Tine Thing Helseth introduced her programme notes by recounting the first time she and Kathryn Stott played together: “We had barely spoken two words to each other before the red light was turned on and we played… I was immediately immensely inspired. We spoke the same musical language – we decided we needed to do this more often.” As their audience, we have reason to be grateful that this decision was made, adhered to (as is often hard to do when two busy performers compare their diaries) and has borne fruit of such bounty and variety.
Helseth opened with two works clearly chosen to highlight the rich musical heritage of her native Norway. Geirr Tveitt’s Velkomne med æra (‘Welcome with honour’), far from providing the triumphal fanfare opening its title might suggest, immediately drew the listener in with a haunting, folk-like melody (whether Tveitt had collected his Hundrad Hardingtonar – ‘Hundred Hardanger Tunes’ – or dreamt them up himself is still open to debate). Having beguiled their audience with such a gentle and lyrical opening, Helseth and Stott immediately sprang into surprise attack mode with Edvard Hagerup Bull’s Perpetuum mobile, a much livelier amuse-bouche written in tribute to Johann Strauss. This pairing painted a most compelling musical portrait of the young soloist revelling in her own culture – and rightly championing its rich and entertaining diversity.
Having made such a convincing case for Norwegian music, the programme for the remainder of the first half turned to more the work of more familiar composers, featuring Enescu’s Légende (the piece which the duo first played together after those few words of introduction) and Hindemith’s Sonata. These two works were separated by Helical Strake, a new work by Graham Fitkin commissioned for this tour, receiving its first London performance (having been premiered at Stavanger only a couple of weeks previously). The ten-minute score uses physical phenomena as its inspiration (in particular the resonances of tubular structures, and their interaction with fluid air or water; a direct reference to the way in which brass instruments amplify and project their tone) and, like the Bull heard earlier, takes on an almost headlong moto perpetuo character. This lent the performance a sense of breathtaking urgency, even in its more tranquil phases; though Stott revealed that the composer’s performance notes suggest the music should feel “as if it is on the verge of catastrophe”, this remained a very sure-footed and spell-binding performance.
Having focused on virtuosic original works for the first half, the programme after the interval consisted entirely of song transcriptions (by Helseth) of Ravel, Sibelius, de Falla and Kurt Weill. Far from becoming ‘samey’, this proved to be a cunning ploy on the soloist’s part, enabling her to tap even deeper reserves of expressive powers and tonal variety. Ending with Weill’s rather bittersweet Je ne t’aime pas seemed rather anticlimactic – but surely encouraged the audience to call for more. Far from fobbing them off with a light and fluffy encore, Helseth combined her programme themes of soulful song and driving energy in a performance of Ástor Piazzolla’s Libertango, given with a red-hot ferocity that is not often delivered at the end of such a long and demanding programme.
Helseth’s tone is phenomenal – full and bright, with virtually flawless articulation (a few slightly fluffed notes across the entire programme went some way to reassure that even such virtuoso performers are at least human), yet never overpowering. Unusually for a soloist on an instrument of higher pitch, she had clearly taken care to match her sound to that of Stott’s at the piano – so that any doublings (particularly in octaves with the bass end of the keyboard) had an even richer sonority than usual. To be in time and in tune is to be expected of any chamber ensemble, but to be in tone across such a combination of instruments is truly exceptional. Garrison Keillor, in his ‘Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra’, gravely informs that “most of the people who keel over dead at concerts are killed by trumpets”. There appeared to be no such casualties on this occasion – but what a splendid way to go it would have been.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.