On Thurs 20 October, musicians from London’s Philharmonia Orchestra performed chamber music in the Royal Festival Hall of the Southbank Centre as part of the Philharmonia’s Chamber Music Series.
The works performed were Brahms’s String Sextet No. 1 in B flat, Op. 18 and Schubert’s String Quartet in C minor, D.703 (Quartettsatz). The spacious hall gave life to these Romantic-era pieces that were performed with skill and poise.
Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin), Fiona Cornall (violin), Samuel Burstin (viola), and Richard Birchall (cello) began the evening with the Schubert Quartet. It opened with a brilliant crescendo, from hushed tremolo that grew increasingly urgent and voluminous into a full-fledged sound, which then transitioned into the lyrical theme of the quartet.
Much of the seven minute performance was spent transitioning between the singing melodies and tense buzzing of strings, which many scholars would assert was meant to embody the coldness of weather in the music. Mastery of technique was on full display, as contrast in dynamics and abrupt shifts in tone and character demanded a high level of technical skills and musicianship. The recurring themes grounded the performance, even when new ideas were introduced.
With just one movement, this piece was never completed, which actually adds to its uniqueness as it joins the rank of other partially completed works (such as the famous Unfinished Symphony, also by Schubert).
Cheremie Hamilton-Miller (viola) and Anne Baker (cello) joined the other musicians on the stage for the Brahms Sextet. Because of the addition of two lower-register instruments, the sextet had a deeper and fuller sound than the quartet. Having four movements, Brahms’s work took advantage of its instrumentation and explored many different combinations of sounds, accomplishing contrasts such as somberness and playfulness. This created a brilliant range of the kinds of possibilities that could be created with the specific set of instruments that the sextet required.
Chamber music is unique because it is all about nuance and interactions between individual instruments and performers such as eye contact and complementary body language. Dialogue between the parts, the exchange of melodies with accompaniment, the musical give and take, are all visible in the physical movements seen on the stage.
Schubert was a huge influence on Brahms, as is evident when listening to the final movement of the Brahms sextet. In fact, Schubert’s quartet was published posthumously, and the man who published it was Brahms.
The audience was later told that the first violinist, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay, was actually filling in last minute for his colleague who had caught a rather nasty cold and could not perform. He put on such a good performance that no one would have suspected the last-minute swap had it not been mentioned.