There’s nothing quite like playing music with people you love, and it doesn’t have to be played in public, on a concert platform. Music is no less valid when you take away the pressure of a performance, and simply play with friends for the sheer pleasure of it. It’s ironic that it should take a concert performance to give me a much-needed reminder of this, but it was exactly what the four Royal Northern Sinfonia string players and their Chamber Pianist in Residence Alasdair Beatson did this evening with their performance of Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, “The Trout”.

Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Savage

As is the way with Royal Northern Sinfonia chamber concerts, the evening featured three different ensembles. Iona Brown, Jane Nossek, Tegwen Jones and Daniel Hammersley began, with a rich, dark-toned performance of Imogen Holst’s lovely Phantasy Quartet. Each line of the counterpoint was clearly defined, and the solo parts were expressively phrased: there was great warmth in Tegwen Jones’s viola solos and Jane Nossek’s second violin solo towards the end was a treat of smooth treacle. Holst’s quartet sits firmly in early inter-war England, and tonight’s quartet let its pastoral quality speak for itself in an affectionate and unfussy performance.

Beatson gave a short introduction to Thomas Adès’s Piano Quintet that was both entertaining and helpful, briefly illustrating the main themes of this one-movement work and explaining its exotic time signatures. The five musicians, Beatson with Kyra Humphreys, Marie Schreer, Malcolm Critten and Brian O’Kane, had clearly enjoyed working on this piece together and were eager to draw us into the adventure: Beatson’s introduction ended “So....shall we?”

Adès’ work is clearly fiendishly complicated to play, and demands a great deal of trust and rapport between the players.This RNS quintet were engaging and immediate, and the crystal-clear sonata form was easy to follow, so I was drawn deeply into the music. After a bold first-subject for the first violin, the rhythmic texture immediately starts to separate with the entry of the piano: Beatson’s description of the music “curdling” described it perfectly. Everything feels distorted and out of kilter until Beatson’s second subject – a lovely, tender piano melody, reminiscent of Schubert, that was a voice of calm amongst the surrounding weirdness of the strings. A pizzicato bridge passage was extremely effective, building up from the tiniest little points of sound to become aggressive and complicated, with Beatson taking over, effectively mimicking the pizzicato with crisp, brittle notes.

As with the ensemble who played the Holst, these five achieved a good balance, so we were able to appreciate all the detail of Adès’ counterpoint. After a gentler development section, with a lyrical cello and viola passage and Beatson adding a voice of calm, the piece ends exuberantly. The piano leads into a crazy vortex of swirling chords and a speeded up restatement of the theme, which the RNS musicians danced through with an ecstatic frenzy.

And so to The Trout, and a moving introduction from cellist Gabriel Waite who reminded us that this was music that Schubert wrote to play with his friends, probably over some wine. Waite went on to say that playing music with people you love, clearly indicating his RNS colleagues, and generously including us, the audience, makes it more complete. This quintet was made up of senior and long-standing RNS musicians: alongside Waite were the viola and double bass section leaders Michael Gerrard and Siân Hicks and the orchestra’s long-serving leader Bradley Creswick, who retires this season.

After a slow, serene start, this group of friends began sparking off each other, Hicks dancing through the double bass line and Waite’s cello rich and full of affection. The mood of the whole piece was joyous and playful, with lots of gently exaggerated shapes, and cheeky rubato. Occasionally this carefree mood led to carelessness, and although a slip-up in the first movement added to the feeling that we had been invited into someone’s home to join a group of friends, the music then felt a bit unsettled until Gerrard’s calming viola melody in the second movement. The Trout variations in the fourth movement became delightfully silly, the players poking affectionate fun at each other and the music, and giving the melody lots of swing. Beatson made the decorative piano part feel like a jazz improvisations, and when Waite tried to inject a note of seriousness with a pompous cello solo, the others quickly made fun of him. After all this messing around, the quintet gave themselves space to be quietly serious in the fifth movement, before skating through to the end; happy and relaxed. It was so easy to imagine that we’d been let into someone’s house that the applause felt artificial: I half-expected Waite to see if anyone’s glasses needed topping up and perhaps hand round some snacks.