Piano Quintet Op.27 – Peter Schofield

Oxford Chamber Music Concert

25th November 2012

Review by Peter Schofield

The concert given in the Holywell Music Room on 25 November 2012 by the Coull String Quartet with Mark Bebbington (piano) consisted of three works: Piano Quintets by Ian Venables and Edward Elgar and the Piano Sonata in E minor/major (sic) by John Ireland. The main reason for attending this concert and reporting on it here was the opportunity to hear a live performance of the Venables Quintet, though the chance to hear again the Elgar and having another go at the Ireland were added incentives

Ian Venables was born in 1955. He has lived for the last twenty six years in Worcester, near the heart of Elgar country. His music shares the Englishness but is in no way derivative of that composer. Mainly known for his song settings, Venables’ Piano Quintet was completed in 1995 and is known to us from the CD by the same players and from an amateur recording. Best described as Modern Romanticism, the Quintet has immediate audience appeal. In attempting to choose two adjectives to sum up the overall impression I initially picked on its ‘dense’ scoring and ‘luscious’ texture. This raised objections from those whom I asked to comment on a draft: the composer accepted ‘luscious’ but not ‘dense’ while those who had performed the work objected strongly to ‘luscious’ but were prepared to accept ‘dense’. Having listened again to the recording, I remain unrepentant but I will settle for a consensus: The work is notable for its rich scoring and elegiac texture with three contrasting movements, yet with a musical coherence and compactness linking the opening and closing bars. The difficult task of integrating piano and strings was seamlessly tackled.

The performance was received with extended ovations for both the performers and the composer and there was an immediate interval sell-out of the available recordings. It is astonishing that a work of such potential appeal to those who play for their own pleasure has so far failed to find a publisher. It must surely find its place among the handful of great works for this combination: Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Franck, Elgar and Shostakovich, not to mention the abstruse Fauré and quirky Dohnányi.

I am in general a great admirer of the works of John Ireland, particularly his piano concerto, now rarely heard. However I was hearing the Piano Sonata for the second time, having heard it played in the Music Room some years ago. I found no reason to change my first impressions that, whatever its inspiration in the events of the First World War, what comes across is a piece of self-indulgent pianism for a virtuoso pianist, with little to offer the listener.

After the interval came the Elgar Quintet. The performance was marred for me by a strange imbalance between the players, not only between the piano and strings. This was maybe an acoustical effect for those of us seated in the front row on the left hand side, though it was not noticed in the Venables. Thus in the all-important balance of the opening between aggressive strings and soothing piano, the piano could hardly be heard. Similarly where the piano and strings are fighting it out in the climax of the final pages, it was no longer a draw. There were however some sublime, sensitive, passages, particularly in the slow movement and the performance was greeted warmly by most of the audience.