Hough/Endellion Quartet – review

Wigmore Hall, London

It was a coincidence, Stephen Hough announced before the final concert of his current Wigmore residency, that he had come up with an all-English programme for the Jubilee weekend. If so, it was nevertheless an inspired one, since all three parts of this richly interesting programme spoke powerfully to the private and melancholy side of the English sensibility, rather than to the public pomp and pageantry elsewhere in town.

Hough's generous sense of keyboard history ensured there was nothing antiquarian about his restrained playing of three Byrd keyboard pieces. These started with the short Galliard Jig of 1591 and the beguiling Callino Casturame from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, and culminated in Hugh Aston's Ground, in which Hough was unafraid to use the full range of pianistic colour and expressive techniques to make his case that these variations should be seen as the first great keyboard work of the European tradition.

Britten's third and final string quartet, on the other hand, may eventually come to be seen as one of the last significant utterances of another long tradition. Written in the final year of his life following heart surgery and the completion of Death in Venice, this stripped-down quartet, with its sometimes raw-toned and bare instrumental lines, is a fragile and yet curiously confident work. The Endellion Quartet's unflinching performance managed to achieve an austere unity out of the work's parts.

Elgar's piano quintet, which brought all the musicians together after the interval, is in some senses also a stripped-down work. The string writing looks back to Brahms, and there are some particularly expressive autumnal passages for the viola, but this performance emphasised the unease that haunts the music from its opening bars. Though the quintet finishes in a blaze of resolution, the bright ferocity of Hough's playing of the piano part emphasised the troubled harmonic currents that always flow through this striving score.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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