Mixed Results from the Schubert Ensemble in Classic and Contemporary Piano-led Works

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Watkins, Shostakovich: The Schubert Ensemble (Simon Blendis, Jan Schmolk (violins), Douglas Peterson (viola), Jane Salmon (cello), William Howard (piano). Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff 3.3,2017. (GPu)

Huw Watkins – Piano Quartet
Dmitri Shostakovich – Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57

The Schubert Ensemble (which gave its first concert in 1983) is a fine chamber ensemble which has a deservedly high reputation. I have had, over the years, a good deal of pleasure (and, in the best sense, instruction) from their recordings as well as from the occasional opportunity to hear them live. I was therefore saddened to read that they will be ‘shutting up shop’, as it were, at the end of June 2018.

Given my past experience of the Ensemble’s work, it came as quite a surprise to me that I found this present concert slightly disappointing. The performance was, of course, thoroughly competent, but seemed somewhat lacking in animation, so that a good deal of the music didn’t come fully alive in the way that it has when I have heard this Ensemble before. I wondered if perhaps there was some tiredness at work, but can’t really hazard a guess as to why the vital spark was often absent on this particular occasion. It is, of course, unreasonable to expect performers to be at their absolute best in every performance; like the rest of us, they are subject to circumstances of which we are ignorant.

The first of the two works which made up the programme was the Piano Quartet of the Welsh composer Huw Watkins, a work commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble and premiered by them at the Spitalfields Festival in 2012. It was played with clarity, precision and a certain elegance, but the performance didn’t, I think do full justice to the lyricism of Watkins’ composition. There’s another performance of the piece by the Schubert Ensemble, in 2013, on YouTube in which that dimension of the quartet comes across more successfully.

The major work in this lunchtime concert was Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. This remarkable and fascinating work played a role in Shostakovich’s partial (and precarious) rehabilitation after the Pravda attack on his 1936 opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Rosamond Bartlett (in the Cambridge Companion to Shostakovich, 2008) puts the matter succinctly: “The public attack on Shostakovich in Pravda had dire consequences for the rest of his musical career …In 1937 he managed to regain official favour with his Fifth Symphony without compromising his artistic integrity, and in 1940 was awarded one of the first Stalin Prizes for his immediately popular Piano Quintet”. Only by chance did I recently learn that the Quintet had its British premiere in the very next year, just after Russia had joined the Allies (one assumes that the two events were not unconnected).

The Schubert Ensemble’s playing of the first two movements (really twin panels of a single movement) very lucidly laid before us their indebtedness to Bach, as, in effect a Prelude and Fugue for quintet, but didn’t perhaps invest them with the full emotional weight one senses in the very best performances. The fugue, in particular, should surely have a greater sense of pain and suffering (not of the individual alone, but of the people of Russia). Things were much better, fortunately, in the Scherzo, with a stronger sense of irony and of the allusion to an underlying and all-pervasive brutality in contemporary Russia. In the playing of the intermezzo, the complex emotional and attitudinal ambiguities were well communicated. This movement is a fine example of what Ian Macdonald (The New Shostakovich, 2nd edition, 2006) identifies as Shostakovich’s practice of working “by striking disturbing sparks from irreconcilable elements”, and a good deal of this was articulated in a reading of the Quintet which deepened as it went on. The mixed implications of the Finale were made fully evident too, another deliberately self-divided piece of considerable emotional (and ideological) complexity.

There were, then, things in the performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet which lived up to the high expectations I had brought to the concert; yet, overall I remained a little disappointed. Unless I was guilty of a failure of response, I caught the Schubert on a rare off day (or at least, a partial off-day!).

Glyn Pursglove

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