A series of three concerts over the course of one weekend, designed to reflect upon and champion the work of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, which has supported a significant number of worthy performers in its first ten years, was always going to present an interesting range of repertoire – if not something of a conundrum for those planning the programming of the concerts. Originally, Saturday's concert was to have drawn together rather neatly the ensemble works of Mozart and Schubert, contrasted with interlinking sets of songs by Brahms and Mahler. The unavoidable absence due to illness of both soprano Christianne Stotijn and violist Antoine Tamestit sadly intervened, necessitating a complete revision of the first half of the programme.
Violinist Alina Ibragimova took to the stage of Queen Elizabeth Hall alone, to open the concert with J.S. Bach's Partita no. 3 in E for solo violin, BWV 1006. Despite a sympathetic setting of the stage, with screens brought forward to reduce the amount of empty space visible and to reflect the sound better, Ibragimova cut a slight, almost lonely figure, making the hall seem larger than I had perceived on previous visits. After a brief pause for silence, Ibragimova launched undaunted into the Preludio with a delightfully amiable energy, a spirit which came to embody this performance. The Partita consists of six movements based on contrasting dance styles and structures, the character of each being captured splendidly by the soloist, whose work on period instruments had clearly informed this rendition on the modern violin. One unfortunate side-effect of this was that the steel strings did not always respond with the same soft, singing sound as those made of gut, making a few climactic moments come across as sounding almost scratchy. There was no doubting the energy and commitment of Ibragimova's performance, however; the near-capacity audience were held in spellbound silence until the last note of the final Gigue had faded, and after a moment of silence which mirrored that at the beginning of the piece, burst into enthusiastic and sustained applause which clearly showed that nobody had felt too short-changed by the change in repertoire.
Mitsuko Uchida, as a founding trustee of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, performed in all three of the weekend's concerts, giving on this occasion Schumann's series of Waldszenen ("Forest Scenes") in place of the Brahms and Mahler Lieder which she was to have accompanied. She virtually sprang onto the platform with a youthful energy which carried over into her playing as the scenes progressed. A set of nine miniatures, the scenes demonstrated vividly the sense of mystery, melancholy, capriciousness and drama which seemed to be as much part of Uchida's musical language as they are of Schumann's. Uchida played in a manner which suggested total immersion in the music, yet conveyed its slightest nuance with striking effect; this was not playing to the gallery or to the front row, but a truly absorbing performance – hard to achieve in such a large recital hall as this. Schumann's intricate textures came across very well on the whole, except in "Freundliche landschaft" ("Friendly landscape") where I felt the tempo chosen was simply too fast, resulting in a rather garbled reading.
Schubert's Piano Quintet in A, "The Trout" remained in place as the second half of the programme, for which four out of the five performers have been supported by the Trust (substitute violist Hélène Clément being the exception). Given the piece's unusual instrumentation, it was understandable that it should be performed by five soloists rather than a regular ensemble, though I must admit to having felt apprehensive that such a strong mix of personalities and talent might result in a rather competitive atmosphere. These misgivings were proven to be largely unfounded, as the piece works very well for five soloists, each instrument coming to the fore almost by turns, either in solo or duo passages. The strings blended their tones wonderfully well, with minimal vibrato never detracting from the quality of intonation or warmth of the overall sound, and they were well supported by sympathetic playing from Jonathan Biss at the piano. Despite its lid being fully raised, the piano never dominated the ensemble unnecessarily, although Biss' mannerisms were sometimes a little distracting visually. This became a wonderfully spirited performance of superb chamber music, capturing the delightful intimacy of the smallest moments as well as the grand sweep of Schubert's quasi-symphonic scheme with equal success.
Whilst credit must be given to Ibragimova and Uchida for their willingness to adapt in order to fill the first half of the concert, not to mention their stunning performances, it is regrettable that the programme as given did not sit together as well as the repertoire originally advertised. The Bach in particular felt rather out on a limb, and somewhat outweighed by the two Romantic tours de force which followed it. The result was a set of three very enjoyable and absorbing performances, but an unfortunate lack of continuity to the evening as a whole. I do not wish to sound churlish for saying so, but the programme did feel strangely incomplete, despite the excellent quality of music-making very much in evidence.
Already known for her varied recordings, from Schubert to Michel van der Aa, mezzo soprano Christianne Stotijn moves effortlessly between styles and here presents two very different sets of songs.
Hear Brahms' brooding Two songs for alto, viola and piano and Schoenberg's early atonal cycle Buch der hängenden Gärten. As The Times wrote of a recent recording, 'whatever the song, Stotijn sings from the heart to the heart.'
Before joining Stotijn in the Brahms, Antoine Tamestit plays the first of Mozart's energetic two duos for violin and viola with Alina Ibragimova.
Queen Elizabeth Hall at 6.15pm - pre-concert talk. In 2012 the Elias String Quartet embarks on a tour performing the complete cycle of Beethoven quartets at venues all over the UK. In early 2011, with BBT's support, they launched a unique, website which openly shares with the public their immersion in the study, analysis, practice and discovery of Beethoven. Their aim was to demystify both the music and reveal how they are preparing for this huge undertaking. Find out how they have fared. Free.
The Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall at 9.45pm - Borletti-Buitoni Trust 'Out of the Box'. Martin Fröst and friends - watch this space to find out who! Free.
Southbank Centre: Queen Elizabeth HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Alina Ibragimova © Sussie Ahlburg