This was the Alban Berg Quartet's last concert in London so it might have seemed strange that they chose to share their final moments on the platform of the Queen Elizabeth Hall with three high profile colleagues.
Choosing two quintets by Schubert – the 'Trout' and the String Quintet D.956 – seemed like a propitious decision geographically for a quartet from the Austrian capital but despite outstanding contributions from Alois Posch on double bass and the honorary Viennese, pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja, in the 'Trout', it was difficult not to feel as though with only three members of the quartet taking part, we were missing out.
In the performance of the quintet, though, we not only had second violin Gerhard Schulz but the luxury of Heinrich Schiff as second cellist. The quartet produced a benchmark recording of this work with Schiff some twenty-five years ago and here gave us a performance that was fully worthy of the occasion. It was a reading that was deeply moving, powerful yet beautifully civilised; truly Viennese in its humour and endless palette of light and shade. In the programme, the quartet's leader, Günter Pichler, had written a touching tribute to 'our beloved London public' and the warmth of the audience's lengthy standing ovation, met with humility and modesty by the members of the quartet, was testament to this special relationship.
Although in the compressed chronology of Schubert's life there's less than a decade between the 'Trout' Quintet and the late String Quintet, there's a world of difference between them. However, the performance of the earlier work here often seemed to highlight techniques of instrumentation that the composer would still employ in the great quintet of 1828. In particular, the duetting in thirds and sixths between cello and viola and the interplay between double bass and cello seemed more noticeably than usual to point forward to the way Schubert exploits the two cellos in the later work. It was a performance too which, although far from serious, resisted the temptation to place undue emphasis the quintet's irrepressible humour and joie-de-vivre; there were darting looks and smiles but none of them self-conscious or ostentatious.
Leonskaja, with her piano's lid fully open, managed to maintain the balance very effectively, indeed sometimes almost retreated too far into the background, but the piano itself sounded unusually muddy in its tone. Throughout the whole performance, Valentin Erben's cello playing was a constant delight, lyrical and playful, and the way he characterised his simple accompaniment to finale's opening theme was a minor miracle. Surprisingly, Pichler's playing of the first violin part had a few smudges and inaccuracies but these were more than made up for by the way he led such moments as the impossibly hushed and still rendition of the first movement's development.
Enjoyable though the performance of the 'Trout' was, the concert's second half transported players and audience to an altogether different plane. Augmented by Schiff's incredibly rich and sonorous Stradivarius, the quartet now also welcomed back the Schulz, who as the most overtly demonstrative player in the group seems to push Pichler and viola player Isabel Charisius to even greater expressiveness. Of course, the Alban Bergs are synonymous with a rich, multifaceted quartet sound and this was much in evidence, with Schiff's own highly powerful and dramatic playing often lighting the touch-paper for some explosive outbursts. However, it was the sudden drops in dynamics that provided some of the finest moments and it was in a breathtaking performance of the Adagio that the quartet's supreme sensitivity and musicality reached its apotheosis. Here, too, Pichler's playing of the fractured, tentative violin line communicated a whole world of emotion. Wisely avoiding the trap of associating slowness with profundity, the movement was performed relatively swiftly. This did mean, towards the end, that some of the second cello's more ornate lines didn't come across with ideal clarity, but elsewhere the strange dialogue, carried out between Pichler and Schiff across the hushed chords of the other instruments, was heartbreaking, and between them the players were still able to create a feeling of empty stasis.
The Scherzo was taken at a furious pace and performed with immense power – there was incredible force in the unison playing between Schiff and Erben in particular – but it was the nuance and subtlety of the group's playing in the astonishing Trio section that showed the quality of the performance. The moments of stillness in the Finale too were to be savoured but here some of the sheer joyfulness of the 'Trout' was recaptured as the performance switched between the irresitable momentum of the pesante dance and visionary profundity. That special Viennese ability to lightly obscure humour below a veneer of semi-serious earnestness meant, however, that the movement never felt detatched from the more obviously profound writing that preceded it.
It was the same mixture of emotions that Schubert's great Quintet ends with that summed up the feelings at the end of the concert. The members of the quartet seemed genuinely moved by the warmth of their ovation and the sadness at the fact that London will not see them together again has to be tempered by gratitude for the fact that the city has enjoyed so many of their peformances over two decades of close association with the South Bank Centre.
By Hugo Shirley