Disturbing review – calling talents

No phones were kept up during this time Igor Levit – the Russian-born German pianist – and two other outstanding soloists, a French violinist Renaud Capuçon and Austrian cello Julia Hagen, played the complete Brahms piano trio last weekend. Despite Wigmore Hall’s restrictions on the use of any electronic devices, every seat was sold. The capacity audience, of all ages, remained nonstop, intently focused, throughout. At the end they shouted and cheered and some took pictures. These three, which were written over the course of Brahms’s lifetime, have no program in the sense of the stories that accompany them. The listener’s ears and mind weave their own story.

Related: Igor Levit: ‘These concerts saved my life’

Until a fortnight ago, any observation of the disturbing use of mobile phones at concerts would have been dismissed as a classic-elite lie. After the chief executive of the Birmingham City Symphony Orchestra announced that she was happy for phones to be used in concerts, a long thorny subject is now in the news. A week later, with complaints from all sides, some backtracking happened: reduce the brightness, don’t use flash, the opinions of performers will be respected, some concerts might be more suitable than others.

More on this soon. First, Brahms. Levit, who has a penchant for solos – complete Beethoven sonatas, complete Bach partitas – performed the four sets of Brahms’ late piano works in London in January. Two months later, at the Heidelberg spring music festival, where he is co-artistic director, he explored chamber music with Capuçon and Hagen, among others. Immersion, Levit style, is always complete. As a solo pianist, he is used to performing. Here he shared, produced, collaborated, giving freedom to Hagen’s cello playing and the elegance and intensity of the violinist Capuçon.

There may be an outpouring of notes, but not one is wasted

In Trio No 1 in B major Op 8 (written early and revised later), the piano strikes out on its own. As soon as a cello, and then a violin, join in, all fly out in a joyous exchange, together and apart. You see Brahms’s point, three people speaking as one. Since this is Brahms, there is melancholy – try the slow movement No. 2 in C – and anxiety too: spiky, nervous scherzo No. 3 in C minor. A tiny slip of a finger at times, here and there, was a reminder of the demands this composer places on players. There may be an outpouring of notes, but not one is wasted. Levit has said that playing Brahms brings him joy. We strongly agree.

The IS Manchester Camera, performing in the city’s Albert Hall and calling the programme Disbreakers, which was another example of the power of listening, with no phone required. It was directed by Karen Ní Bhroin, a well-known young Irish musician. In the eerie former church, all columns, stained glass and Victorian Gothic, this imaginative ensemble moved nicely between the world premiere, Beethoven and the HideOut Youth Zone Sunday Club collaboration with young people from Gorton in the south-east of the city. A former monastery in that area is now the home of the Camerata. The ensemble’s outreach work is extensive: last week, with £1m funding pledged by the city’s mayor, Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester was announced as the UK’s first music and dementia centre, hosted by Camerata, working in partnership by the Alzheimer’s Association.

The new work, Actions Speak Louder, by Carmel Smickersgill, a Manchester-based composer still in his 20s, engaged us enthusiastically (through spoken instructions over a pulsating score) and intelligently questioned where authority lies in music. Shout “ha” if you’d rather the musicians were left to get on with the performance without all this involvement from the audience, the translation asked. Only a single “ha” sounded. The enthusiastic participants from Youth Zone sang enthusiastically i Wake upa piece they had created about the trials and opportunities of getting up in the morning.

As well as giving a fast, explosive account of Beethoven’s Symphony No 8, the Camerata demonstrated their finesse in their Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major with Ethan David Loch as soloist. Loch, 19, who is also a composer, won the BBC Young Musician keyboard final in 2022. He has been blind since birth. His main method of learning and memorizing music is to hear it over and over, rather than using Braille. To establish the relationship required between soloist, orchestra and conductor, Loch makes large gestures with his shoulders and hands. Otherwise, he could be in the lap of the gods – except he isn’t. As with all music, exceptionally here, each player must understand how Loch is trying to compose a phrase, where to push forward or hold back. These players, directed by Ní Bhroin with keen empathy, performed admirably.

Loch, perhaps alone among soloists, would be indifferent to flashes of phone activity in the audience. (I haven’t seen any.) Implicitly, he made the case, as powerfully as anyone ever could, to turn off the rest of the world – including our phones – and rely on the incredible possibilities pertaining to the mind’s eye. The foot-stamping on the resonant wooden floors, as he took his bow, collapsible cane in hand, told the youthful soloist that he had won.

Star ratings (out of five):
Igor Levit, Renaud Capuçon, Julia Hagen
Put in ★★★★

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