It's so disappointing to hear such wonderful Beethoven spoiled by rather inferior violin playing. The other 6 musicians of this group are excellent and play well together. But the violin detracts just about everywhere with insecure passagework, some imprecise articulation and a slightly sour, nasal tone.
Just as one is lifted with joy upon hearing the clarinet play a phrase superbly detache, spirits are dashed by careless bowing from the violin in the corresponding line. As the violin and clarinet are founding members of this group, I would expect them to be perfectly "in sync" as to interpretative matters like articulation.
But that alone is not serious and can be easily overlooked were it not for the frequent fluffing of the violin part's most rudimentary passagework (simple downward scales, for example). And it's not just a one-time muff; it keeps happening over and over. From the very opening, we haven't even emerged from the Adagio yet and we begin to hear trouble by bar 15. She is clearly uncomfortable playing in the key of E flat.
Even in the Adagio cantabile, which should be easy and sweetly singing, I'm bothered by slightly sour violin tone. And then it's back to some clumsiness in the Menuetto, Theme and Variations and the concluding presto. And those final high Bb triplets in the final measures of the finale are embarrassingly out of tune. Granted it's taken at a cracking tempo and is written in a rather awkward key for strings to play (E flat Major), but I can't help but wonder if she's sight reading this.
I don't mean to be harsh, but it's conspicuous when the other players are so thoroughly accomplished. And as a group, their playing is full of joy and spontaneity. In the central menuetto and scherzo for instance, the viola plays with splendid spiccato and the winds with incisively crisp tonguing. And the music positively dances.
Moving ahead, this program is especially rewarding for its inclusion of the Berwald Septet, which is much less often heard. It’s an inventive and pleasing work (if not quite up to the exalted heights of the Beethoven), with an infectious final Allegro con spirito, which features the most delightful clarinet playing here by Michael Collins. It is a sparkling reading, brought beautifully to life by all involved. And the violin playing is more secure as well.
Typical of BIS, the SACD recorded sound is excellent. It is especially noteworthy that the bass viol is never allowed to boom or overpower the group, as can so often be the case. (Witness the Kaleidoscope Chamber Ensemble recordings on Chandos.) And the music-making as a whole is joyful and alert, with perfectly judged tempos. (One exception being the unmarked, unnecessary, pronounced slowing of tempo for the Trio of Beethoven's Scherzo). And I must single out the fabulous horn player in particular - Alberto Menendez Escribano - whose jubilant, expressive playing throughout is an absolute pleasure to listen to.
Putting it all into perspective, these are winning, smiling performances which will provide pleasure to many, especially audiophiles who value state-of-the-art recorded sound. And if this program were played by a local chamber group, it would be deemed absolutely splendid. However, with a prominent name like Wigmore Soloists (originated in collaboration with London's illustrious chamber venue, Wigmore Hall), there comes an expectation of the very highest caliber of accomplishment. And we get that from most of these players. However, it is inconceivable, and a great pity, the violinist is not quite equal to the high standards of the rest.
One final note - I was astonished to read in the booklet that this recording of the Wigmore Soloists was not made in their namesake Wigmore Hall, but in St. John's Upper Norwood Church. How odd.