Review: Hebrides Ensemble

First published in the Guardian on 6 May, 2014

Perth Concert Hall

Just two works made up this lunchtime programme, an intriguing pairing of music by Thomas Ades and Johannes Brahms. Both men were in their early 30s when they composed their piano quintets and their vying energy went well together: Ades’s beguilingly finespun one-movement work of 2001 next to Brahms’s muscular, sprawlingly romantic F-minor epic of 1864.

Ades’s quintet is a gem, full of gossamer textures and timeless themes that glimmer just out of reach like beacons in a haar. It’s fastidiously constructed, with intricately shifting rhythms and a structure so classical it seems almost radical, but it isn’t rigid, and the interlacing filigree needs a gentle flux that the Hebrides wasn’t able to muster. Part of the problem might be that the group doesn’t stick to a regular line-up; its membership seems to change for almost every programme. Individual players are superb (here the line-up included violinist Alexander Janiczek, whose pristine, silvery tone was perfect for Ades’s luminous writing) but they didn’t achieve the intuitive ebb-and-flow of musicians who work together all the time.

Their performance of the Brahms likewise never quite synthesized. This score needs a dark, musky sound that’s supported from the bass, not led by the treble, yet Janiczek was easily the most powerful player on the stage. Melodic lines passed too formally between the players and there was a jarring aggression to the propulsive Scherzo. Philip Moore is a pianist of real fortitude and his Andante theme was beautifully stated – unfussy and eloquent. But the group’s finale had a forced swagger that left an easy after taste. Sometimes it feels as though this work is bigger than the forces for which it’s written; it takes an ensemble of serious brawn and ardency to conjure its voltage, and on this occasion, the Hebrides wasn’t that ensemble.