Members of the London Bridge Ensemble and the Heath Quartet enthralled a capacity audience at the Discovery Centre in the fourth event of the Winchester Chamber Music Festival. The inspired initiative of festival directors Kate Gould and Daniel Tong, and now in its seventh year, this weekend-long chamber music jamboree performs largely mainstream repertoire with occasional forays into rarely performed chamber works. The main focus this year was Beethoven and Schumann, their music selected to highlight their musical development at specific times in their careers. For those attending all seven concerts this would have been an instructive and illuminating weekend.

London Bridge Ensemble © operaomnia.co.uk
London Bridge Ensemble
© operaomnia.co.uk

The concert began with Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor, Op.1, no. 3. First performed at a musical gathering in 1795 at Prince Lichnowsky’s palatial Vienna residence, this much-written about occasion famously prompted reservations from Haydn who suggested that amendments should be made to Beethoven’s work if the public was to appreciate it better. Perhaps the Trio’s innovative use of four, rather than three movements, or its rare use of a minor key and its surprise, restrained ending gave Haydn reason to question Beethoven’s judgement. Whatever the reason, Beethoven’s wonderfully inventive Trio secured a positive response from Friday’s audience who seemed to have no reservations about its performance given by three members of the London Bridge Ensemble: Daniel Tong (piano) Kate Gould (cello) and guest Michael Gurevich (violin).

That said, instrumental balance was a recurring issue and on several occasions the Fazioli piano threatened to overpower both collaborators. In the relatively modest and somewhat claustrophobic space within the Discovery Centre that serves as a recital room, maybe the fully open piano lid was just too much. If the sweet-toned violin was occasionally no match for the piano, this could have been the result of Beethoven’s scoring where, for instance, the violin rarely plays above the stave in the first movement’s development section and in the fifth variation of the second movement its melodic line is mostly divided. Daniel Tong, however, was thoroughly at home with the piano part’s irrepressible energy and equal to Beethoven’s demands in a work that, in its scope and ambition, has been seen as preparation for his symphonic goals.

From the youthful vigour of Beethoven’s Op. 1 Trio there followed two instrumental works by Rachmaninov: first was the adolescent Prelude for Cello and Piano, Op.2, no. 1 from 1892 that, despite its obvious charm and a persuasive account, might have been heard in better light as an encore piece. Second was a very fluent rendition of the Vocalise Op.34, no. 14, a transcription from the final wordless song belonging to Rachmaninov’s Op.34 collection of 1912. Resisting the temptation for indulgence Kate Gould and Daniel Tong created a memorable impression with eloquent phrases and the cello’s “singing” tone clearly audible with the improved dynamic balance.

Balance was never an issue in the superb partnership comprising Daniel Tong and the Heath Quartet in the post-interval performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat, Op.44. Authority, communication and musicianship shone in equal measure throughout this highly focused 30-minute performance. From the bell-like figure of the opening bars to the rousing conclusion of the finale, this performance set the seal on the evening and it was easy to hear why this award-winning quartet has acquired such an enviable reputation. The concentrated reverie of the second movement was finely controlled and a reluctant piano student would have realised in the Scherzo that scales can be fun. In short, it was a performance that perfectly reflected the character of the work – that of joy and celebration.