arpeggiata play it. Director Christine Pluhar’s tendency to play this music ‘freely’, let’s say, has at times been too radical: the crossover Handel-does-jazz stuff is forgettable. (Though occassionally it sort of works.) However, when they get it right — that is, when they are just an early music group and steer clear of the dreaded crossover genre — it is some of the most invigorating music you’ll ever hear:

Compare the above with other versions and the difference is plain. Here’s Anthony Rooley conducting the Concert of Musicke:

Not very exciting, is it? What a limp dance at the end! And what a difference the cornett makes!

Classical music often risks becoming a museum culture, perhaps now more than ever. There is a fine line between something being a dead tradition, upon which it is exiled to museums and history books, and it being a living tradition. A lot of ensembles seem to play early music in a somewhat lifeless way; L’Arpeggiata do not. I would in fact suggest that early music can sound quite contemporary. It is closer to popular tastes than most classical music, allowing greater autonomy for performers, greater scope for interpretation, using more intimidate ensembles, a more familiar understanding of dynamics, modality, and much of it is dance-able, in a way. It’s far better for classical music evangelisation than concertos for turntable or orchestral representations of nightclub music. Here are L’Arpeggiata again, this time performing Lasciate Averno from Rossi’s Orfeo. How could this fail to win anyone over? What overwhelming beauty! That melody! To hear this performed was the most wonderful consolation. Everything about it is right; nothing feels more meaningful than hearing and playing music like this.

The second concert was a piano recital. Imogen Cooper performed a Haydn piano sonata and Beethoven’s 7 Bagatelles in the first half, but I was primarily interested in the second half: Thomas Ades’ Darknesse visible (an ‘explosion’ of John Dowland’s song In Darkness Let Me Dwell) and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 Op. 110. I love both Beethoven and Haydn of course, but much of the piano repertoire does little for me. I have a stubborn prejudice against the instrument; I often just hear a lot of plonking and miss the expressive, less mechanical sounds of other instruments. But especially since listening to Igor Levit’s album, I have found a new appreciation for the Beethoven piano sonatas. Cooper gave a great performance so I’m very glad I went.

The Ades was particularly interesting. The second half began with a surprise: from behind us we suddenly heard Dowland’s song. The lutenist and countertenor had obviously snuck into the back of the hall unbeknownst to most of the audience. Then just as the last note faded out, Imogen Cooper whammed down on the piano. It was very cleverly done.

Dowland’s original song:

And Ades arrangement:

Let’s end with the Beethoven piano sonata: