The Wigmore Hall’s ongoing Béla Bartók series, of which this was the centre-point, is shaping up to be one of the highlights of the season. Superlatively performed by a pool of top chamber players, the programmes stand out for their refreshing musical intelligence. Each segment of this triple-decker evening included a major Bartók work and their cumulative effect was enriched by pieces from his successors György Kurtág and György Ligeti.
Together they showed how Hungarian composers have tended to look east to the Transylvanian borderlands and beyond, but the opening work also looked west: Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, written for Yehudi Menuhin and inspired in part by his playing of unaccompanied Bach. Here it received a brilliant performance by Alina Ibragimova, who right from the opening bars dug in with uncompromising rigour. She found all its ferocity, but amid the sonata’s remarkable textural variety she also brought out its warmth.
The haunting third movement shimmers and rustles with Bartók’s characteristic “night music”, and thanks to Ibragimova’s concentrated stillness it cast a spell. At the end of the evening, the other big Bartók piece was the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. In the hands of Cédric Tiberghien, François-Frédéric Guy, Colin Currie and Sam Walton it flickered mysteriously before igniting explosively. Though also composed in the late 1930s, Contrasts is a very different proposition, a trio commissioned by the clarinettist Benny “King of Swing” Goodman that never really manages to be jazzy. Yet it is both languid and virtuosic, and Matthew Hunt (joined by Ibragimova and Tiberghien) supplied liquid tone and darting dexterity.
Bartók’s ground-breaking modernity was only confirmed by the other two composers’ pieces, strikingly fresh and original but no more challenging on the ears despite being written half a century after the master’s death. As the title of Kurtág’s Hommage à R Sch suggests, it also looks west, in this case to the spirit of Robert Schumann. A trio for clarinet, viola and piano, it unpacks its expressive playfulness concisely — the second of its six movements consists of just three bars.
Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Viola drew all the evening’s impulses together, a tribute to Bartók uniting Bach, jazz and Romanian folk music — the latter especially in the opening slow dance that is played entirely on the viola’s low C string. In the hands of Antoine Tamestit, his 1672 Stradivarius made the music’s dusky warmth utterly mesmerising.
Bartók Chamber Music, Wigmore Hall