Top-class orchestras have top-class musicians, and top-class musicians have legions of fans. If not legions, certainly a platoon or two: the Wigmore Hall was packed last night as the Soloists of the London Philharmonic Orchestra took to the stage to perform Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E flat, Strauss’s Sextet for strings from ‘Capriccio’ and Schubert’s divine String Quintet in C. The chamber series enjoys enduring popularity due to the calibre of its players and perhaps also the curiosity factor. How will these great orchestral musicians perform in chamber music? Is chamber music a separate skill or merely an extension of orchestral performance?
These questions were answered early on in the programme: great musicians are still great musicians, whether they are performing a Beethoven symphony, a Berg quartet or a Beyoncé song. Mozart’s Horn Quintet, with its tricky solo part and challenging string accompaniment, was an excellent case in point. The French horn is an elaborate system of tubes and valves made all the more complicated by having two possible ways to play each note, rather like a guitar with two necks and extra spit. To coax more than one note out of this complex beast seems an impressive feat, however to play as engagingly and flawlessly as Principal Horn John Ryan surely belongs in the realms of the impossible. Ryan was accompanied by a violin, two violas and cello; an unusual alternative to the two violins normally found in a string quartet. This configuration complements the middle registers of the horn whilst allowing the one violin to sing out in dialogue with the soloist. The strings provided a sensitive accompaniment, despite occasional slips in ensemble which were the only clues to their lack of regular chamber rehearsals.
The string players returned with two colleagues to perform the sextet from Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio. The beautiful sextet is played before the curtain rises to reveal that the string players are entertaining a wealthy arts patron. A snapped chinrest meant that the piece had to be begun again after some delay, during which the leader appealed to the audience for a violin. Despite this unfortunate setback, the group rallied to perform with charming character the second time, clearly relaxing into the role of chamber musicians. Strauss’s music is highly dramatic and full of moments of incredible beauty, both of which came across clearly in the second performance.
Following the interval and some impromptu violin repairs was Schubert’s symphonic Quintet, composed just weeks before his death. The Quintet is scored for two violins, a viola and two cellos, another unusual combination which predates the double-viola quintets of Mozart. The scoring lends itself well to extreme contrasts in register: the first cello often plays soaring duets with the violin, whilst the second cello revels in the bass line. The performance benefitted hugely from cellist Jonathan Ayling’s wonderfully rich sound, as well as the virtuoso technique of Principal Cellist Kristina Blaumane. The Quintet can be described as symphonic due to its enormous length and development of material; fifty minutes of often-repeated music is a huge challenge for both audience and performer. If there’s one thing the soloists of the LPO are used to, however, it’s symphonies. They provided the great piece with an architectural backbone, constantly picking out interesting corners and adding fresh life to repeated material. The introspective second movement was spiritual in its resigned beauty, whilst the lively Czech dance rhythms of the last movement had us hoping for something similar when the musicians rejoin the orchestra, having shown us all the meaning of a portfolio career.