Whenever Brahms is mentioned, songs and symphonies often come straight to mind: after all, the man was the master of all things symphonic, even his piano sonatas being called “veiled symphonies” by his mentor, Schumann. But what would a Brahms marathon be without a nod to his chamber music? In honour of such great and less performed repertoire, Kings Place enjoyed a visit from the long-running ensemble Endymion, a mix-and-match chamber group with a solid reputation, for the latest installment in the venue’s Brahms Unwrapped series.

Stephen Stirling and Mark van de Wiel © Chris Tribble
Stephen Stirling and Mark van de Wiel
© Chris Tribble

The first item on the programme was Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, played by Mark van de Wiel (clarinet), Adrian Bradbury (cello) and Daniel Tong (piano). The first movement was bleak without being empty, the passive-aggressive textures simmering interestingly below the surface. The second movement was simple yet yearning, strands of melody interweaving pleasantly in contrast to the anxious first movement. The third movement was also pleasantly refreshing; the final movement whipped up a tumultuous storm of angst and suppressed sorrow.

Intriguingly enough, the second item was not the first of Brahms’ clarinet sonatas, but the second. Clarinettist Mark van de Wiel took the opportunity while the audience was settling to introduce the second of the night’s pianists, Daniel Lebhardt. Currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music, the concert was the young Hungarian pianist’s debut at Kings Place and as a member of Endymion. He was clearly a little nervous to begin with, the first movement somewhat lacking in self-assurance and consequently in need of more weight and a more sonorous tone to match van de Wiel’s billowing yet direct sound. The mismatch between the pair made the Amabile feel more unsettled than affectionate. In the second movement, however, the balance shifted the other way: Lebhardt’s playing came to life, a rich but direct Appassionato sound allowing the pianist to unleash his expression boundlessly; van de Wiel, on the other hand, seemed to be contending with his instrument, violently over-blowing in an (evidently futile) attempt to get more sound out of the clarinet than it wished to give. Once again, there was a slight mismatch of intentions, the pair not entirely meeting in the middle. What was to come next was far more cohesive, each of the instrumentalists skittering sentimentality across the runs in the Andante, and exploding with passion in the Allegro.

The second (or rather, the first) clarinet sonata was far better balanced between the two players. There were times when the melody needed more shape and more room to breathe to prevent it from erring towards the pedestrian, but there was far more sense of style and a better connection between the clarinet and piano sound. The last movement was particularly enjoyable, the triumphant opening bounding from the fingers of van de Wiel and Lebhardt alike with abundant joy. On the whole, the offering of the two sonatas was enjoyable, but just needed more connection between the players to really consolidate the performance and give the music room to expand.

The final item was the Trio in E flat major, with the return of the other Daniel (Daniel Tong) and two new faces to the stage, seasoned Endymion members Krysia Osostowicz (violin) and Stephen Stirling (horn). The performance of the group, individually and collectively, was outstanding from start to finish. The tricky off-beat rhythms of the first movement were navigated with apparent ease, the technical problems sidestepped completely to give an ethereal, timeless quality one can only imagine is what Brahms intended before pen ever had to be put to paper and the flexibility of a stream of music confined by the strictures of notation.

The second movement zipped along with delightful vim, the slower middle section allowing the mellow horn and passionate violin to intertwine with a melancholy beauty. From melancholy to abject despair, the third movement plunged into the absolute depths of darkness, Tong’s soft but thick and rounded sound in the opening setting the mood for the piece perfectly. The misty tension was unbroken from the first note to the last, each painful dissonance hanging heavily in the air, melting into a less twisted but no less tortured resolution. The final movement was a terrifically high-spirited way the finish the concert, each silence resounding with tongue-in-cheek humour, each note springing ecstatically from the last until the audience barely allowed the piece to finish before applauding rapturously.