Including a further Mendelssohn song as an encore, this intelligently planned evening ran to two full hours of music so no complaints on that score, nor on the quality of the music-making.
Johann Nepomuk Hummel, at one time thought of as Beethovens and Schuberts heir. His 'Military' Septet is scored for the unusual combination of piano, violin, cello, double bass, flute, clarinet and trumpet
, hence the title. In fact, the trumpet is more an amiable old buffer no disrespect to the excellent Alistair Mackie than a formidable presence and only really comes to the fore in the outer movements. The best ones, melodically, are the beautiful Adagio and Schubertian scherzo although it is actually termed a Menuetto with its throwaway ending. This engaging music received an affectionate performance from all concerned. The virtuoso piano part could have done with more glitter but clarinettist Michael Collins (having played Elliott Carters Concerto just a few hours earlier) was definitely the paprika in the mix with his ability to turn even the blandest phrase into something memorable.
The six Brahms songs, orchestrated by David Matthews (who was present) form a mini arch, opening and closing with two of Brahms's lighter song and progressing to deeper things. Effectively forming a cycle, these songs present the protagonist as that quintessential figure in German Romantic poetry, the Wanderer. Some of Matthewss arrangements worked less well than others, the framing songs in particular sounding lumpish and leaving one wishing that they had been given with the original piano accompaniment. However, the use of pizzicato strings and low horn sounded wholly Brahmsian, as did a string quintet for Alte Liebe" the cycles emotional core of the arch although the stopped horn in "Wie räfft' ich" seemed more Mahlerian than Brahmsian. Holzmair tended to over-dramatise, consistently singing fractionally too loud.
More consistently satisfactory was the group of five Mendelssohn songs to words by Heine, two of them by the hugely talented Fanny (who wrote 250 songs in her tragically brief life) and three by Felix. The two by Fanny ("Verlust" was originally published under Felix's name) are more harmonically adventurous and touch on deeper things than those of her brother. Heine was an occasional guest at the Mendelssohns' house in Berlin. Frequently there is an irony implicit in his poetry that comes across far more clearly in Schumann's settings whereas, despite knowing the poet, the Mendelssohns rather take his verse at face value. Holzmair and Ian Brown found exactly the right touch for this group, rounding off with the ever-popular "On wings of song".
To round the recital off was a deeply musical performance of Schumann's Piano Quintet, which was the antithesis of the macho renderings that this music is sometimes subjected to. Perhaps because two lady violinists led the ensemble, this rendition emphasised Schumann's feminine side. Agreeably understated, it found room to relax at key moments as in the first movements viola and cello duet yet also succeeded in being remarkably coherent with each section eliding seamlessly into the next. The slow movement's broken-backed march benefited from Lawrence Power's distinctive dark-hued viola. Ian Brown could have been more assertive throughout and the scherzo would have been despatched with a lighter touch, but the five musicians had a shared and integrated concept of the work that was very satisfying.