English Chamber Orchestra Ensemble

String Sextet No.2 in G, Op.36
String Quintet in C, D956

English Chamber Orchestra Ensemble: Stephanie Gonley & Annabelle Meare (violins), Jonathan Barritt & Judith Busbridge (violas), and Caroline Dale & Jesper Svedberg (cellos)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 30 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Frequently string quintets and sextets are played by established string quartets augmented for the occasion or ad hoc combinations of famous soloists. However, as the English Chamber Orchestra so convincingly demonstrated on this occasion, there are rich dividends to hearing them from a group of musicians accustomed to playing more regularly with each other. This was ‘collegiate’ music-making at its best from a group who are not only superb players in their own right but who know each other sufficiently well to have the confidence to yield the spotlight, nobody having to raise their voice to be heard.

So many performances of Brahms’s G major Sextet pass it off in a comfortably roseate glow but there is much more to it than that. Brahms’s tempo markings are littered with qualifying instructions, Allegro non troppo in both opening movements, Presto giocoso in the trio and Poco Allegro in the finale. Refusing to over-indulge the music’s lyricism, the first movement was all the more effective for the musicians’ slightly held-back tempo and generally restrained dynamics, its climaxes allowed to build naturally. It was classic case of less being more and ultimately it enhanced the movement’s scale, giving it an almost orchestral weight. The two central movements really are much odder than first meet the eye, the scherzo starting stern and fugal but exploding into an exuberant dance in the trio, the Adagio similarly serious and unbending at the outset but expanding into some of the most touchingly Romantic music imaginable. Particularly impressive was the Ensemble’s ability to explore each movement’s very different character so fully and yet sustain an unbroken line.

If anything the Schubert Quintet was even more probing. In 1998 Stephanie Gonley – interestingly credited in the programme as ‘violin/director’ – made a quite remarkably fine recording of the work (which appeared on an issue of the BBC Music Magazine) as a member of the Vellinger Quartet (with Bernard Greenhouse as second cellist) – and, frankly, on this occasion her playing would have graced any of the great quartets of the past. This was a gloriously expansive but sustained account, its first movement (with exposition repeat) running to a full 20 minutes – the description “heavenly length”, routinely applied to the Ninth Symphony (Great), would be even more apt in this case. Once again, the Ensemble’s ability to characterise Schubert’s constantly changing landscape – delicate, almost tentative at the opening, inward in the second subject and so on – whilst never disrupting the music’s onward flow was an enormous asset.

As one would expect, the Adagio was at the heart of the reading, its not-too-slow tempo perfectly judged to allow for the integration of the stormy F minor episode and its protracted leave-taking – and drawing playing of quite unusual eloquence and security. Rightly, however, this was an interpretation that also gave full rein to the darker elements of the scherzo and finale, as when time is suspended in the trio or that backward glimpse into the abyss before the work’s ultimate coda. All four movements carried more-equal emotional weight than is usual and the work seemed the greater for it. Given the quality of the playing it is invidious to single out individual contributions but Caroline Dale’s lambent cello deserves particular mention. Is there a more perfectly scaled setting than the Wigmore Hall in which to hear this kind of music? I doubt it.

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