The Pavel Haas Quartet initially programmed Brahms’ Piano Quintet followed by both of his String Quintets. In the event they dropped the First String Quintet, began with the late (1890) Second Quintet, and played the Piano Quintet after the interval. Quintessential Quintets, enough music for a concert approaching two hours, and a better plan; the work announced as his last (it wasn’t), followed by one of the greatest of all his chamber works. Pavel Nikl joined the quartet as second viola, and one could hear why Schumann remarked how much that simple addition transformed the quartet texture. In the first movement no-one gets even a bar’s rest, with many a tremolo and the use of extreme registers. With such a powerful group of players in the Wigmore acoustic this produced a quasi-orchestral effect.

Boris Giltburg and the Pavel Haas Quartet
© Wigmore Hall

This led to a slight problem at the very outset since the composer opens with the violins and violas scrubbing away at forte semiquavers, which covered the cello’s launch of the first subject. Perhaps this was a consequence of playing this music in this hall, which was pretty full, right at the start of a concert. They adjusted well in time for the exposition repeat. There were no such problems when the quartet’s violist Luosha Fang announced the dolce second subject with almost vocal tone. Similarly the lyrical moments in the developing variations of the Adagio were very affectionately played. In the Intermezzo and Finale the Pavel Haas Quartet relished the various Slavic, Gypsy, and Hungarian elements – well, 1890s Vienna was quite a melting pot. One observer said this work “was characteristic of the composer, but even more of his place of residence”.

Twenty-eight years before, Brahms resided not in Vienna, but was still based in Hamburg, where he wrote a string quintet which he destroyed, but turned first into a work for two pianos and then his F minor Piano Quintet. For this landmark in Romantic chamber music the Pavel Haas Quartet were joined by Boris Giltburg, and together they gave a stirring, passionate performance, of the sort the work demands. Indeed the passionate attack of the string players did not preclude an occasional moment of fervent shrillness, but better that than a polite account of such music.

Giltburg was primus inter pares rather than the dominant member here, so there was an ideal balance born of his regular collaborations with this group. Even in the twelve fortissimo bars that close the first movement, the sound was powerful but integrated. In opening the straightforward Andante (a piece of thirds and sixths, symmetry and four bar phrases) it seemed at first as if Giltburg’s approach to his espressivo, sotto voce marking was very simple, but after a bar or so it was clear it was actually very subtle, so that when the strings picked up his tiny hint of vibrato with each phrase, music that could be pallid had life breathed into it.

This was just one illustration of the high class chamber playing throughout the work culminating in a coda that provoked an unseemly roar from the normally sophisticated Wigmore audience. Since they would not let the musicians depart without an encore, they were rewarded by some Czech music, the Scherzo from Dvorak’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op.81.