Impassioned and heartfelt: the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble at Kings Place

Antonin Dvorak String Sextet in A, Op. 48
Franz Schubert String Quintet in C, D956

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble

Voted as No. 1 in the Top 50 Chamber Classics by BBC Music Magazine readers, Saturday night’s performance of Schubert’s String Quintet by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble at Kings Place had high expectations to fulfil. This is not a work that ensembles can simply churn out on demand. Written in Schubert’s final year, it is one of his most poetic. Though in the key of C major, the brightness normally generated by a major key is constantly questioned. It requires a considered performance if the work’s many subtleties are to be brought out.

Photo: Alicia Rose

Photo: Alicia Rose

It was Dvorak’s String Sextet that opened the evening first, however. An additional cello and viola, which extends the normal string quartet line-up (two violins, viola and cello) to six players, substantially increases its size. Dvorak’s Sextet nevertheless remains a chamber work to its core. Though the first violinist is given some of the most impassioned melodies, the rest of the ensemble are given their fair share too, which was largely relished by the players. The cello melody in the final movement might have lacked boldness, but the highlighting of the middle texture in the violas during the first movement was appreciated. It was the violas that took the lead at the final movement too, giving violists Robert Smissen and Fiona Bonds opportunity to exhibit their luxuriously rich sound. Smissen’s ensemble playing should be particularly commended. Situated in the middle of the ensemble, he acted as the glue between the two violins and two cellos throughout the evening. Moreover, he could flawlessly slip between whichever roles were required of him, whether that was leading with the melody, duetting with the first violin, or accompanying alongside the cellos.

Smissen certainly contributed to the group’s excellent ensemble playing. The enlarged chamber group can make it difficult to communicate with each other as individuals: there are five others to interact with, rather than the usual three in a string quartet. However, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble was created with the aim of performing these larger chamber works, with players that regularly work together. The more usual string quartet with additional guest members often does not have the same intimate coherence that this ensemble is capable of.

It was perhaps this intimate relationship between the players that made their performance of Schubert’s String Quintet so astounding. The work has (at least for me) one of the most poignant openings: a simple switch between C major and minor harmonies. It is a moment of great subtlety that could very easily lose its magic without careful playing. The St Martins Ensemble got it exactly right, with an enticing sound completely in sync with each other.

The first movement is on the lengthy side, lasting around twenty minutes. But the St Martins Chamber Ensemble remained captivating. One of Schubert’s most heartfelt melodies comes as a duet between the two cellos, which could have been given more space. Nevertheless, when it returned as a duet between viola and first cello, this subtle change in colour was  emphasised sensitively.

One might expect the slow movement to come as a relaxation, but Schubert’s second movement Adagio provides no such relief. Though it begins delicately, its middle section is a sudden outburst of violence. Here their playing was intense and sometimes full of hurt. When the calm of the movement’s opening section returned, it was more hesitant, as if holding onto something already lost.

The third movement’s Scherzo was unapologetically brash, and similarly the St Martins Chamber Ensemble did not hold anything back in the final movement. Their playing was rough, and they magnified  Schubert’s contrast between light and heavy. After a hugely dramatic culmination the audience response was zealous. But it was not this thrilling climax alone that was being appreciated. Rather, it was the gripping performance in its entirety of this highly expressive work.

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