Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor was of course not born when the all-star line-up of Barenboim, du Pré, Perlman, Zukerman and Mehta’s 1969 performance of Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, D.667 (“Trout”) in the QEH was captured on film by Christopher Nupen. But he writes that seeing it aged eight (so some thirty-odd years later) was a major source of inspiration to him. So nearly fifty years on from that inspirational performance, he has assembled a group of performers to mark this occasion in the newly renovated QEH. Grosvenor’s original aim of a quintet of musicians that spanned generations of experience was slightly diluted by viola player Brett Dean being indisposed, marking out double bass player Leon Bosch as somewhat veteran amongst the 20-somethings, including violinist Hyeyoon Park and cellist Kian Soltani. However Dean’s replacement, Tim Ridout, proved himself an inspired addition to the company, not least by proving his ability to be in two places at once, nipping next door to the Purcell Rooms between the Brahms and the Trout to perform a George Benjamin piece as part of a new music programme with the Arditti String Quartet. Not having the same ability, one can’t comment on the Benjamin, but Ridout’s contribution to the Brahms and Schubert was highly accomplished.

Benjamin Grosvenor
© Patrick Allen | Opera Omnia

Whilst the carefree, joyous “Trout” Quintet was the ultimate destination of the evening, the programme began with the weightier, more turbulent First Piano Quartet of Brahms. Grosvenor’s opening bare octaves set a warmly expressive tone, immediately matched by the string players, promising an assured performance. Kian Soltani’s incisive, perpetual rhythm provided the anxious undercurrent to the otherwise lyrical exchanges between upper strings and piano in the Intermezzo, and all four players warmed to the passionate outbursts in the Andante con moto. By the finale, the heat was on, in a rip-roaring Rondo alla Zingarese. In what was to become a feature of the evening, Ridout and Soltani took evident pleasure in their lyrical duet, and Grosvenor dashed off his brief cadenza with a flourish, before an exhilarating race to the finish.

Park and Grosvenor then gave us a strongly assured performance of the virtuosic Bartók Rhapsody no. 1, replacing the originally programmed work by Brett Dean. The Rhapsody made a suitable follow-on from Brahms’ Hungarian-inspired finale, but the performance here remained in the slightly pseudo-folksy Brahmsian world, rather than fully entering Bartók’s harder edged, folk-rooted soundworld. The multiple stopping, harmonics and slapping pizzicatos were all perfectly executed and crystal clear, but one feels this work needs to feel a little rougher round the edges to really capture its full spirit. Park’s performance was virtuosically impressive, but inward-looking – literally, as she performed towards her music stand slightly upstage, allowing for little communication with either Grosvenor behind her or the audience in front. 

Schubert’s blissfully bittersweet “Notturno” followed the interval, a wonderfully warm performance full of late summer evening languor tinged with sadness and loss. Here Park and Soltani sang with beautifully matched tones, with Grosvenor’s delicate trills wistfully ephemeral against the final return of that long-lined melody.

And so to the “Trout” Quintet, and what a performance! Bosch’s warm, anchoring tone added a solid foundation throughout, and once again, Ridout and Soltani most obviously communicated a sense of enjoyment in the proceedings here. It is a challenge to find a layout that allows all players to fully communicate, and one felt that Grosvenor suffered a little here from being so far behind his colleagues, but there were moments of connection between him and Park, in the exchanges of rapid scales in the first movement, and in the canonic conversation of the Andante. The Scherzo had energy, attack and spirit, contrasted with a Trio of great poise, dramatically interrupted with weighty tutti chords. The famous theme of the fourth movement was stated simply, appropriately being allowed to sing without fussy gestures, and the variations that followed included delicate subtlety (Park’s birdlike decorations in Variation One), a sense of fun (the cello and double bass duet of the third variation), wild exuberance (Variation Four), and sensuous cello lyricism (Variation Five), concluded by an Allegretto full of joyful bounce. By the finale, that sense of joy and fun was all-pervading, yet detail was not forgotten, with some beautiful pianissimo string playing, and pinpoint accurate, rapid passagework from Grosvenor, building to the work’s somewhat sudden, understated but ultimately affirming conclusion.

Throughout the evening, Grosvenor was never front of stage, literally or figuratively, allowing his assembled colleagues to take most of the limelight. But he is to be heartily congratulated for bringing together such a wonderfully effortless evening of high-class music making.