Brahms: String Quintets 1&2, Clarinet Quintet
The clear, analytic acoustic at Kings Place ought to be ideal for unpicking the tightly-voiced counterpoint in Brahms' String Quintets. Sadly, this performance didn't have the precision or the detail to make the most of it. The First Quintet is in most need of help in this respect. All five instruments are playing virtually throughout, and Brahms often chooses textures where everything meets in the middle, with the violins in their lowest register and the cello playing high. Admittedly, it is difficult to know what to do with this music, but clarity of texture is clearly a virtue worth striving for, be it through varying the dynamics in the ensemble or exaggerating the phrasing.
But the biggest problem in this evening's performance was tuning. Every player was guilty of poor intonation moments at one point or another, but the main offender was the first violin. Perhaps she was just having a bad day and the tuning in the rest of the ensemble was suffering accordingly. Many of the first violin solos ran into trouble as they entered the upper register, and the first and second violins were often seriously out of tune with each other.
Balance was another issue, albeit a lesser one. The composer must share some blame for this, especially in his writing for the cello. Why does he only use one cello in this music when he has already learned from his Sextets that two cellos offer the ideal balance? Whatever the reason, he is clearly expecting the single cellist to do more work than any of her colleagues. That didn't happen, so the results were seriously viola-heavy.
The Second Quintet fared better. Compositionally, the work is more accomplished and thematically more interesting. More significantly though, it is also scored more imaginatively, with groups of players often dropping out to leave smaller ensembles. This led to marked improvements in both the intonation and the balance, and some of those crucial details at last started to shine through.
The Clarinet Quintet was better still, although problems still remained. Anthony Pay gave a surprisingly modest rendition of the clarinet part, often hiding the bell of his instrument between his knees, presumably to reduce the volume and brilliance of his tone. Most ensembles treat the work as a concertante setup, with the clarinet as soloist. But this evening the first violin remained the centre of attention, and the clarinet often blended frustratingly into the string textures. He too had tuning problems and spent much of the first movement fiddling with his mouthpiece to stop the instrument blowing sharp.
About half way through the second movement he finally achieved his aim, and the conclusion of the Clarinet Quintet was ultimately the most satisfying part of the concert. But the whole experience goes to show that the fine acoustic at Kings Place can be a mixed blessing. If the performance had taken place at, say the Purcell Room, the players would have gotten away with a lot more. But here every intonation problem was painfully obvious, and even with the best will in the world became very difficult to ignore.