Monday 12th March, 2018


Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts have often brought musical ensembles to the City who are at or near the beginning of their musical careers and we are proud to be able to do that. The last concert in the present season was very different however. The members of the Schubert Ensemble have been together for at least 35 years and today’s concert was their last in Scotland. They have two more appearances to go in London before retiring from the performance circuit. The fact that the same players have been working together for so long meant that their ensemble playing was second to none and this was apparent in the opening movement of their first work in the concert, Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in D op. 23. In the Allegro moderato, their playing was superbly well blended. There was a special warmth from Jane Salmon’s cello playing, the violin and viola harmonised so well together reminding me of some of Dvořák’s full orchestral pieces where the same sort of effect is achieved often on a couple of woodwinds. Pianist William Howard’s playing was clean and clear but he stayed carefully within the Quartet blend. There was no showing off, although near the end of the movement Dvořák allows the piano to flourish magnificently and William Howard seized that opportunity splendidly.

The real centrepiece of this work however was the middle movement, a set of variations in which the contrasting instrumental combinations are a constant source of delight. There was a delicious string trio with the piano taking an accompanying role. In the later variations the piano came to the fore and at one point it was the three string players who were providing the accompaniment for the piano. The movement had strong outgoing playing but there were contrasting passages of lovely delicate playing from the Quartet as well.

The final movement embraced the spirit of the dance and also the musical dialect and inflections of Dvořák’s Bohemian homeland. There was not just one dance either but several – including a swinging waltz and an exciting furiante. The Schubert Ensemble delivered all the varied colours of this music with its dazzling richness of both melody and rhythm.

Igor Stravinsky once said that music expresses nothing other than itself. What a strange comment from a composer who wrote such colourful ballet scores as The Firebird for instance. Charlotte Bray (b.1982 in High Wycombe) has written for many of the world’s leading musicians and orchestras. Her piece Zustände, meaning ‘States’ was commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble in partnership with the Wiltshire Music Centre. William Howard in his brief introduction to the piece mentioned that it was a powerfully atmospheric work and Charlotte Bray’s own programme note explained that the work is inspired by three photographs taken during a recent visit to Greenland. She went on to mention some of the string and piano techniques she had used to produce her musical response to these icy pictures.

I found it an absolutely fascinating piece really quite pictorial though not simple graphic in its effect. I think that William Howard’s word ‘atmospheric’ really hit the spot. Sorry Stravinsky, but this music did express a lot more than just itself. The opening moments with brittle piano and shivering strings really told the story. Can I just mention the hard and intense work done in this piece by our young page turner Oisin Lyons from Albyn School. I am so glad they did not ask me to turn the pages for this work.

I may be wrong but I have been going to concerts in Aberdeen for a very long time and I cannot remember ever hearing live a piece by the French composer Amédée-Ernest Chausson. In his introduction to this work Simon Blendis expressed the love this ensemble has for the piece and this was very obvious in their fine joyful performance. The opening movement was a bit like a stroll through a rhythmically breezy sun-kissed garden of melody in which musical flowers bloomed on every instrument in the Quartet.

The second movement began with the rich warmth of the viola and throughout the movement singing strings delivered marvellous bouquets of harmony and melody.

The Simple third movement had a catching dance rhythm and the playing was so delicate – dainty even. Later on rippling piano developed into exciting flourishes and then towards the end of the movement, wonderfully seductive harmonies on the strings seduced us.

The final movement began almost threateningly in agitated stormy mood. Calm supervened and then the music caught fire again but this time the sense of agitation was still stormy but happy too and as our programme note writer said, triumphant!

The Schubert Ensemble earned an enthusiastic ovation from the Aberdeen audience and they responded generously with a delicious encore, their own delightful instrumental arrangement of one of Richard Strauss’s most delightful songs, Morgen.

This was a superb concert to finish the season for Aberdeen Chamber Music Concerts. A new season starts once again in the Sanctuary of Queen’s Cross Church on Monday 8th October when concert pianist Murray McLachlan, well known to Aberdeen audiences with his pianist wife and two of their talented children will give a varied programme of piano solos and duets. Be sure not to miss that!

The Schubert Ensemble – 12th March 2018: Review