Fauré and Schumann Piano Quintets Contrasted by Schubert Ensemble

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann and Fauré: The Schubert Ensemble (Simon Blendis & Jan Schmolk [violins], Douglas Paterson [viola], Jane Salmon [cello], William Howard [piano]), Wigmore Hall London, 15.7.2015 (CS)

Robert Schumann: ‘6 Pieces in Canonic Form’ Op.56
No.3 in E (arr. David Matthews)
No.5 in B Minor (arr. David Matthews)
No.4 in A flat (arr. Orlando Jopling)
Gabriel Fauré: Piano Quintet No.1 in D minor Op.89
Robert Schumann: Piano Quintet in E flat Op.44

Formed more than thirty years ago, the Schubert Ensemble have won international acclaim and admiration for their performances of chamber music for piano and strings, and it was with excitement and keen expectation that I attended this Wigmore Hall concert in which the Ensemble performed two piano quintets of markedly different character – the elusiveness and intimations of Fauré’s first Quintet in D minor contrasting strikingly with the confident melodic outpouring of Schumann’s Quintet in E flat.

Piano Quintets present challenges, for performers and composers alike.  The intimacy and balance of the string quartet is disturbed by the arrival of the powerful keyboard instrument, which must accompany, integrate and at times dominate.  Likewise, the string players must accommodate and relate to a new voice, and must sometimes blend their resonant sonority with the piano’s percussiveness.  In this performance of Fauré’s 1905 Quintet, the Schubert Ensemble took advantage of the varied combinations of timbre possible among the five voices, expertly balancing the harmonic and melodic contrasts, and elucidating the exploratory harmonies.

But, I did not feel that they achieved a consistently well-blended fusion of sound, with William Howard’s piano often seeming to prevail.  Howard’s sound is firm and bright, but his direct, muscular style was not always best suited to the suggestiveness and organic flexibility of Fauré’s language and form.  In contrast, leader Simon Blendis sometimes seemed a little overpowered; while his melodic lines were well tuned, expressively phrased and sweet toned, they did not soar above or through the texture.  I would have liked more assertive playing, too, from cellist Jane Salmon.  There was thoughtful musicianship, acute awareness of her fellow instrumentalists and a beguiling gentility and elegance; but at times a more driving or sonorous bass line would have injected vitality and direction.

Returning, happily, to the concert platform after fracturing his left arm in March earlier this year – and celebrating his own twentieth anniversary with the Ensemble – Blendis enthusiastically introduced Fauré’s Quintet, and the other works, which he described, somewhat disconcertingly for the unfamiliar concert-goer, as not the easiest of listening!

In fact, the players made a persuasive case for Fauré’s Quintet, and were particularly adept in making its extensive, roving themes and harmonies seem to spring with naturalness from a fount of inventiveness and ingenuity.  The Ensemble also found a happy balance between delicacy and extroversion – counterweighing contrasts to which the composer himself drew attention in a letter to Paul Poujaud (a lawyer, connoisseur, and friend of many painters and musicians of the time), when commenting on national style: ‘It’s according to a theory too readily accepted that French music should be light and pretty, that German music should be heavy, dense or unintelligible by dint of its profundity.  Against all that, I believe that a truly gifted musician makes music without a mask of nationality.’  (Ironically, later, when working on the Quintet in Zurich in 1904, the composer wrote to his wife, Marie, about the problems of finding local musicians to try out his new composition: ‘Musicians aren’t lacking here.  But unfortunately they’re German to the bone and full of mistrust of French music, if not contempt for it, the minute it ceases to be merry, scampering, clownish, or lovably sentimental. … We, the French, are only allowed chic and good humour.  That’s not much!’

I felt that the Schubert Ensemble were able to sustain contrasting moods and modes of expression, while retaining a convincing coherence.  Fauré’s contrapuntal invention and the vivid independence of the separate lines within the complex textures was lucidly rendered.  The ‘mystery’ of the first movement – its restless nuances and subtle shifts of direction – was conveyed, but the opening piano figuration and soaring string theme were passionate and uplifting – a sonorous flow which communicated the work’s symphonic scope and continuity of line – while the yearning quality of second theme was eloquent.  There was some lovely playing from the two inner string voices in the second movement: one had a sense of the melody as a single long line, twisting and turning, ever exploring – although I’d have liked the Ensemble to dare to play even more quietly.

Overall, the players displayed a unanimous approach, characterised by precision of intonation and expression, while still allowing for the flexibility of individual voices.  They strongly communicated the music’s deep emotions, and played with refinement.

Fauré’s Quintet was framed by two works, of vastly different scale and expressive range, by Robert Schumann.  In early 1845, Schumann and his wife, Clara, began intense study of counterpoint and Schumann composed many polyphonic works in imitation of J.S. Bach.  The Op.56 Etudes, or ‘Six Pieces in Canonic Form’, for pedal piano (an instrument which, like the organ, has a pedalboard allowing bass notes to be played with the feet) were completed at this time.  Various arrangements and transcriptions have been made of these contrapuntal pieces; both Bizet and Debussy arranged them for piano, for four hands and two pianos respectively.  Now, supported by the Schubert Ensemble Trust, the Schubert Ensemble have commissioned David Matthews and Orlando Jopling to make new arrangements for piano quartet (a different arrangement by Jopling of No.4 was performed in 2008 by the Ensemble).

In his original, Schumann characteristically employs rather thick textures and the Schubert Ensemble struggled to find lucidity in the dense harmonic layers, especially in the third of the studies, with which they began.  This is a brief and fairly simple work, and the canonic imitation between pairs of instruments, first violin and viola, then piano and violin was sensitively phrased; but the piano’s dense chords were occasionally overwhelming.  No.5 in B minor which followed was more animated, and there was attention to the details of articulation and dynamic contrasts, but perhaps a lighter spirit might have been found.  The soul of Schumann’s lieder infiltrated the gentle, expressive fourth piece.

It was with Schumann’s Piano Quintet in Eb Op.44, though, that the players were finally able to respond instinctively and unrestrainedly to Schumann’s lyrical gifts, giving a performance that was passionate but disciplined.  Howard was certainly equal to the fiendish pianistic challenges and all communicated the joy and invigoration embodied in the melodic invention and exuberant exclamation of the opening Allegro brillante, relishing its dialogues and rhetorical statements.  There was both heroism and elegance.

I must express misgivings about the second movement, however, which seemed to me to be taken at a pace far too fast to convey the dignified solemnity of this funeral march: the quaver upbeat of the first violin’s theme should convey first a gravitas and, upon its restatement later in the movement, an ever-accumulating weight and weariness of soul, which descends into near exhaustion.   But here there was a swinging momentum which lacked portentousness and poise, and which diminished the contrast established by the two intervening episodes – the first a lyrical duet for violin and cello above restless rocking quavers for the inner strings and destabilising piano triplets, the second an agitated development of the triplet figure which conflicts with a theme which transforms the initial upbeat into an attacking gesture preceding weak-beat sforzandi accents.

The rapid arching scales of the Scherzo were taken at a breakneck pace which spilled into the two trios; the latter might have brought about a greater contrast of mood and tension.  The finale, Allegro ma no troppo, was defiant and exuberant; this was a highly assured account of the wonderful double fugue which Schumann constructs from the themes of the last and opening movements.

One was left with a reassuring conviction that this music had been explored thoroughly and knowledgably by players who had an intimate and sincere engagement with the music.  If the Ensemble’s reading of the Schumann Quintet was not entirely to my liking this was clearly a matter of personal preference: the Wigmore Hall audience was warmly and unreservedly appreciative.

Claire Seymour

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