In concert – Gramophone 100th Anniversary Concert @ Wigmore Hall

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

There is a famous, unattributed quote that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’. How, then, to interpret a concert in celebration of a magazine? The conclusion, when that magazine is 100 years old, is that surely its writers are doing something right!

The magazine is the esteemed Gramophone, formed in 1923 and reaching its centenary without a break, not even an issue missed during the Second World War. Gramophone has reflected the growth of the classical record industry, proving something of a bible for classical music listeners and buyers, with its recommendations of recordings and interviews / thought pieces to put them in context. Music old and new is covered, and not all of it classical – indeed, as we found out during James Jolly’s revealing and entertaining narration, the magazine reviewed pop music in the 1960s.

Jolly is the magazine’s Editor in Chief, and has been with the magazine since starting as editorial assistant in 1985. He gave a debt of gratitude to the Gramophone founder Sir Compton Mackenzie and the Pollard family, where the large part of the night’s story lay. Modestly, the magazine did not dwell on their current state, which would have been easy – for Gramophone is one of those rare things, a publication where subscription is done without the bat of an eyelid, and each issue read cover to cover – either physically or online, where you can enjoy the entirety of its archive in digital form.

How to celebrate such a publication in a concert? Choosing the Wigmore Hall was a smart move, honing resources and ensuring the celebrations were done with quality as well as quantity. The move did of course eliminate larger scale forms – opera and orchestral – but it retained the magazine’s sense of musical exploration through five centuries of music.

Violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Cédric Tiberghien began with a concentrated performance of Debussy’s Violin Sonata, completed just six years before the magazine’s first edition. This was a thoughtful and virtuosic performance, Ibragimova fully inhabiting each phrase while Tiberghien successfully harnessed Debussy’s coloristic effects and sleights of harmony. The spectre of war was close at hand – as it was in Gramophone’s early years.

Next up was countertenor Iestyn Davies, a late replacement for soprano Fatma Said. It was a privilege to hear his Purcell, refracted through the eyes of modern composers, showing how access to the composer’s music has boomed since Gramophone started. Davies had a particularly arresting delivery for Britten’s Lord, what is man, before a deeply passionate vocal in the Thomas Adès setting By beauteous softness, Malcolm Martineau phrasing its postlude with exquisite shaping. Britten reappeared for a jubilant I’ll sail upon the Dog Star.

In Gramophone’s tenure the guitar has established itself as a central part of the classical repertoire. We heard two very different soloists – Milos in Mathias Duplessy’s bluesy Amor Fati, which though originating in France seemed to be looking over the Spanish border on occasion. Its full bodied chords were brilliantly declaimed. Sean Shibe, meanwhile, cast his eyes further east as partner for tenor Karim Sulayman in three songs of Arabic origins. Here was a striking alliance, Shibe’s exquisitely quiet playing a match for the tenor’s husky delivery. The two finished each other’s sentences, reflecting a musical chemistry of unusual quality found on their recent album Broken Branches.

We also heard three very different pianists, dazzling with virtuosity but also showing impeccable control. Nearest to the edge was Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, whose compelling excerpts from Ravel‘s suite Miroirs revealed rougher contours. These suited the storm of Une barque sur l’océan, while Alborada del gracioso was rustic and danced at quite a pace, the pianist relishing its whirling figurations.

Martin James Bartlett showed a painter’s touch to a pair of Liszt arrangements – the composer’s keyboard paraphrase of his son-in-law Wagner’s Liebestod especially fine. Bartlett’s phrasing was immaculate, each tune clear as a bell in spite of the myriad accompanying colours. The Schumann transcription Widmung also retained a songful air, powerful at its climactic passages.

Bisecting the keyboard soloists was soprano Carolyn Sampson and regular partner Joseph Middleton. Sampson will shortly reach her 100th album release, a remarkable achievement in a discography adorned with Gramophone accolades. We heard a well-chosen and varied selection taking us from Purcell and Britten to Saariaho via Poulenc and Régine Poldowski, the latter composer indicative of record companies’ efforts to include more female composers at last. Daughter of Polish composer Henryk Wieniawski, Poldowski made a very strong impression with L’heure exquise, while Sampson gave a ringing endorsement for Saariaho’s Parfum de l’instant, due in a future recording. Here she was aided by a fountain of cascading treble notes from Middleton.

Finally we heard Bernard Chamayou in a tour de force account of Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli, an apt choice in its inclusion of the city of Naples, looking out to a former home of Sir Compton Mackenzie on the island of Capri. Liszt added the Venezia e Napoli triptych as a footnote to the second book of his cycle Années de Pèlerinage, reflecting the impact of his travels around Europe as a virtuoso pianist. Its music is far from trivial and Chamayou, who recorded the complete cycle in 2010 brought unusually clear definition to the undulating figures of Gondoleria. The Rossini-themed Canzone was deeply intoned, majestically voiced with a sense of wonder projecting right to the back of the hall. Finally the Tarantella was a virtuoso affair, but Chamayou never lost sight of the thematic material in the tempestuous surroundings.   

It was the ideal way to conclude a high-quality concert, though an encore saw the assembled artists sing ‘Happy birthday’ to the publication that has served them so well. Here’s to another 100 years, Gramophone!

List of repertoire

Debussy Violin Sonata in G minor (1917)

Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

Purcell, realised Britten Lord, what is man (1945); Purcell, realised Adès By beauteous softness (2017); Purcell, realised Britten I’ll sail upon the Dog Star (1943)

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

Duplessy Amor Fatí (2022)

Miloš (guitar)

Ravel Miroirs: Une barque sur l’océan; Alborada del gracioso (1904-5)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Trad arr. Sulayman & Shibe La prima vez; Arab-Andalusian Muwashsha arr. Shibe Lamma Bada Yatathanna; Sayed Darwish arr. Shibe & Sulayman after Ronnie Malley El helwa di

Karim Sulayman (tenor), Sean Shibe (guitar)

Wagner arr. Liszt Isoldens Liebestod (1867); Schumann arr. Liszt Widmung (1848)

Martin James Bartlett (piano)

Purcell realised Britten Sweeter than roses (c1945); Britten Fancie (1965); Poulenc Fancy (1959); Régine Poldowski L’heure exquise (1917); Saariaho Parfum de l’instant (from Quatre Instants) (2002)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Joseph Middleton (piano)

Liszt Venezia e Napoli S162 (1859)

Bertrand Chamayou (piano)

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