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Schubert Extravaganza
Purcell Room, London 23 May 2003
6:30 pm - Approximate finish time: 10:35 pm

Concerto Cristofori
Sharona Joshua fortepiano
Gádor Soriano soprano
Joshua Ellicott tenor
Matthew Truscott violin
Catherine Rimer cello
Rachel Byrt viola
Peter McCarthy double bass

Franz Schubert
Piano Trio in B flat, D.898
Der Jungling an der Quelle
Gretchen am Spinnrade

* * * * * * * *
Sonata in A minor, D.821 (Arpeggione)
Der Musensohn
Der Jüngling und der Tod
Sonata (Duo) in A for violin & piano, D.574
Am See
Des Baches Wiegenlied
Piano Sonata in B flat, D.960
Der Zwerg
Die Forelle
Piano Quintet in A, D.667 (Trout)

- - Concerto Cristofori restores for listeners today the true colours, vitality, warmth, intensity and subtlety of the great music of the past. - - Concerto Cristofori's series culminates in an unmissable evening's exploration of Schubert's music, both vocal and instrumental. Played on period instruments, including a Viennese fortepiano after Graf, these performances promise to enhance the beauty and expressive nature of these masterpieces - -

Should reviewers receive extravagant promotional hype on trust and without demur, or feel entitled to comment when it so far exceeds reality as to mislead press recipients?

I write from the standpoint of a militant devotee of early instruments, with innumerable treasured experiences of them live and on CD. Stephen Varcoe & Peter Seymour, playing Trinity College of Music's superlative copy of a Stein fortepiano, were magical in Schubert at the Early Music Weekend in Greenwich; it left you not wanting to hear a Steinway in such repertoire for a long time.

I had enjoyed in the past Sharona Joshua on the harpsichord, and Matthew Truscott as second violin of the prestigious Dante Quartet. The group has collaborated with great early music specialists, like Pamela Thorby, Susanna Pell and Rachel Podger. I attended Concerto Cristofori's Schubert evening in the hope that this most loveable composer's masterpieces would cast an additional spell, as with well restored paintings, spreading balm through an evening scheduled to last four hours. I feared, however, that they might be taking a big risk to maintain the magic of Schubert at his greatest for such a long evening - but we take that chance regularly in visits to the opera house for single works of comparable duration.

It was a marathon, and one which I anticipated enjoying for the first two sections of the tri-partite programme, but not likely to last the course. In the event it quickly proved extravagant in fostering expectations, but not by any reckoning an Extravaganza. We abandoned ship very early, retreating in disarray before the asterisks in the listing above. Should we have stayed and endured? Tell me, Gentle Reader?

The unforgivable crime was that Schubert, of all composers the most unlikely, came out as dull. We found all too little vitality, warmth, intensity and subtlety in the playing. The fortepiano (Barlow after Graf) was so quiet against the strings that most of the accompanying figurations were covered, except during passages of pizzicato, which were pleasing. This is a good lesson for studio producers who too often rectify balance discrepancies so that every note comes through; probably never intended so by composers like Schubert and Mendelssohn (Fauré too!) who support strings with multitudes of semiquavers. Joshua Ellicott's light tenor was pleasing in Der Jungling an der Quelle; Gádor Soriano simply not of a professional standard; she should not be attempting Gretchen am Spinnrade in public yet. Catherine Rimer has a good, relevant CV, but her cello playing in the Trio was prosaic and unilluminating. Matthew Truscott's intonation was shaky, and he lacked authority; a shadow of his Dante self. (They played with reduced vibrato and were possibly using gut strings?) Sharona Joshua tinkled prettily on her fortepiano. Had they perhaps over-rehearsed for this gargantuan concert and arrived at the Purcell Room tired?

Would they all have come to life and enthused us if we had remained to the end? We will never know, but I shall look out for other, hopefully kinder, reviews. Concerto Cristofori is scheduled to appear throughout the UK and on BBC R3, and my guess is that things should usually go much better than on this misconceived evening.

What is the purpose of marathon concerts and intégrale recorded collections, beyond the possibility of getting into the Guinness Book of Records? At least with CDs, you can pace your listening; we enjoyed Schuchter's complete piano music of Schubert (my bench-mark recording) over a fortnight!

Indigestible concerts of extraordinary length were common in earlier centuries, and at the Proms when I was young; later, quality became preferred to quantity.

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© Peter Grahame Woolf