Divertimenti String Quintet at Barnes Music Society

String Quintet in A, Op.39
Andante cantabile [arr. composer for cello and strings from String Quartet, Op.11]
String Quintet in C

Divertimenti String Quintet [Paul Barritt & Rachel Isserlis (violins), Jonathan Barritt (viola) and Sebastian Comberti & Josephine Horder (cello)]

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 5 December, 2009
Venue: Methodist Church, Barnes, London

There is no reason to assume that outstanding chamber music performances in the London area should be confined to Wigmore Hall, Kings Place or the Purcell Room.

Divertimenti performed at the spacious Methodist Church in Barnes for the Barnes Music Society and provided some of the most memorable music-making that I have heard for a long while. I first encountered these players when they recorded the Mendelssohn and Bargiel Octets for Hyperion – this is still my favourite recorded performance of the Mendelssohn. It was encouraging to note that the String Quintet from this group included four of the performers in that recording and certainly the years of playing together was evident from the amazing unanimity – not just of ensemble but of feeling – every inflection made by the leading voice in any particular melody was paralleled to perfection by the rest of the ensemble.

There are a number of neglected Quintets in this group’s repertoire including the rare Glazunov – an intriguingly non-classical work with amazing use of pizzicato in the extraordinary scherzo. Melodies abound – a couple of them having been expounded in what appeared at first to be a sonata movement at which point the classical ear expects development – this is not Glazunov’s way – he simply writes another tune then yet another. Strange to bathe in so many melodies – all the movements are much like this but they give great opportunity for the players to vary tonal colours and the viola is given many important themes to expound and is strongly featured in the opening bars.

The first part of the concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s arrangement for cello and strings of the famous Andante cantabile from his String Quartet No.1 – a most sensitive performance with velvety tone from soloist and colleagues.

On a damp night in West London, before the modest membership of an artistically aware music club, Divertimenti gave a magnificent performance of Schubert’s String Quintet full of insight and understanding. Technically it was virtually note-perfect: had this been a recording there would seem little reason for a single retake. Immaculate technical skill apart, the work was beautifully thought out and eloquently shaped.

Following a dramatic and powerful opening movement, the Adagio was magical – pianissimos were an object lesson in superior musicianship and the calm beauty of this extraordinary movement was revealed with utmost sensitivity. How refreshing to hear the scherzo given its proper form. Schubert wrote a brief coda for this movement and it makes an admirable summing-up but so often performers ruin the continuity by also playing this coda before the trio. The members of Divertimenti had a secure sense of form not only did they correctly confine the coda to the end of the movement but by not rushing the Presto part and made sense of Schubert’s surprising Andante marking for the trio section by adopting a tempo half that of the scherzo; this meant that the underlying pulse of the movement remained the same despite the changed pace. The finale brought another aspect – I have always felt that this is a very Viennese movement and the indigenous inflections invoked by leader Paul Barritt were delightfully subtle and gracious. This playing had the grace and authentic period expression that could equally well have come from one of the great Austrian ensembles. An exceptional performance.

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