Schubert’s deeply contemplative String Quintet was a bold but worthy choice for the first Late Night Prom of the season. It is rare for a string quartet (in this case augmented by an extra cellist) to grace the main stage of the Proms, although chamber music is well represented in the Proms Chamber Music series. It must have been an acoustical challenge even for the distinguished Belcea Quartet and Valentin Erben, former cellist of the Alban Berg Quartet, and although it was inevitable that some of the details and nuances of Schubert’s late masterpiece were lost in the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall, they gave an eloquent and moving reading.

© BBC/Ronald Knapp
© BBC/Ronald Knapp

The Belcea Quartet, founded in 1994, has long been one of our leading string quartets, but it was the first time for me to hear them with their newly appointed second violinist Axel Schacher (who recently replaced founder-member Laura Samuel). I felt that Corina Belcea-Fisher and Schacher are not yet totally at ease with each other, but no doubt their relationship will grow in the coming months. It was rather the veteran Valentin Erben, playing the second cello part, who was the lynchpin of the performance: he provided the solid foundation on which the other four players were able to express the varying emotional moods of the work with feeling and flexibility.

The challenge of performing this quintet in the Royal Albert Hall is augmented by the fact that half the work is indicated piano, pianissimo or ppp (even from my prime seat in the stalls, I couldn’t hear some of the pizzicato notes). Overall, the Belcea Quartet’s tempo and dynamics were finely judged: they were not afraid to play really softly (particularly in the second movement) and achieved a wonderfully hushed and magical atmosphere. Therefore I felt it was a shame that each movement was applauded – for me it broke the spell of the music. For the record, I don’t mind applauding between movements in concertos and symphonies at the Proms. However, with such an intimate work as Schubert’s string quintet, I think the audience could have been asked to refrain applauding until the end by the BBC presenter Petroc Trelawney who introduced the concert from the stage.

The first movement is full of typically Schubertian oscillations between major and minor, although it ends with an emphatic C major chord. The ensemble brought out the light and shade of the work with sensitivity and dramatic tension. Initially Belcea-Fisher seemed a little edgy, but she soon settled and especially in the second movement, her playing soared beautifully above the sustained harmony of the three inner voices punctuated by the cello pizzicato. The contrasting middle section, which could be interpreted as the composer’s desperate cry for life, was played with great urgency. The buoyant Scherzo, evoking a rustic dance, provided some respite from the emotional intensity of the previous movements, and the finale was similarly lively and defiant, giving us an uplifting conclusion to this profound work.

Schubert composed this work in the last year of his life, and we do not know when the work was first performed, although it would probably have been in private with his friends. After his death, the work was forgotten until it was finally published some decades later. In any case, Schubert could never have imagined that his intimate chamber work would one day be performed in a grand venue as the Royal Albert Hall and it made me happy that this gem could be shared by the enthusiastic Late Night Prom audience.