Prom 7 – Some distinguished Schubert playing at the first late-night Prom.

Schubert: Belcea Quartet (Corina Belcea-Fisher, Axel Schacher (violins), Krzysztof Chorleski (viola), Antoine Lederlin (violoncello)), Valentin Erben (violoncello). Royal Albert Hall, London, 19.7.2011 (MB)

String Quintet in C major, D.956

On the face of it, chamber music in the Royal Albert Hall is an absurd prospect, yet on several occasions, I have found the way an excellent group of players can draw one in to provide for a more satisfying, often moving, experience than a typical orchestral performance, which can undoubtedly suffer from the hall’s barn-like acoustic. So it was here: doubtless the players would have sounded different in, say, the Wigmore Hall, but I remained utterly convinced.

For this was a distinguished reading indeed of Schubert’s C major Quintet, full of ambivalence, regret, and yet determination. Life in the inner parts, from the very opening of the first movement, reminded one that life more generally must go on – even if, in Schubert’s own case, it would not. Framed by an inevitably fragile sadness, which never tipped over into the lachrymose, one realised that both life and death came out of the music, rather than appearing as tacked on pseudo-autobiographical concepts. Some beautifully hushed playing drew one in, ever underpinned by the driving force of Valentin Erben’s cello. Length was heavenly and yet all too mortal: I wished the movement could go on forever, yet at the same time began to realise that it was lulling me, Erlkönig-like, to enter into something beyond: the Romantic seduction of death itself. That call became even more marked in the slow movement, taken at a judicious tempo that neither dragged nor skipped. The vital sense of a heartbeat persisted, though, in a performance that was quite simply flawless, though not of the skated-over, superficial variety one occasionally associates with certain other quartets. Schubert’s sighing phrases elicited from the Belcea players a longing that rightly extended beyond eroticism. There was, moreover, real, heartfelt anger to be heard during the central episode. But applause: after this of all movements?! The only word for it, or the only printable one, is barbarism.

The scherzo was possessed of a vigour it is tempting to describe as Beethovenian, whilst the melodic gift revealed was of course entirely Schubert’s own. Well captured indeed was the balance between sadness and stillness in the trio: chillingly so, suggesting a song without words that both horrified and consoled. Despite, or rather on account of, the excellence of execution, the finale sounded like an uphill struggle, or at least its attempts to dance did, rhythms requiring ever more effort to achieve that aching swing. But then, featherlight articulation took over, to take us beyond that – though to what? This was Viennese in the best sense: unheimlich, Schubert revealing something that was already denied to successors such as Brahms.

Mark Berry