Concert Review

Schubert Ensemble Blackheath Concert Halls 23 January and Wigmore Hall 3 February 2000, with Chamber Music 2000 Concert by school children preceding the evening recital.

This distinguished ensemble gave an engrossing concert of Hummel, Fitkin, Fauré & Korngold at Blackheath during a busy series of London appearances. Hummel's Op 87 Quintet (with double bass, as Schubert's Trout) is a lightweight piece with less than memorable material for the most part, a dancing scherzo its high spot. It has demanding, virtuosic passage work for the pianist, but less for the strings to do; pleasant entertainment for a Sunday morning. Grahame Fitkin's new piece MacGuffin was unexpectedly bland, very different to his usual high-energy offerings. Faure's second Piano Quartet Op 45 was played boldly, with vivid contributions from every player and no problems about balance with the piano, its lid wide open so that the tone was not boxed in. For encore, the peaceful Lied from Korngold's large-scale suite for piano (left hand only) and strings (coupled with his Piano Quintet on ASV CDA 1047).

The Schubert Ensemble, holder of the 1998 Royal Philharmonic Society Award as best chamber ensemble, has commissioned short pieces suitable for young and amateur musicians. A number of these were played at Wigmore Hall on before the Ensemble's own concert. Camden School for Girls, Pimlico School and the specialist Purcell School fielded youngsters who gave creditable accounts of this music in their opportunity to appear on the Wigmore Hall platform and stayed on to contribute to the lively audience of all ages for the concert afterwards. Strong impressions were left by some delicate extracts from Pavel Novak's twelve pieces, one for each month, Year of a Bird (I hope these will be performed soon in their entirety); by five John Woolrich miniatures, Jean Hasse's Next Dance (see CD review of her Kinkh) and a typically brusque and gritty piece by Gerald Barry, Snow is white, all of them receiving premieres.

The Schubert Ensemble's own concert culminated with the Brahms Op 25 piano quartet, preceded by two works of great interest. Louise Farrenc first Piano Quintet (1842, for the same grouping with double bass that Schubert has for The Trout) showed that there was no good reason for its relative neglect. An accomplished composer, successful in her time, it is thoroughly charming, with melodic interest which gives good opportunities for each player to take a share of the limelight, especially in a glorious slow movement. There is a wide range of moods and it ends quietly, which is generally not the recipe for loud applause! A serendipitous discovery for most of us, who would not have heard it before; who in UK is promoting the claims of French 19th Century women composers? Both of Louise Farrenc's two piano quintets are available on CPO999 194-2.

Ending at the beginning, two interlinked world premieres by John Woolrich, Five Chorales and A shadowed lesson (based upon those Bach same chorales) deeply moving in Woolrich's dark hued instrumentation, with the piano used very sparingly and featuring Peter Buckoke's double bass in high profile. Both the Farrenc & Bach/Woolrich reworkings would make fine companion pieces for the Trout Quintet in concert, and they should also find places in the Schubert Ensemble's extensive ASV discography. (If you don't know Woolrich's very individual music, try Ulysses Awakes, ASV DCA 1049. For pianists, even those with modest technique, it is good news that Woolrich's Pianobooks I-VII have just been published by Faber Music, £8.95p.)

Peter Grahame Woolf

On 24 February at 6.0 & 7.30 at South Bank Centre, The Schubert Ensemble will give a concert of commissioned works, preceded by another opportunity to hear some pieces by well known composers for the Chamber Music 2000 project, played by young players who had been coached by members of the Ensemble.

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