The International Musicians Seminar Prussia Cove was an organisation that was new to me. Established in 1972 by Sándor Végh, a group of established musicians have gathered together every year since then in a beautiful Cornish setting that “offers sustenance and inspiration to musicians”. Involving masterclasses and rehearsing chamber music, the tangible outcome is a series of concerts of chamber music, culminating this year in this entertaining event at Wigmore Hall.

What attracted me to the concert was the unusual repertoire. Two little known string quintets and a 20th century string quartet that is woefully neglected in the concert hall – as is so much of the 20th century quartet repertoire.

Pekka Kuusisto © Kaapo Kamu
Pekka Kuusisto
© Kaapo Kamu

The concert opened with Beethoven String Quintet in C major Op.29. A radical reworking of a very early wind octet, it is remains a problematic work, but an attractive one. As performed here, the first movement seemed particularly weak in terms of its melodic material and construction. There was a tentativeness in the playing which didn’t help matters. This extended into the long slow movement which lacked the richness of tone you’d expect. However, in the scherzo the group seemed to relax and in the finale that followed, everyone seemed to be finally enjoying themselves, particularly the sparky first violin, Yura Lee.

The meatiest work on the programme was the String Quartet no. 5 by Martinů, written in 1938 but not published until months before his death in 1959. The reason for the work being held back was the personal nature of its inspiration, namely the turbulent love affair the composer had started with a woman 25 years his junior. The stark emotions that this relationship must have engendered certainly come through in the quartet which is one of the composer’s darkest and most harmonically tortured works. It is also, in my opinion, one of the greatest quartets of its time, on a par with Bartok.

There was nothing tentative about this performance. This is work that needs to be red hot from first to last note. Extravagantly led by violinist, Pekka Kuusisto, the first movement had a devastating force. The passionate anger of the piece was conveyed brilliantly and with superb virtuosity, while the eerie intensity of the slow movement was paced to perfection. Even in the scherzo the usually reassuring Martinů rhythmic pulse was fractured and unstable. Only in the finale does there appear to be any glimpse of light. A hard movement to pull off, it should lead inexorably to its G minor goal, via a Lento opening and an elusive Allegro. Here the return to the Lento didn’t quite work and the final implacable chords weren’t as convincing as they can be. But as a whole this performance was something to be cherished.

Mendelssohn's String Quintet in B flat major Op.87 was also led by the lively Kuusisto, this time with a different line-up beside. This glorious work, with its nod backwards to Mozart in the subtly of its orchestration and in pointing forwards to Brahms in its richness of tone, was shown off at in its Sunday best in this performance. Everyone clearly relished the technical brilliance and polish of the piece and a real sense of commitment to the work came across in the performance, as it did in the Martinů. Particularly ravishing moments were to be found in the scherzo with its witty minuet style and in the melodically overflowing slow movement. As a performance by a group of musicians who don’t regularly play together, this was as good as it gets.