Schubert Ensemble at Wigmore Hall – 2 [Schubert, Enescu & Dvořák]

Notturno in E flat, D897
Piano Quartet No.2 in D minor, Op.30
Piano Quartet No.2 in E flat, Op.87

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 7 February, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Schubert Ensemble. ©Schubert EnsembleThe Schubert Ensemble here continued its recitals centred on the chamber music of Enescu (the first having featured a rare outing for the First Piano Quartet) with a further programme that opened with Schubert and closed with Dvořák. Long thought to be a rejected slow movement for the B flat Piano Trio, Schubert’s Notturno (1827) may well be an autonomous piece – there being nothing tentative about either the strongly characterised episodes that interpose between statements of its limpid main theme, or piano-writing of an elaboration rare in Schubert’s chamber music at any stage.

Admirably rendered, it provided a viable entrée into Enescu’s Second Piano Quartet (1944), one of a handful of late chamber works such as distils his mature idiom down to something like its essentials. A work in which, as Simon Blendis rightly noted in his introductory remarks, the individual movements are but stages in a cumulative journey that needs to be appreciated whole for its intrinsic qualities to come through. Thus the opening Allegro – the emphasis firmly on its ‘moderato’ marking – is a highly inward sonata-movement whose ideas are not so much developed then reprised as unfolded on the way to an impassioned coda, while the central Andante expands on these themes in as raptly expressive a span as the composer ever conceived. Despite a further ‘moderato’ marking, the finale generates an often-heady momentum which brings with it an intensive process of development prior to the fervent apotheosis and an inimitably expansive coda. If this performance seemed a little under-powered in its initial stages, it soon gained in purpose – the players doing justice to its ecstatic lyricism as much as to its suffused rhetoric. The group’s disc of Enescu’s Piano Quartets on Chandos should be worth anticipating.

The evening closed with a further Second Piano Quartet – that which Dvořák wrote in 1889 as a long-delayed follow-up in a medium that had been latterly dominated by Brahms. It’s interesting, then, that the work pivots between the formal solidity of his chamber pieces from over the preceding decade and the often-capricious expression of those that followed. Certainly the first movement is as impulsive and as wide-ranging as any in his output, while the Lento combines repose and restiveness with Schubertian poise. What follows merges elements of waltz and polka with typical finesse; and then the finale is launched with a decisiveness that holds well through various tonal excursions prior to the affirmative close. Missing is a melodic immediacy and an expressive panache – without which, the piece remains a fine rather than defining instance of Dvořák’s chamber output – yet its musical appeal is undoubted.

Nor was there much to criticise in this sensitive and uncommonly attuned performance – a meeting of equals such as late-nineteenth-century chamber music too rarely is. It set the seal on a worthwhile evening, and one which should find its culmination in all respects with the final recital of this series – on March 28 and including Enescu’s Piano Quintet.

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