Number 17. That’s all you need to know about the Brahms Piano Quintet. Apparently, the BBC Music Magazine ran a survey of popular chamber works, and that’s where it ranked. The current “Chamber Classics Unwrapped” season at Kings Place has been programmed around the poll, hence this performance. As it turned out, the technically accomplished and continually inspired interpretation from the Schubert Ensemble was justification enough, and the programme they built around the work set it in an ideal context.

Schubert Ensemble © John Clark
Schubert Ensemble
© John Clark

The Mahler Piano Quartet movement was an interesting opener. Written when the composer was just 16, it demonstrates Brahms’ overbearing influence on an entire generation of Viennese composers. The textures are Brahmsian, as are the thematic construction and development, although far less skilled or subtle than those of his model. The quartet has enjoyed a modest revival in recent years, and makes occasional appearances on concert programmes and recordings. It needs delicate handling though, but that’s not what it got from the Schubert Ensemble. The young Mahler is not yet in full control of his material or his expressive vocabulary, so his performers need to provide the necessary balance and proportion. But here, the movement was played like it was Rachmaninov, all swelling rubato and swooning cadences. The results were certainly engaging, but only served to highlight the paucity of thematic innovation and the rigidity of the structure.

No such complaints though about the two main works on the programme. In a welcome break from concert etiquette, violinist Simon Blendis addressed the audience before the Dvořák Piano Quartet in E flat major, explaining why the ensemble had chosen that work to complement the Brahms. He was keen to highlight their differences, specifically swift changes of key and mood in Dvořák, compared with Brahms’ more flowing style, and the many aspects of Dvořák’s accompaniments that are specific to him, the cimbalom effects in the piano, for example, and the folky sting bass in the cello. The performance that followed highlighted all of these features, but without exaggeration. The sheer precision of the ensemble and the unanimity of the tone provided the musical discipline against which the, often daring, rubato of the melodies could interact. The third movement waltz was particularly impressive, performed with a pronounced stagger, at once stately and rustic. Yet discipline, of tempo as much as tone and ensemble, was the defining feature of this performance

The Dvořák Second Quartet is, no doubt, core repertoire for these performers, but I’m sure the Brahms Quintet is even more familiar to them. No matter how many times they have performed it together, though, this evening it sounded as fresh and vibrant as ever. Technically, this performance was as close to flawless as any, but what stood out more was the sheer variety of colours, textures and moods. Dance rhythms were launched enthusiastically and sustained without flagging. Melodies sang and bass lines bounced. Best of all were the ecstatic tutti passages in the outer movements, where the five instruments all combine to perform opulent major-key melodies, the voicing arranged to create an effect of radiant intensity, brilliantly executed by the ensemble here. Perfect Brahms.