A Song of Departure from the Schubert Ensemble at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Chausson, Schubert, Weir: The Schubert Ensemble (William Howard [piano], Simon Blendis [violin], Douglas Paterson [viola], Jane Salmon [cello], Peter Buckoke [double bass]), Wigmore Hall, London, 21.3.2018. (CS)

Schubert Ensemble (c) Jack Liebeck
Schubert Ensemble (c) Jack Liebeck

Chausson – Piano Quartet in A major Op.30
Schubert – Piano Quintet in A major D667, ‘Trout’
Weir – Piano Quintet (2018) (world première)

A burst of hearty applause and warm cheers greeted the Schubert Ensemble when they entered Wigmore Hall for their valedictory performance in the capital.  After 35 years of music-making, touring, recording and commissioning, the five musicians have decided to go their separate ways and are now embarked upon a farewell tour.

Ernest Chausson’s Piano Quartet, composed in 1897-98, might not seem the most obvious work with which to open the programme.  But, the Schubert Ensemble have keenly espoused the merits of lesser known French chamber music from the late nineteenth century – they curated a four-day survey of the repertory at Kings Place in 2010, for example – and before the performance violinist Simon Blendis enthusiastically endorsed the Piano Quartet, which the Ensemble recorded for Chandos in 2016, praising what he described as its rich technicolour.

Certainly, Chausson delivers a heady mix of Romantic effusion and impressionistic colourism but the impassioned outpouring is rather unalleviated.  The chiming octaves which herald the first movement, Animé, were striking but after a while I found the unrelenting surges and waves washing over me, rather than guiding me.  The players employed a full, heated vibrato and worked hard to articulate the long-breathed phrases, but it felt sometimes as if they were working too hard.  And, while there was diversity of hue, and small impressionistic gestures did resonate through the dense textures, that distinctive French ‘scent’, and sensuousness, was missing.  The tone was a little forceful at times, the weight and scale Brahmsian, but without the German master’s structural logic.  Perhaps that’s Chausson’s fault, not the Ensemble’s.   But, I didn’t feel that viola player Douglas Paterson quite got under the skin of the beautiful melody which opens the second movement, Très calme, or that the pathos of that movement’s infinitely extending melodies and yearning murmuring was fully conveyed.  The brief scherzo, Simple et sans hate, cleansed the palette, but the timbre and rhythms needed more of the exotic elusiveness characteristic of Debussy if the movement was to have convincing substance.  The final Animé was luxuriantly, fervently lyrical but the musical material less engaging (Chausson engages in some Franck-ian re-visiting of earlier themes).  While the full crowd at Wigmore Hall impulsively and vigorously showed their appreciation, I remained unconvinced.

One wonders how many times the Schubert Ensemble, whose members have been unchanged for 23 years (and three of the players have worked together since the Ensemble’s inception), have performed Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet but on this occasion there was never any hint that familiarity might breed over-familiarity.  From the first, as Blendis launched into the Allegro Vivace with a broad smile and a swing of the bow, this was a performance of freshness and spontaneity, evincing light-spiritedness and sincerity in equal measure.  The addition of double bass player Peter Buckoke added a warmth and weight that seemed to free cellist Jane Salmon to assume a more prominent role, with rich and rewarding results.  After the dense intensity of the Chausson, now the sound world seemed to expand and relax: the first movement had a lovely golden glow through which pianist William Howard’s quicksilver finger-work trickled cleanly.  The easy, perambulating sway of the Andante was injected with urgency at just the right moments.  The trio was beguilingly gentle after the contrasting textures and rhythmic bite of the preceding Scherzo, but retained a hint of wryness.  And, the famous ‘Forelle’ variations allowed us to enjoy the individual’s confident, expressive musicianship as well as the relaxed coherence of the whole.

While their name might seem to tether them to the repertory of the nineteenth century, the Schubert Ensemble have been champions of contemporary composers, commissioning works from Martin Butler, Piers Hellawell, David Knotts, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Pavel Zemek Novák, Judith Weir, John Woolrich and others.  To close this recital, they presented their latest, fiftieth commission, Judith Weir’s A Song of Departure, which in its few brief minutes explores all the intimated emotions of the cries of farewell which the departing poet-speaker in Schubert’s ‘Abschied’ (from Schwanengesang) casts blithely at the land and loved ones he is leaving behind.

Weir explains that she has sought to ‘re-inhabit’ Schubert’s song, and certainly the tripping rhythms and melodic confidence of the opening captured an apt breezy folksiness.  But, as, by turns, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and piano said farewell, subtler more sombre tints and twists sometimes made their presence felt, recalling the harmonic shadows which fall on Schubert’s final stanza, though the melodic voices did not lose their light glow.  At the close, though the musical material, like Schubert’s traveller, had ‘departed’, slipping into silence, a wonderfully ambiguous air lingered – as if the musical journey continued, elsewhere.

And, there was to be more music.  The Schubert Ensemble concluded their Wigmore Hall farewell with an exquisite arrangement of Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen’.  If Weir had hinted at higher spiritual realms behind the nostalgic realism, then Strauss carried us aloft.

Claire Seymour

The Schubert Ensemble’s final recording, of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s The Whole Earth Dances will be released later this year on the Champs Hill label.  The Ensemble’s farewell tour continues until June.  To encourage future performances of works that the Ensemble has commissioned, a scheme will be launched by the Schubert Ensemble Trust, offering grants to promoters and ensembles who programme these works.  Details will be available at www.schubertensemble.com at the end of June.

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