At this point, it feels hoary to mention that the outdoor performances necessitated by the pandemic bring with them an air of unpredictability. In addition to the employment of amplification where none would have been needed or the sudden sound of a honking horn heard in the distance, Mother Nature likes to make herself known at the most inopportune moments. These challenges test the mettle of the most intrepid artists. With just five minutes or so left in Schubert’s String Quintet in C major, D.956 at the Moritzburg Festival in Germany, gusty squalls sent sheet music flying and a substantial portion of the audience heading for shelter, while others donned ponchos and opened umbrellas. The players briefly paused, bowing to hearty applause from the courageous souls left braving the elements, before settling themselves and diving back into the task at hand.

Jan Vogler
© Jim Rakete

Their perseverance was welcome; those concluding moments, like that which preceded them, demonstrated superb artistry and keen camaraderie. Written in the final year of Schubert’s life – though not performed or published for several decades – the Quintet features a second cello, rather than the more common additional viola. Given the weightiness of the biographical detail and the instrumental choice, it’s easy to read a portentousness into the piece. Yet the musicians here, superb to a person, favored a lightness of touch throughout. Jan Vogler and Bruno Philippe beautifully matched their tones in the opening Allegro ma non troppo, with Vogler and Kevin Zhu trading playful pizzicatos in the Adagio. The Scherzo was focused and energetic, and in a movement that can occasionally sound tremendously overstuffed, the musicians retained a small-scale intimacy. The passionate rondo finale built breathlessly until the elemental interruption, but the quintet picked up the energy seamlessly and drove the piece home to a rousing conclusion.

If the concert’s main event highlighted a great composer at his most actualized, the two curtain-raisers found other distinguished authors still in apprentice mode. Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, written during a sojourn in New York, blends klezmer influences with Russian folk songs and old-school Romanticism. It’s a pleasant but ultimately repetitive piece, and an audience’s enjoyment largely rests on the talents of the soloist assigned to execute the flashy writing for clarinet. Here, Pablo Barragán was more than able, with a rich, nutty tone and a style balanced between the idiomatic and the refined. His long, skillfully sustained lines contrasted well with the pizzicato strings from Phillipe, Zhu and second violinist Mira Wang. Wu Qian was somewhat muted on the piano throughout, although she made herself known with assertive staccato notes in the closing phrases.

Written in 1880, Debussy’s Piano Trio in G major didn’t see the light of day until 1986. It’s no one’s favorite work, and its four movements can feel somewhat disjointed, reflecting a young composer trying on different styles as he finds his voice. It’s not an unheralded masterpiece, and the best approach is to emphasize the wit and charm already on display, rather than trying to add a gravity that’s not there. Phillipe, Wu Qian and Nathan Meltzer did just that, especially in the jittery Scherzo and the lush Finale: Appassionato, where they achieved a shimmering tone and sense of true unity one hopes to hear in chamber music.

This performance was reviewed from the Moritzburg Festival stream