Both Mendelssohn and Mahler, it seems, wrote some remarkable music while still in their teens. Mendelssohn's is largely still extant, and includes some of his best work, whereas Mahler, sadly, destroyed most of his early scores. Judging from the early Piano Quartet movement with which the Schubert Ensemble opened their concert, this is a severe loss indeed. Its sombre, dark-hued opening, beautifully characterised in this performance, instantly foreshadows much that was to come in the Mahler we know and love; bravado piano octaves and a strain of lyrical passion give us a glimpse of the 16-year-old composer's intensity and energy. Commissioned in 1988 to complete the fragmentary Scherzo of the piece left by Mahler, Alfred Schnittke indulged his vein of post-modern fantasy and produced a movement that is like a refracted image of the original material, with close weaving melodic lines, thunderous bass pedals, clusters and eerie glissandi creating a surreal effect. Playing the Schnittke directly after the Mahler movement risked some confusion for any programmeless members of the audience, but the Schubert Ensemble brought this unusual item off magnificently, achieving a convincingly explosive build-up to the great piano resonance out of which the original Mahler fragment enigmatically emerged.
We were presented with even more precocity in Mendelssohn's Piano Quartet No. 3, op.3, produced when the composer was a hardened veteran of 15. The brooding first movement recalled the Mahler but from the lyrical Andante onwards, Mendelssohn's gift for the light fantastic and his youthful energy were much to the fore.
Brahms was only 28 when he wrote his second Piano Quartet, and seems to have been in sunny mood at the time. This massive piece is virtually a symphony in disguise, and has many a pre-echo of later and better-known music. The piano's opening fanfare-like figure leads on to characteristic three-against-two workings, contrasted with the expansive second theme, and all is brought to a convincing conclusion in time for a radiant slow movement, played here with infectious rapture, where Brahms's lilting lullaby manner gives way to greater passion, led by the piano. The pleasant intermezzo-like Scherzo gives way to a rumbustious finale reminiscent of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, brought off with great panache and assurance by the Schubert Ensemble; a haunting Song Without Words of Eric Korngold made a fitting conclusion to this cheering programme of young men's music.