Top notch musicianship from the Schubert Ensemble was heard in their final appearance at King’s Place. Sadly the group is disbanding next year after 35 distinguished years and they certainly went out with a bang, producing highly sensitive and energetic performances of two masterpieces of Czech chamber music.

Schubert Ensemble © John Clark
Schubert Ensemble
© John Clark

Before the performances though, the group went ‘behind the notes’, as they coined it, with a 30-minute talk and musical demonstration with the purpose of illuminating some of the techniques and beauties of the scores. They managed to pitch this perfectly, so that it was interesting for those of us who knew a thing or two about the works, but also communicated to those that were not familiar with them, whetting the appetite for the performances themselves.

Their approach to Martinů's Piano Quintet no. 2 was spot on. A sense of rhythmic urgency and accuracy was evident from the start of the propulsive opening Poco allegro. Above all there was a strong sense of their understanding of the musical and human pulse of the work, enabling them to shape their performance into a truly satisfying whole. In the introspective and mysterious Adagio that follows, the shifting moods, leading to a remarkable lament for strings alone, were finely judged. The Scherzo in contrast was a riotous affair, played with superhuman assurance by the whole group, but a special mention should be made to the pianist here, William Howard, whose devil-may-care approach to the composer's unique and tricky piano writing, was a tour de force. The deeply felt finale was brought off superbly. Alternating another lament for strings with hyperactive material, the effect produced was, as surely the composer intended, both disturbing and exhilarating.

This splendid performance did full justice to one of the composer’s greatest chamber works, ranking with his symphonies in quality and originality. Surely this quintet should proudly sit alongside the best works in this form from the 20th century, including the Fauré Second Quintet and the Shostakovich.

Dvořák's Piano Quintet in A major was given the same high-quality treatment by the ensemble, so much so that you could be forgiven for concluding that this must be the supreme masterwork in this form, with such originality and aptness in the orchestration, thematic material that cannot be matched and a complexity and depth of mood that Brahms surely would have envied.

The first movement was played with such passion that there was no room for comfortable folksiness that can sometimes reduce the levels of intensity in performances. The coda to the movement was a devastating here. The heart of the work though is the longer Dumka second movement. As always with this dance form, dark sorrowful music alternates with dancelike episodes. The three contracting passages were characterised expertly, with the wonderful varied repetitions given a fresh eye each time they appeared. Particular mention to Douglas Paterson on viola, whose rich brown tone led the way for much of the movement. The  Scherzo (Furiant) was, like the Martinů, a chance to let rip and superficially relieve the tension. But, again like the Martinů, the more extrovert surface hides an underlying sadness and tension, clearly brought out in this performance.

The finale is perhaps the hardest to bring off. Initially jubilant in tone, doubts seem to develop as the movement progresses, leading to an unexpectedly subdued chorale based passage, before a desperate scrabble to find an optimistic conclusion. This ambivalence was fully acknowledged by the Schubert Ensemble and the final A major cadence truly seemed to be well earned. A standing ovation greeted this exceptional piece of music making.