Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Schubert Ensemble @ Wigmore Hall, London

28 March 2011

While his career as a prodigiously gifted violinist and conductor (as well as pianist and teacher) earned him international renown, the music of George Enescu is too rarely performed in this country. Indeed, of the three Enescu works that the Schubert Ensemble has performed in the last few months as part of their series of concerts dedicated to Enescu and Dvořk, only two have ever been performed in London before.

There are numerous reasons for this neglect, extending in large part to Enescus own remarkable modesty and reluctance towards self-promotion, as well as practicalities concerning inefficiency in the publishing and recording of his work. As regards his posthumous reception at home, Noel Malcolm (author of the first, full-length English study of the Romanian composer) has written that by insisting almost possessively on the national importance of [Enescus] work, [his compatriots] contribute to the false impression that he was, by European standards, a figure of merely provincial significance. This points also to the rather more worrying chauvinist attitudes that have often predominated in Western art music, particularly concerning canon formation. Indeed, as far as his compositions are concerned, for many years Enescu was known only for the folksy Romanian Rhapsodies. With this in mind, the Schubert Ensembles recent concert series has been truly enlightening and no doubt an absolute revelation for scores of concertgoers.

Monday nights concert at the Wigmore Hall (the third and final instalment of the series) presented Enescus gloomy yet deeply luxurious wartime Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 29, flanked by Beethovens Allegretto for piano trio in B flat and Dvořks colourful and ever popular Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81. The Beethoven was simplistic in its rendering, and although quite beautiful it seemed to be lacking that extra something, particularly in the piano part. I might have done with a fraction more time being given to certain pauses and the ends of phrases, but otherwise this was a consummate performance, with some exquisite melodic playing in the violin and cello.

Enescus Piano Quintet is presented in three movements, although actually it is comprised of two larger movement blocks: the first two movements are played without a break, while the third movement could feasibly be divided into two separate sections. The opening movement was by turns rhapsodic, emotive and deeply lyrical, which is all the more impressive since the writing in the first two movements is overwhelmingly intricate at times, as if weaving a web of organic allusion. Every so often there are moments of clarity, which were given a wonderfully fresh and lilting air. By contrast, the ensemble was also able to achieve a staggering level of intensity, sometimes built around just one note or an open string.

The third movement, with its dance-like main theme, contained some of the most impressive climactic playing (indeed, the second half of this movement can be seen as one huge climax in itself). This was totally enthralling, with moments of glorious and sparkling intensity. Having left the Classical simplicity of Beethovens trio behind, the piano glittered in its upper registers and was deep and broad in the lower octaves.

What struck me most about this performance, however, was just how humbled the ensemble seemed to be by this music. There was a sense of reverence attached to their interpretation of what the score offered them, and although Enescu’s markings and instructions are incredibly dense and varied, the performers on stage never allowed themselves to be constrained or creatively hampered by them. Just the opposite, in fact: this was a performance full of freshness and life, as well as a deep-seated emotional intensity that was occasionally very revealing.

In the second installment of this concert series (back in November), I felt that the comparative lightheartedness of Dvořk’s Piano Quartet made for a somewhat anticlimactic end to the night, if only because of the sheer intensity of Enescu’s Second Piano Quartet, which preceded it. It was as if all that musical intensity had dissipated, leaving the Dvořk sounding somewhat hollow (in spite of the Schubert Ensemble’s ever impeccable rendering of it). Despite Dvořk once again following Enescu in Monday night’s programme, this time there was no such imbalance.

Dvořk’s work is brimming with contrast, and although it’s not as intricately hewn as Enescu’s (which was written over fifty years later), there is a constant tendency towards transformation. The opening movement was dynamic and virile in its more animated sections, while the main theme’s wonderful augmentation towards the end was given all the time in the world, resulting in a fantastically broad and expansive moment. The second movement ‘lament’ was played with great warmth, with each sudden move between major and minor modes dealt with utterly seamlessly, while the Scherzo was spritely and incisive. The Trio of the third movement could have been more delicate, but it certainly recaptured that sense of magic that wasn’t quite there in the Beethoven. The finale almost never let up in energy, and the lovely lilting theme was gradually and compellingly transformed to provide the quite brilliant fortissimo climax that brought the work, and this stunning concert, to a close.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org

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