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Works of note, and other riches

The Schubert Ensemble of London is the best chamber group that I have ever heard.

If my opinion is anything to go by - and I have the confidence of knowing they are considered one of the foremost chamber groups in the world - then the reasons must be myriad, but at the heart of it seems to be the relationship of especially long standing between five superb musicians, who have been playing together for almost 30 years now. And, as the Bermuda Festival pointed out in their programme for Friday evening's concert, that is almost unique.

As well, the character of their music is well beyond anything I've heard before, and one realises is a hallmark for them - whether it was the passionate and sharply delineated tango at the end of Friday evening's concert they performed as an encore, or the exquisite romance of the Andante Cantabile of Schumann's Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello in E flat, Op 4. (Incidentally, this movement was likely a tribute of love to the composer's wife Clara, so pianist William Howard speculated during his introduction to the piece.)

The impression of beatific effortlessness remains constant, a lustrous and polished timbre that reveals the deep intricacies of the pieces they perform and on top that, none-the-less, that are fully explored.

The Trout, as it is affectionately known, but more formally as Franz Schubert's Piano Quintet in AD 667, was the piece that first brought together the Schubert Ensemble of London. It is extraordinary and well loved in any event, but to hear it performed by this group of musicians is a rare privilege. I will be brave and say that in my view even the Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré, Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta performance in Christopher Nupen's film 'The Trout' do not come close to the Schubert Ensemble's wonderful rendering of it.

Schubert composed this quintet for his host after a holiday in the Alpine region, an area whose bucolic loveliness had particularly struck him. He based the quintet on his own song Die Forelle, or The Trout, and the resulting work has been described as 'enchanting' and 'delightful' by more erudite commentators than myself; I can only agree. This sunny piece seems to describe the Schubert Ensemble's characteristic style; its fluidity and mercurial qualities, particularly in the fourth and fifth movements that explore the original song, are the qualities that they have honed to such an exceptional degree and use to such tremendous effect in their performances of other works - and they did just this with their opening piece by Martin Butler, American Rounds.

This contemporary composer's music was described by Metro as: “... gorgeous, full of lilting harmonies and underpinned with a solid sense of drama”. American Rounds, written in 1998, is exactly that - a wonderful piece of music, and inspired as it is by the vastness of the New World and an array of musical idioms, one might think that it was a piece that demanded a musical approach far removed from The Trout, but in fact the mature and calm approach of Schubert Ensemble allows for a really thoughtful rendering of the work, with delightful and clever explorations of what are truly American techniques and style: the expansiveness of Aaron Copland, the lively cityscapes of George Gershwin, the toe-tapping folk music of the Midwest and I believe I detected the inspiration of spiritual and gospel music.

Robert Schumann's Quartet for piano, violin, viola and cello in E flat, Op 47 is a gorgeous work, and as I have already said, is particularly well known and well loved for its evocative third movement, the quintessential love song. I think very good musicians are enamored of this quartet in its entirety because of the interest of the various technical aspects, but I loved it for its sheer romanticism - and for Schumann's tip-of-the-hat to Beethoven. And who could explore its intricacies more compellingly and make it as accessible, without sacrificing anything in the interpretation, than Schubert Ensemble of London?

The quartet: violinist Simon Blendis, violist Douglas Paterson, cellist Jane Salmon, bassist Peter Buckoke and the truly brilliant pianist William Howard are a remarkable group of musicians whose ensemble work over 30 years has resulted in a quality of sound that is unmatched and for the audience, unequalled for providing sheer pleasure and deep musical fulfillment.

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Published February 06, 2012 at 7:00 am (Updated February 05, 2012 at 5:52 pm)

Works of note, and other riches

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