Late-romantic French chamber music is a little bit of a specialist area, and it isn’t often performed, so Thursday night’s concert at Kings Place was a seldom-heard treat. The Schubert Ensemble presented two completely contrasting piano quintets from the period: Gabriel Fauré’s exquisitely numinous 1905 first quintet in D minor, and César Franck’s more bombastic work from some 25 years earlier.
The Schubert Ensemble gave a generally excellent account of both pieces, enhanced by their now-regular short introductory ‘Behind the Notes’ first half, in which they demonstrated some of the compositional techniques behind the music they were to play, and filled in some of the background.
The Fauré is a complex work, full of never-quite-achieved trajectories, and the ensemble tackled these with subtlety – in particular, the slow movement was magnificently handled, providing a real sense of yearning through the fugal entries, and the gloriously rhapsodic episodes. The blend, on the whole, was perfect, although, somehow, the piece seemed to take a while to find its feet. It is a somewhat disjointed and impressionistic work, characterised by some complicated syncopations – and it is supposed to engender a feeling of restlessness – nevertheless, the first movement felt slightly too piano-led, as if the strings were trying, ever so slightly, to catch up all the time. The café-tune opening of the final movement, however, was a joy, and the off-beat pizzicato strings against the piano were bang in time.
Franck’s 1880 quintet is a different beast entirely. It is a work full of drama, and the ensemble was unstinting in giving it to us, making the most of the sudden shifts in volume and tempo throughout, and allowing the melodramatically halted phrases to echo pleasingly around the space.
It wasn’t all bombast, though – the wistful violin-and-piano opening of the second movement gave us a more gentle side of Franck’s yearning for his impossible love, and the little theme that resembles Offenbach’s Barcarolle (who wrote it first? the pieces are almost contemporary) was given a delightfully lacy treatment in the middle movement, only to return in the third movement over some determined busyness from the lower strings.
Also enjoyable were the passages (mostly in the latter two movements) where entry was piled on entry to produce a deeply moving intensity, and the string tone in these was particularly well controlled, keeping the audience on edge until the final empty repeated sounding of the unresolved open D.