CLASSICAL MUSIC : All buttoned-up for a winter evening

Brindisi String Quartet with Barry Douglas Wigmore Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
There always was an old-world quality to the Wigmore Hall, but the front-of-house redevelopments have sharpened it. Given a full house, especially at this time of year, when classical concerts are scarce and the audience is all smiles, pleased ju st to have got in, the scene looks like one of Paul Cox's drawings of a sybaritic English golden age that never was. Friday's concert, too, could have come straight from that same indefinite well of memory: Mozart to ease the quartet in, Bartok to make t he public sit up, finally a guest pianist joining in the high sentiment of Schumann.

Thirty years ago, a distinguished string quartet wouldn't have looked as young as the Brindisi, nor would it have included two women. But it might have played Mozart like this. Steady in pace, broad in feeling, firm but restrained: this was a thoroughly English performance of the K464 quartet, even down to the democracy of four equal, strong, singing lines in the intricate part-writing of the finale.

While you won't often catch an orchestra daring to play Mozart the way its forefathers did, for chamber music the received style is still the accepted norm. The traditions of the medium remain stronger than pressures to conform to the fashion for period style, it appears. In a mixed programme, however, quartets can have a similar problem to one that used to afflict orchestras: large bands playing symphonies would have to hold back their drums and trumpets to a whisper, and, as a consequence, the music came out inhibited. Same here: the Brindisi are hardly buttoned-up, but their Mozart was more decorous, less dramatic, than we now expect on a larger scale.

As soon as the third quartet of Bartok began, a dimension of physicality and ardour entered and brought an immediate heightening of the atmosphere. This was concentrated, powerful playing, brooding and urgent by turns, not living as dangerously as Bartokcan do in his out-on-the-edge, visionary moments but bringing all the strands of thought and action together in terse, punchy climaxes.

For Schumann's Piano Quintet the visitor was Barry Douglas. The relationship sounded thoughtful, engaged, carefully balanced. Brilliance, which Schumann specifically asks for, wasn't immediately forthcoming in a rather stately opening, but warmth and expansiveness were: the cellist has a great melody to treasure here, and Jonathan Tunnell relished it to just the right degree for the stability of the larger experience. A slowish pulse detracted from the next movement's nagging, relentless character. Eachnew idea induced a new tempo, and only when the central passionate eruption forced all the themes into a fluent sequence did the playing locate its full open-heartedness.

The scherzo took off, though, propelled by Douglas's sure touch with the weighting of Schumann's offbeat changes of harmony, the sort of detail that gives his music its vitality. And the finale maintained the flow of energy, with a proper surge of emotion as the music's unexpected series of new vistas began to open out midway.

Applause, like the playing, took its time to build up intensity. On the whole it had been a sober, correct performance rather than an exciting or especially personal one. But the Brindisi's Schumann was scrupulously presented and clearly well cared for -thrills and spills can wait for another day.