Janine Jansen and Friends at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schoenberg, Schubert: Janine Jansen (violin), Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola), Maxim Rysanov (viola), Torleif Thedéen (cello), Jens Peter Maintz (cello), Wigmore Hall, London, 16.5.2012 (Gdn)

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
Schubert: String Quintet in C Major, D. 956

The Janine Jansen All-Stars are not like other chamber ensembles. In fact, they are hardly an ensemble at all. Everything they play is perfectly coordinated of course, but you rarely get the feeling that the group is working as a single entity. Instead, these revered soloists perform, for the most part, as soloists. Every phrase in every part is presented with emotion bordering on pathos, and nothing is treated as filler. Everything matters.

The benefits of this sort of approach are manifold, but there are plenty of problems too. Fortunately, the works chosen for this tour, Verklärte Nacht and Schubert’s C Major Quintet, have both the quality and the complexity the group needs to show off its many strengths, both collective and individual. The Schoenberg comes off best – the piece is meaty enough to offer something substantial for all of these heavyweights to get their teeth into – but Schubert also benefits from the sheer quantity of musical talent on the stage.

The unity of ensemble and of intent between the players was clearly hard-won, and everything in this performance felt well-rehearsed, even over-rehearsed. Despite the multiplicity of interpretive angles from within the ensemble, a clear and singular musical vision was apparent throughout, and this presumably came from Jansen. Tempi and dynamics were often extreme, suggesting dictatorial decision making at the rehearsal stage rather than committee thinking. And clarity of texture was an over-riding concern throughout, a quality that benefited the Schoenberg more than it did the Schubert.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht is at least as well known in its orchestral arrangement, leading some performers of the sextet version to expand the textures and go for a large, all-embracing sound. Not so Jansen and her colleagues. Everything here was about the detail. There was plenty of expression too, but this was always balanced by a concern for exact intonation, tonal purity and musical architecture. The solo qualities of each of the players often worked to the benefit of Schoenberg’s variegated textures. He often has three or four completely different textures going on at once, so having players on each part who can really keep those ideas separate and individual gives the music the sense of inner variety it regularly relies on.

For the whole of the first half, the players leant forward in their seats, the intensity of the music always reflected in their body language. When they returned after the interval, I was expecting to see some more relaxed postures, some sitting back and letting the music flow. But no; the Schubert turned out to be just as intense, and was presented with similarly furrowed brows. Tempi and dynamics were just as extreme as in the Schoenberg, but this time the results seemed more stilted and less in the spirit of the music itself. True enough, the quiet moments of both pieces – the opening of the Schoenberg for example, and the opening of Schubert’s adagio – rely on stillness tinged with foreboding. But Schubert doesn’t do things on the same scale. And while the tempi and dynamics were extreme, the vibrato and rubato were strictly controlled. In many ways, the Schubert was performed according to Classical-era performing conventions, but at any point the music was louder, quieter, faster or slower than almost any version on record.

Janine Jansen was billed as the star of this concert, but there weren’t many occasions in the programme for her to show off her skills. The opening of Schubert’s adagio was one. Here, the ensemble played the theme and accompaniment relatively straight, while Jansen performed the obbligato with a satisfyingly wide range of attacks and colours. It was the same with the main theme of the finale. Here Jansen was able to keep the main theme sounding rustic, but the detail with which she articulated the phrases, and even the individual notes, marked this out as the playing of an exceptional violinist.

If the Schoenberg succeeded better than the Schubert in this programme, it was mainly because Schubert’s music doesn’t respond as well to extremes. The coherence of the C Major Quintet was regularly tested by overly long pauses, unrelated tempi between sections, and extreme dynamic contrasts that prevented sections and phrases from relating to the passages around them. However, Schoenberg seems to respond well to this approach. The clarity that these players brought to Verklärte Nacht may have prevented it from sounding mysterious when it should have, let alone nocturnal, but the sheer quantity of musical interest that it revealed outweighed any reservations.

Gavin Dixon