Where can you go in London any day of the week and be sure of good music, good music-making, comfortable amenities, couple of bars and a restaurant? The answer is the Wigmore Hall, which started life in 1901 as the Bechstein but changed its name in World War One to that of the street in which it is situated. Every night there are performances and sometimes there are programmes at other times; Sunday mornings, lunch times, maybe afternoon.
In World War Two there were two notable series: French Music, organised by the Free French, programmes chosen and sponsored by the critic Felix Aprahamian, at which one could hear the gamut of French music performed by the likes of Maggie Teyte, the Griller Quartet and, after the Liberation, Pierre Bernac with Francis Poulenc, Ginette Neveu, Yvonne Léfébure and the Parennin and Loewenguth Quartets; and the Boosey and Hawkes sessions at which recent music was heard, John Ireland’s Sarnia played by Clifford Curzon, or Britten’s new Serenade; occasionally there were concerts given by the Boyd Neel or the Jacques string orchestras; these were the plums but the majority of concerts heard were performed by débutantes where the accompanists – Gerald Moore or Harold Craxton, were so much more distinguished than the singers, Ernest Newman the critic suggested that instead of the fliers announcing ‘So-and-so soprano with so-and-so at the piano’, it should proclaim ‘Gerald Moore, piano and, at the bottom the voice: so –and-so’.
To come back to the present, during two weeks in October I heard three strings quartet recitals which gave great pleasure to full houses – the Wigmore is usually sold out.
First there was a lunchtime programme given by the Skampa Quartet (who play standing up, cellist on a platform); two girls, two men, two works: Dvorak’s elegiac A flat, opus 106, and Shostakovich’s number eleven, the latter a curious work consisting of seven short movements played continuously, interesting ideas but not developed, a bit like an hors d’oeuvre without a main dish to follow, intriguing at times, gently ambling, furiously powerful at others, containing a humoreske that cuckoos at us (do they have cuckoos in Russia – what was DSCH trying to tell us?) The girl leader of the Skampa is a splendidly full-blooded player, she really leads, the result being a distinguished group.
In fact all three quartets played in exemplary fashion, faultless. But then quartets rehearse every day as a rule so that the music is really in their blood, whereas orchestras rehearse a programme only two or three times (through of course they may have played the pieces many times). Both the Endallion and Chilingirian Quatrets have been playing together now for forty years or so (‘and it don’t seem a day too long’) but they do not show any signs of old or even middle age except perhaps in their extra maturity and virtuosic performances. The Chilis, as we call them affectionately, played a programme that some found odd: Bartok 4, Haydn in G, opus 77/1, and finishing with Beethoven’s C sharp minor, opus 131, the latter, an Everest of a Quartet, a work of the most intense, concentratrated power combined with moments of spiritual power (maybe there is a God). Isn’t it a wonder that Beethovan could survive creating such a work?
The Endellions also included a Bartok, number 5, flanked by two Beethovens; the early C minor, opus 18/4 and the first of opus 59, the F major Razoumovsky, almost as big a step forward as the Eroica Symphony.
The Wigmore Hall is famous for its perfect acoustic. Most people believe that wood is the secret of a good acoustic. But the Wigmore is mostly plaster with strong dollops of marble and wood, as I found out when making a BBC programme about the hall during which I interviewed an acoustic expert, and Mr. Lake who shifted music stands and the piano for some sixty years after joining the staff in 1902.
When I asked Mr. Lake about the past he said that one of the curoius things was that all the female performers wore hats, so large that much of the sound the singers made went into the thick material of their gear. The other astonishing fact was that accompanists were not allowed into the Green room; they were cooped up in an upper room, awaiting their turn. Even famous and knighted musicians suffered this indignity, be they Landon Ronald or Hamilton Harty.
Arthur Rubinstein once told me this story: as he was finishing the last item in a recital that had gone rather well, he was thinking about the encores he might play. He came off, took a bow, came off and decided to wait a moment or two before going back to take another bow. “Builds up the antipaiciption, you know” he said, “Then just as I was going back into the auditorium, the attendant (Mr. Lake perhaps) said ‘They’ve all gone, sir’ and by George, so they had. I was rather annoyed so when I got back to th Savoy I telephoned a friend to find out what had happened. She said: ‘Oh, it was Margot Asquith. She rose from her front-row seat and addressed the audience, saying ‘Go home, do you want to kill the poor man after playing his heart out for two hours? Go home.”
And they did.