The fourth annual chamber music festival devised by Christopher Rowland at the Royal Northern College of Music looked, on paper at any rate, the least ambitious. With few big-name performers – none of the exciting new Lieder talent to be found, say, at the Wigmore Hall – this year's focus on Schubert looked even flakier when some of the more attractive artists – Graham Johnson, Philip Langridge, David Owen Norris and Guy Johnston – pulled out. But that didn't deter 155 enthusiasts who signed up for the 17 first-division concerts and many smaller events in three-and-a-half days, or the large audiences who turned out more discriminately over the weekend.
A welcome hallmark of these festivals is the bringing together of the academic side and more practical elements. Complementing a variety of master classes, the leading Schubert specialist Brian Newbould shed light on the composer's compositional style, and the Manchester-based luthier Helen Michetschläger shared a few trade secrets on violin-making.
The packed programme, involving countless students and presenting a fair number of the composer's 600 songs with swaths of his chamber music, once again made Manchester a brighter place in one of the dreariest months. Taking one late-night example, the F minor Fantasie played by Martin Roscoe and Mark Ray had all the qualities of spontaneity and attention to details of phrasing and dynamics the composer would surely have considered himself fortunate to hear at one of his Schubertiades.
The most dazzling event was undoubtedly the concert in which two student quartets each tackled one of the best-known chamber works. They proved their uncommon musicality and demonstrated that long-established string quartets don't have a monopoly on the finer points of interpretation, dexterity and true intonation. In their unforgettable reading of Schubert's D minor Quartet Death and the Maiden, the Smart Quartet found its way right into the music's dark pathos and tension from the sombre opening notes – that harsh dry rattle introducing the all-important triplet rhythm running insistently through almost the whole work – to the frenzied tarantella that finally takes the listener careering towards the abyss. The performance was prefaced by an account of the song "Der Tod und das Mädchen"; the quartet's slow-movement variations on that theme were coloured and decorated most eloquently, particularly by Helena Smart on first violin and Lucy Payne on cello, without ever losing sight of their fatalistic source.
Standing in at short notice, Ralph Kirshbaum joined the Johnston Quartet as second cello in the C major String Quintet, modestly taking his lead from the quartet's remarkable first violin, Magnus Johnston. In their duetting octaves in the middle of the hauntingly beautiful slow movement and in the sombre trio of the scherzo, the pair sounded as if they had been playing together all their lives.
Partnered by his pupil Marie Bittloch, Kirshbaum uninhibitedly embraced the warm sound of the combined cellos, in both the opening movement's second theme and briefly in the finale. For their sense of the quintet's emotional ambiguity between light and dark, tranquillity and high drama, the players more than deserved the standing ovation from an audience among whose numbers even the hardened professionals and most impassive critics were moved and impressed.
I wish the same could be said for what should have been a high point of the weekend but, as sometimes happens with the best of performers, the Endellion Quartet seemed to be having an off night. They were plagued by some uncharacteristically uncertain tuning in the melancholy A minor Quartet, here introduced by the song to which its minuet refers, a stanza from Schiller's "Die Götter Griechenlands" ("The Greek Gods"). The turn to the major in Schubert's trio coincides with the words "Kehre wieder" ("Come back once again"). Not a thrilling prospect but fortunately, after the interval, they seemed more settled in Schubert's G major last quartet, once described as "facing the ridge of Beethoven's late quartets on the opposite side of the valley" and inspiring some of the qualities that distinguished the Endellions' marvellous performance of Beet- hoven's B flat Quartet Op 130 with the Grosse Fuge finale at last year's festival.