A close-knit quintet impresses

REVIEW / CONCERT

PARTY OF FIVE

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall/Sunday

After the superlative showing by cellist Qin Li-Wei and pianist Bernard Lanskey in their recital just a week ago, this concert by five other conservatory professors and heads of department was a follow-up of sorts. It was in fact a celebration of the familiar adage, that a family that plays together stays together.

The combination of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass is an unusual one, based loosely on what talents of a group of musical friends can throw up, rather than the conventional piano and string quartet configuration. The arche- typal work was Franz Schubert's Piano Quintet In A, popularly known as the Trout Quintet, but a far more recent addition was Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams' Piano Quintet In C Minor, which opened the evening.

First performed in 1905, it was withdrawn by the composer but permission was given by his estate for a revival in 1999. The influence of Brahms informs the richly textured first movement, with Albert Tiu obliged to play big piano chords, while melodies for Zhang Manchin's viola and Ng Pei-Sian's cello ensured the music be dabbed with darker hues.

If one sought Vaughan Williams' trademark folksong pastoralism, the wait would be a long one. His choral arrangement skills could, however, be found in the piano solo for the slow movement, which gave way to fluid lyricism in the strings led by Zuo Jun's violin, supported by Guennadi Mouzyka's double- bass.

After a reverie-like wallow with sedate tempos, the variations on a folksong-like theme in the finale perked things up before concluding in a quiet calm. A fascinating if not great or representative work, the five players made it sound better than it actually is.

Schubert's Trout Quintet was first heard at intimate Viennese house soirees (or Schubertiades), but published only after his death. Now his most popular chamber work, one wonders what he would have thought of it being performed in front of large concert-hall audiences.

Regardless of who is listening, the closely knit work of five musicians remains key. Despite the piano having the biggest part, it was difficult to see who was the obvious leader here. Nonetheless, the team worked well together, with the sonata-form first movement setting the tone. This was an energised and brisk performance, even if the second movement displayed stretches of gemutlichkeit, or the state of being carefree.

The leading chords of the Scherzo were punched out with purpose, as homespun rusticity took precedence over politeness. And if there were concessions to virtuoso playing, that would be in the fourth movement's Theme And Variations, based on Schubert's lied Die Forelle (The Trout, hence the nickname). Tiu was kept ever busy, while his string partners took turns to sing out its jaunty and catchy melody.

There was good reason to perform Schubert last, simply because a feel-good factor encompassed the entire work. Even if the party of five had performed close to 75 minutes of music, there was no sense of fatigue as the Allegro Giusto finale romped to a joyous conclusion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2016, with the headline 'A close-knit quintet impresses'. Print Edition | Subscribe