On Tuesday evening the Schubert Ensemble performed chamber works by Schumann, Schubert and John Woolwich to a near capacity audience at the Turner Sims concert hall in the last of the venue’s spring season classical events. With over 30 years performing experience behind them, the Schubert Ensemble is an established UK chamber group specialising in music for piano and strings, and has an international reputation built on a busy touring schedule alongside regular radio broadcasts, critically acclaimed CDs and a large body of commissioned work. In 1998 the Ensemble's contribution to British musical life was recognized by the Royal Philharmonic Society when it presented the group with the Best Chamber Ensemble Award, for which it was shortlisted again in 2010.

Schubert Ensemble
Schubert Ensemble
On the basis of this secure reputation their programme promised to be uplifting and intriguing in equal measure. The concert began with Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E flat, Op.47, written in 1842, a work whose creative energy perfectly expresses Schumann’s romantic vein, particularly in the ardent third movement. But it was the lack of ardour that made me feel short-changed with this performance. While instrumental balance was perfectly judged in the first movement, more incisive rhythms and sharper dynamic contrast (especially in the application of sforzando markings) might have outlined more clearly the movement’s formal divisions. The group’s tight ensemble was shown to good effect in the perilously fast quavers that set in motion the Scherzo, but where was the sense of fun? In the third movement the cello was poised in its delivery of the cantabile melody – but its emotional restraint was determinedly unsentimental. The emotional temperature did lift for the finale where the players finally began to communicate with each other in an efficient performance that went some way to mirror its sense of exultation.

To complete the first half of the programme, the Schubert Ensemble performed John Woolrich’s Sestina, a hauntingly elegiac work for piano and string trio from 1997. It takes its title from Monteverdi’s sixth book of madrigals of 1610 that tell of a lover’s lament at the tomb of the beloved. According to the composer’s own programme note the work’s six sections inhabit “ghosts” of pieces by other composers – Debussy, Beethoven, Schubert Schumann, Stravinsky and Monteverdi - references that were so elusive that even the violinist who introduced the work admitted his uncertainty of their place in the musical fabric. Knowledge of this did not make these fragile pieces, lasting from just under a minute to nearly five minutes, any easier to digest despite the transparent textures and clear symmetrical design.  

After the interval and the addition to the ensemble of the double bass player, there followed more John Woolrich (whose sixtieth birthday it is this year) in the shape of Five Chorales, conceived for piano quintet. These sombre arrangements of Lutheran hymn tunes by J.S. Bach were made in 2000 for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death and, like Sestina, were commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble. The spirit of Bach’s originals was much in evidence in this performance but the dialogue-style manner of these instrumental miniatures wholly belonged to John Woolrich.

Then followed Schubert’s well-known Piano Quintet in A, D. 667 (“The Trout”) in a performance that expressed a sense of joy. This divertimento-like work, with five rather than four movements and an avoidance of motivic development, was written in the summer of 1819 during one of Schubert’s happiest episodes. The players now seemed more at home and responded more readily to the composer’s almost limitless resourcefulness and conveyed, particularly in the finale, a real sense of joy which secured appreciative cheers from the audience.