Brahms Unwrapped – Opening Concert ‘Brahms and the Alto’ [Schubert Ensemble & Sally Bruce-Payne]

Horn Trio in E flat, Op.40 [version for violin, viola and piano]
Two Songs, Op.91
Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25

Sally Bruce-Payne (mezzo-soprano)

Schubert Ensemble [Simon Blendis (violin), Douglas Paterson (viola), Jane Salmon (cello) & William Howard (piano)]

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 January, 2012
Venue: Hall One, Kings Place, 90 York Way, King’s Cross, London

Schubert Ensemble. Photograph: Johnn ClarkThis latest “Unwrapped” series courtesy of Peter Millican and Kings Place focuses on Brahms’s chamber and vocal music. It’s people-interactive, too: want to sing in Brahms’s German Requiem?

We had to start somewhere. Curiously Brahms’s Horn Trio – without horn – worked very well, not least given the series will enjoy other such diversions. Brahms himself nominated the viola as the alternative instrument to the Waldhorn that he originally composed for. This richly lyrical account from Simon Blendis and Douglas Paterson – the horn rarely missed – found their shaping and communication particularly affecting in the third-movement Adagio mesto. William Howard’s contribution was a model of sensitivity and, when needed, agility, the three musicians delighting in the frolicsome finale.

The subtitle of this opening concert gave the clue that the Opus 91 Songs with Viola would be included. These are highpoints in Brahms’s vocal writing. There was much eloquence here from the performers to match the inspiration of Brahms’s settings – Howard once again characterful and Paterson relishing Brahms’s grateful writing, to which Sally Bruce-Payne was responsive but on occasion just a little too loud, enough to step outside the intimacy of the music and the uncluttered embracing that Hall One gifts its audiences. Nevertheless, the deep rewards of this music were fully evident.

The G major Piano Quartet, one of Brahms’s most outgoing chamber works, closed the recital and in an exemplary rendition, which introduced cellist Jane Salmon. Schoenberg was sufficiently taken with this music to orchestrate it effectively if quirkily (unofficially as Brahms’s ‘fifth symphony’). As played here with potency but without exaggeration by the Schubert Ensemble – with meaningful interplay and good balance – there was volatility and flexibility, a flow of expressive consciousness, and the gypsy finale was an unforced joy.

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