Schumann and Fauré have suffered the fate of many great chamber music composers in not being programmed as often the quality of their work deserves. Until recent years the only chamber work by Schumann that saw the light of day with any regularity was his outstanding Piano Quintet. The Piano Quartet, a work of similar brilliance, and the rest of his chamber output had long been neglected both in the concert hall and in recordings. Similarly, Fauré has found public interest in his chamber works dwindle over the years and even his once popular First Violin Sonata and First Piano Quartet are now rarities.

The Schubert Ensemble © John Clark
The Schubert Ensemble
© John Clark

The Schubert Ensemble is on a mission to promote both composers, particularly Fauré, in their two concerts series this year at the Wigmore Hall. Last night saw the showcasing of the Piano Quintet no. 2 in C minor, which the ensemble's first violin, Simon Blendis, described as Faure’s masterpiece in his introduction to the work.

But the recital kicked off gently with the short but sweet Andante for violin and piano in B flat major. Containing material that was thought to be sketched for an abandoned Violin Concerto, this hundred bars of exquisite melody shows Fauré at his most seductive. Blendis’ performance was suitably sweet-toned and subtle.

Next came Schumann's Piano Quartet in E flat major which, in this lively performance, seemed as fresh as the more famous Piano Quintet. Composed in 1842 in a frenetic six months Schumann dedicated to composing chamber music, the Piano Quartet manages to capture the spontaneity of the composer’s early piano music, within classical forms. The Schubert Ensemble was very assured here with an uncanny sense of communication between the players, creating a wonderful dialogue and natural balance that demonstrated Schumann’s skilful part writing and melodic fecundity to a tee.

The lively outer movements were brought off with panache and with wonderfully flexible rubato particularly in the first movement. The sinister Scherzo: Molto vivace, was fleet-footed and edgy here, but it was in the Andante cantabile, one of the composer's most beautiful creations, that the performance found another level of inspiration. The delicious main theme was shared between the instruments, each trying to outdo the others in tasteful romanticism and glorious tone.

After this invigorating performance, the mood mellowed with a fine performance of Fauré’s masterpiece. This is a work that defies analysis. Its orchestration eschews contrast and opts for homogeneity. This consistency of texture puts the emphasis on the harmonic language and the growth of the thematic material. It is in the harmonic shifts that Fauré is most searching and at times he stretches tonality to it limits, creating a tension that is agonising. But Fauré was by nature an optimist and throughout the piece there is a sense of seeking out ecstasy in the shape of harmonic stability.

The Schubert Ensemble clearly understood where to find the beating heart in this music, emphasising the smooth textures, rhythmic subtleties and leading us through the twisting harmonic journey with confidence, particularly in the ecstatic first movement Allegro moderato. The Allegro vivo second movement sounded effortless and full marks to pianist William Howard here – and throughout the piece – for keeping on top of Fauré’s tricky left-hand-biased piano writing. The Andante moderato was beautifully done, with the players not shirking from the extreme chromaticism of the central passage. Likewise, in the finale the colliding harmonies were not softened and the hard-earned, but not altogether convincing final C major cadence, rang out across the hall.

Rounding off an exceptional evening dedicated to neglected masterworks, The Schubert Ensemble’s delicious encore was the first performance of an arrangement by David Matthews of Fauré’s piano piece, Romance sans Parole Op.17 no. 3.