MUSIC / Hermann the German goes Swiss: Stephen Walsh on concerts of new and unfamiliar chamber music by the Schubert Ensemble and the Maggini Quartet at the Cheltenham Festival

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With the Reykjavik Wind Quintet playing the Swiss composer Kelterborn, the Cheltenham International Festival is certainly living up to the 'international' label. This year, the festival has a Swiss theme, supposedly; but Cheltenham has spotted the crucial fact that, Switzerland being what it is, almost anything from Rossini's William Tell to Tippett's Ritual Dances (a Basle commission) can at a pinch be included alongside the native Helvetiana.

The festival's first weekend scored an immediate hit with this catch-all idea, in Hermann Goetz's C minor Piano Quintet, which the Schubert Ensemble played in Sunday's evening concert at the Pittville Pump Room. A younger contemporary of Brahms, Goetz came from Konigsberg in East Prussia; but he lived the last few years of his short life in Zurich, where he wrote the quintet a year or two before he died in 1876.

The exceptional practical value of this big, attractive and rather impressive piece is that it is written for the same five instruments as Schubert's Trout (double-bass instead of second violin), which is the under-provided complement of the Schubert Ensemble itself. Goetz's quintet is not a fresh, youthful piece like the Trout, but warm and self-communing, with a kind of Schumannesque inwardness tempered by a certain energy and a firm, lucid structure. Apart from the sheer quality of its ideas, the most interesting thing about it is that it uses the ensemble quite differently from Schubert. The naturally dark colouring is accepted, in a blended sepia texture with much string-piano dialogue in the middle register. This might have been a fault. But Goetz must have had an excellent ear, since everything seemed clear and effective even in the somewhat reverberant Pump Room acoustics.

In her note on her own new piece for the Schubert Ensemble, I broke off a golden branch, Judith Weir drew attention to the 'excessively bassish sound of the strings' in the Trout ensemble. Her solution, like Schubert's, is to brighten the sound through the piano. But curiously enough, her music seemed to suffer more from the acoustics than Goetz's, and it would perhaps have benefited from some spatial separation between the instruments.

Even so, it's a gem of a piece, and one which will greatly adorn the Ensemble's repertoire. Weir's genius for extending folkish material into music that is at once subtle and earthy is a little reminiscent of Stravinsky's, though the music itself isn't. Here, one movement is based on a 'folk-song' of her own, the other on a Croatian tune (from which the work takes its title). Both trace lively and unexpected paths through their melodic fields, and despite the obvious dependence on the variation of simple patterns, there is never a moment of tedium.

I wish I could say the same for Richard Arnell's Sixth String Quartet, premiered by the Maggini Quartet in the Pump Room on Sunday morning. On paper, it is music every bit as coherent and patterned as Weir's. But in performance, the thematic structuring as good as vanished into a fog of styles, leaving a ragbag of impressions, some agreeable, some less so.

The Maggini pulled things together with a spirited account of Mendelssohn's E flat Quartet, Op 44 No 3 - a coherent piece if ever there was one, if not quite his most cogent. But the scherzo alone, brilliantly played, was worth the trip.

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