Colour is the key

Brindisi Quartet/ Barry Douglas Wigmore Hall, London
Christmas is music's silly season: spoofed-up operas, teddy-bear concerts, and those interminable carols. So what a relief to find nestled in the tinsel a particularly well-planned programme of some of the world's greatest chamber music. Purcell, Bartok and Brahms suggest a programme aimed at spotlighting shared obsessions (contrapuntal and rhythmic complexity) between composers across the ages.

But the more striking aspect of Saturday's programme by the Brindisi Quartet of Purcell Fantasias, Bartok's Quartet No 4 and Brahms's Piano Quintet (with Barry Douglas) is how these composers, diverse as they are, have used instrumental colour as a primary consideration.

In Purcell, the homogeneity in sound of the viol family lays clear the ground for contrapuntal weaving, the four parts democratically catered for, allowing great clarity of texture for extraordinarily daring harmonies to be exposed without any risk of inaudibility. In Bartok, the percussive effects of "slap" pizzicato, glissandi, harmonics and extremes of dynamic add a powerful dimension to his rhythmically and harmonically daring vocabulary. And in the Brahms, a piano is introduced, adding an intensely competitive colour to the homogeneous strings. The Brindisis have already run a concert series of Purcell/ Bartok (two composers whose anniversaries have been disproportionately celebrated) with the fantasias and the quartets. These took place last year at the Almeida Theatre and may explain why, in the smaller venue, there was a greater sense of immediacy and involvement than that projected in the Wigmore Hall.

There is also the matter of the cellist. For some months now, the Brindisis have been without a regular cellist and this has affected the performance of the remaining three. Not that their invited guest cellist on this occasion, Christopher van Kampen, is in any way lacking. In the Purcell, performed with light bows and light vibrato, Van Kampen provided a solidly anchored bass. But it was in the Bartok and Brahms that Van Kampen, time and again, displayed an unerring sense of style, focus and musical understanding with a range of colours that eluded the other three players. The Brindisi's first violin, Jacqueline Shave, has a formidable technique, no doubt, but there is a relentless quality where one phrase succeeds another without a sense of feeling or overall design. Where is the urgency, passion, risk and real musical communication?

Brahms's Quintet is one of the greatest romantic works of the 19th century. Its colours are its key. Douglas, for a player of his pedigree (a Tchaikovsky prize-winner), was notably restrained. Full throttle was used only occasionally, although at those moments - the end of the Scherzo and of the entire piece - the excitement was palpable.

Douglas ably captured in the slow movement that essential quality of bitter-sweet innocence. But the lack of pain and tension in the finale's opening said it all: no colours, no music.