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

String Trio Movement in B flat, D471
Piano Quartet No.1 in D, Op.16
Piano Trio No.4 in E minor, Op.90 (Dumky)

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

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 November, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Schubert Ensemble. ©Schubert EnsembleThe Schubert Ensemble’s current season at Wigmore Hall is centred on the chamber music of Enescu – rightly so given that this music is still very much in the process of making its way (at least in the UK) from being a ‘special interest’ preserve into the wider repertoire where it incontestably belongs.

Certainly there could be no better place to begin than with the First Piano Quartet (1909), itself the culmination of Enescu’s first phase of maturity (though with a composer whose output of juvenilia was essentially over by his mid-teens, such terms begin to seem more than usually relative) and a piece which, in its formal expansiveness and its harmonic intricacy, looks forward to the symphonic works of the next decade. Astonishingly, it had never been played before at the Wigmore Hall and there can have been precious few hearings in London – so making this performance the more timely.

In terms of overall tonal balance and security of ensemble, the Schubert Ensemble left little to be desired. In particular, the Allegro moderato’s opening-out of sonata-form procedures was intently conveyed: its extensive development – on themes that, for all their harmonic indebtedness to Chausson and early Fauré, unfold with a contrapuntal dexterity appreciably in advance of the post-Franck generation – was powerfully delineated and the coda rendered so its determined rhetoric did not undermine its function as ‘second development’. The Andante features some of Enescu’s most generous lyricism, its main theme building to an eloquent climax before ending with a serene postlude (in between, the music ranges widely in its harmony and texture), while the closing Vivace – which prefigures Bartók in rhythmic drive – effectively utilises thematic transformation on its way to a fervent apotheosis.

A fine account, then, of a work which this group will hopefully go on to perform more widely. This performance, though, was ill-served by a change in programme order which saw the Enescu moved to the first half. Fine it should be preceded by the brief Allegro which was all that Schubert left of an 1816 String Trio, but to devote the second half to Dvořák’s relatively slight ‘Dumky’ Trio (1891) made little sense – not least when the performance, despite care over the segueing of its six movements so a Classical follow-through resulted, lacked the vigour and panache other groups have brought to it.

It was for the Enescu that this recital really mattered and, in this respect, the Schubert Ensemble was not to be found wanting. Further chamber works by the Romanian master can be heard in 2011 (7 February and 28 March), when their placing in the first half of the respective two concerts should not be to their detriment.

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