It’s very easy for performers to go overboard with the big romantic stuff, so in many ways the achievement of Tai Murray and Silke Avenhaus’s superb Grieg at Wigmore Hall was in its restraint. This was never restraint in the sense of being boring, or holding back unduly, or skimping on mellifluous tone; but they managed to luxuriate in the music without delaying its progress, accentuating small phrases just enough without exaggeration, allowing lyricism to shine through (and even pensiveness at a few moments) without letting it dominate the simple exuberance in which the Sonata revels. Noteworthy, too, was the way they coped with the many changes in tempo and mood in the first movement, tying it into a coherent whole.
There is – no doubt surprising to many people – also quite a bit of dramatic chopping and changing in Philip Glass’s Pendulum (2010) written to celebrate an anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union and originally scored for piano trio. It starts with standard-issue cookie-cutter Glass – rhythmic consistency, slow harmonic shifts, everything we’ve come to expect from his countless pieces. But then it segues into a much more impassioned central section, complete with things like almost-hummable melody and brief climaxes that once would have been anathema to him. Perhaps one could detect more of a sense of struggle than is usual in his music, and a more vivid impression of progress through time (which is usually attenuated by the very slow pace of change in his longer scores).
Pendulum was a clever choice to link, and reflect, the two Sonatas, although the Saint-Saëns felt longer than it is, more the music’s limited interest rather than anything in Murray and Avenhaus’s virtuosic account. As in the Grieg, they certainly didn’t hold back on expression or bravura, especially at the furious conclusion; but still they handled the tunes with a nice sense of nuance. Once again, a little restraint went a long way.
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