Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Schubert Ensemble @ Wigmore Hall, London

7 February 2011

In the second of its three-concert series devoted to works by Enescu and Dvoř, the Schubert Ensemble coupled the latters vivacious Piano Quartet in E flat with Enescus darker, more meditative Second Piano Quartet in D minor. However, it was with the composer after whom the ensemble derives its eponym that Monday nights concert at the Wigmore Hall got under way.

Schuberts gently lilting Notturno in E flat for piano trio, D897, is a work of quite endearing simplicity, which in performance never seemed forced or driven. Even the more pronounced subsidiary melody in 3/4 had a sense of containment (but not of restraint) that made it sound quite stately, almost majestic. I immediately noticed, however, just how exposed the piano sounded in this rendering. But while the balance between the strings and piano remained a slight issue it was more the fact that the piano didnt retain that same sense of magic that both violinist and cellist seemed to achieve. True, this was very accurate and considered playing, but it just seemed to lack that air of necessary abandon.

The performance of Enescus wartime Piano Quartet (completed in 1944) was preceded with a brief but enlightening preamble with regard to the composers apparent control-freakishness: all the individual bowings are marked in the score, variously defined categories of piano and forte resulting in about ten different dynamic levels, and tempo markings often change with nearly every bar. This quite obsessive attention to detail occurs within a densely woven texture of elaborate counterpoint in which themes are continuously developed and embellished. And yet the music remains so emotive: there was a freedom to the way in which the ensembles members played, investing such feeling and seemingly losing themselves and their audience in a darkly brooding, labyrinthine and folk-inflected sound world.

Again, however, there were occasional moments when the balance just didnt sound right, with the piano in danger of overwhelming the violin, viola and cello, especially when any of the stringed instruments were playing on their own. The piano motif that brings the first movement to a close and preempts the musical material at the start of the second movement, for instance, sounded slightly heavy handed to me. In contrast, there was such yearning in all the string parts whenever they sounded their descending and then ascending major-seventh motif in the second movement. It becomes wonderfully clear in performances like this that the composer obviously knew how to write well for the instruments in question (Enescu was in fact an expert violinist, cellist and pianist).

The third movement is altogether more complex, fraught with tension and powerfully dynamic, alternating moments of incisiveness with more leisurely freedom. Gently oscillating octaves ease the last movement to a close before a final flourish, which was played with the sort of simplicity that suggests everything and is actually only fleeting.

Enescus intricately spun web of complexity was, without doubt, the musical hero of the evening. It could only ever have been that way, however, as the rather more classically orientated Dvoř that followed the interval sounded almost hollow by comparison. The relentless four-note motif that defines the opening movement of his Second Piano Quartet in E flat was always very well articulated, but the charming melodies of the second movement seemed a little lifeless. Admittedly, the Enescu may still have been resonating in my mind, but the comparison was unavoidable in the third movement, in which Dvoř likewise hints at folk (specifically gypsy) music.

However, I did enjoy the piano playing more in the final two movements of the Dvoř: there was a real sense of dramatic tension conveyed by the ensemble, both in the trio and the relentlessly energetic and irrepressible final movement. But I could not help to wonder what difference a reordering of the programme might have made. True, having both E-flat works flanking Enescus darker D minor tonality allows for a pleasing symmetry, but that would require some quite inspiring playing in the Dvoř to ease us out of Enescus intensely brooding musical world. I was almost convinced, but not quite.

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

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