Schubert Ensemble of London | Purcell Room London

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The Independent Culture

The Schubert Ensemble of London takes its cue, and its name, from the line-up for Schubert's Trout Quintet (violin, viola, cello, double-bass and piano). So at its foundation in 1983, it was faced with the problem that meets any unusual combination of instruments: there was almost nothing for them to play. So they set about remedying the deficiency by commissioning new works. They have now added over 25 pieces to the repertoire, usually sandwiching them in concert between more familiar items from the ranks of the piano quartet.

The Schubert Ensemble of London takes its cue, and its name, from the line-up for Schubert's Trout Quintet (violin, viola, cello, double-bass and piano). So at its foundation in 1983, it was faced with the problem that meets any unusual combination of instruments: there was almost nothing for them to play. So they set about remedying the deficiency by commissioning new works. They have now added over 25 pieces to the repertoire, usually sandwiching them in concert between more familiar items from the ranks of the piano quartet.

This Purcell Room recital threw such caution to the wind by showcasing some of their recent commissions. One, that is now established, was Michael Berkeley's 1985 'For the Savage Messiah', a brooding amalgam of driving, dissonant power with a brittle, nervous lyricism.

The standard of the new crop was fairly high, almost all of it instantly appealing - and some of it even memorable. Graham Fitkin's opening quintet, 'MacGuffin' (1999), filled a simple arch-shape with lyrical material that grew out of, and sank back into, a four-note phrase in the piano and pizzicato strings via a lusty, jazz-perfumed climax.

Piers Hellawell's 1998 quartet 'The Building of Curves', inspired by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, offered meatier material, its first movement a heady blend of energy and ecstasy and the second a keening lament saffroned with soft hints of Spain.

Howard Skempton's 'Spadesborne Suite', almost exactly five years old, consists of three easy-going, jokey miniatures for piano with pizzicato string counterpoint - all over before you've had time to realise that Skempton has been gently pulling your leg.

Martin Butler's 'American Rounds' (1998) headed back west for its material, infusing its textures with the crisp rhythms of American folk music, with hints of a Billings hymn in the third movement and a yaa-hoo hoe-down to round the piece off.

True to form, the Schubert Ensemble included two premieres here. Paradoxically, the oldest-sounding work of the evening, 'Undoings', came from the youngest composer present, Lee Dunmeavy, born in 1979. His disconnected gestures, framed by silence, might have passed muster in the early '70s but they're old hat now.

And 'L'an mil', by Edward Rushton, second-youngest of the company, was probably the best of the lot: a millennial fantasy depicting the eschatological predictions of a mediaeval monk, an urgent solo cello cresting into a coda of expanding calm when he awakes to find that the world has not ended. Rushton is, plainly, a man to watch.

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