Just imagine if, in celebration of your sixtieth birthday, you could ring up a number of your friends – all of whom happen to be renowned or rising figures in the music world – and invite them to partake in a wide and unusual array of chamber ensembles.
A clarinet trio, a piano quartet, a ‘cello octet, a viola and ‘cello duo … these combinations open the door to an exciting repertoire slightly different from the norm.
In the case of American ‘cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, such an idealistic, “imaginary” concept became a vivid reality.
The main part of the festivities in the first half of Sunday’s celebratory concert was Brahms’s monumental Clarinet Trio Op. 114. It is a wonder that such a blend of clarinet, ‘cello, and keyboard was never more fully exploited by other composers (the only other “mainstream” example of this grouping is Beethoven’s Op. 11). This state of affairs is only accentuated when one has the privilege of witnessing as excellent a clarinettist as Michael Collins in such a setting. With his immaculate shaping of the music and his wholesome, tender sound (especially evident in the soaring melody at the start of the Adagio), he was a joy both to watch and to listen to, a consummate chamber musician in every regard.
The balance between Collins’ clarinet and Kirshbaum’s ‘cello was sometimes an issue, with the former often overpowering the latter (though not, I might point out, at the expense of tone quality). However, this did not distract the trio from the crucial task of conveying the distinct atmosphere Brahms bestowed on each movement. The passionate brooding of the Allegro and the serene simplicity of the Andantino grazioso were captured with equal aplomb. Ian Brown ran a tight ship, delivering an excellent account of Brahms’s challenging piano part while matching the intensity of Kirshbaum and Collins. Kirshbaum himself was no slouch, either. Though his string crossings occasionally detracted from his lyricism (a minor and infrequent disturbance), his playing was always characterised by a purposeful sense of direction.
In the second half, Collins was replaced by violinist Viviane Hagner and violist Thomas Riebl, both of whom jelled admirably with Brown and Kirshbaum in Schumann’s E-flat major Piano Quartet Op. 47. While this work might not be the composer’s finest example of chamber music, the ensemble did everything in their power to make any doubters think again. Particularly impressive was Hagner, whose exhilarating tone always pervaded regardless of the music’s character, tempo, or dynamic. There was a certain freshness and spontaneity about this performance, from the warm, delicate phrasing in the third movement (Kirshbaum’s lyricism here was especially fine) to the joyfully rambunctious Finale. As ever, Brown was a competent and steadfast presence at the keyboard, most notably during the menacing, driving Scherzo.
The rest of the concert was interspersed with smaller, lighter pieces not often heard in live performance. Steven Isserlis was on hand to participate in a rousing rendition of Julius Klengel’s Impromptu for Eight Celli Op. 30. The sound of so many ‘celli at one time created a wonderful Richard Strauss-like density of timbre (though the music itself was not a patch on the Bavarian composer). While this proved a more than satisfactory way to end the evening’s music-making, the ‘cello quartet that brought the first half to a close proved even more entertaining. Simon Parkin’s A Birthday Surprise, composed specifically for the occasion of Kirshbaum’s sixtieth, contained no fewer than sixty quotes from the ‘cello repertoire. Was it a good performance by four of Kirshbaum’s former pupils? It probably was, but to be honest, I (along with a sizeable proportion of the Wigmore Hall audience) was laughing too much to take any notice!
The two Beethoven pieces included in the programme were pleasant, though somewhat “ordinary” from a musical standpoint. Riebl and Kirshbaum blended well together in the Duo for Viola and ‘Cello WoO32. Though there was some beautiful phrasing and tone-colouring, there were also times when the uneven balance between the two instruments confused the musical shape. The Twelve Variations on a Theme from The Magic Flute Op. 66, which opened the concert, was not a work of sufficient depth and flair for Kirshbaum to display the full range of his musical and technical abilities. Though he and Brown produced a good performance, one might have hoped for a more substantial offering as Kirshbaum’s only solo outing during the evening.
That said, Kirshbaum would probably be the first to argue that this concert was by no means about him. It was, instead, about the friendships established over a long and successful career of both performing and teaching. This sense of close musical relationships was exuded throughout the evening, and made this concert a celebration worth remembering.