The Ficino Ensemble at John Field Room, National Concert Hall, on 18 August 2016

The Ficino Ensemble continues its series in the John Field Room with a concert featuring just one work: the much-loved String Quintet in C by Franz Schubert. After the other-worldly ecstasies of last week’s programme – Messiaen’s extraordinary Quartet for the End of Time – this late masterpiece of Schubert brings the group back to the very heart of the classical Viennese repertoire. It’s a great work, and a longer play than some symphonies.

From the start, the quintet’s gentle opening creates an immediate effect, like casting a spell, and the audience remains quiet and absorbed throughout the work – it’s that kind of piece. We are rewarded with moments of exquisite stillness, and some good teamwork from the five players. The muted greys of the third movement’s ‘trio’ section create a wonderful effect, the sonic equivalent of shifting clouds. This, as well as the drive of both the main scherzo and the finale (with its dancing swagger), show some good instincts at work from the ensemble.

However, across all four movements there are repeated lapses in intonation and also timing, which suggests that the players are not yet at home with this work. Balance is also problematic, with the texture top-heavy at times. The celebrated slow movement comes across as being, if anything, too slow, with little advantage to show for it. Engagement with the rhetorical points of the music is frustratingly limited, and there is a lack of leadership and responsiveness. It is as if the players are only dropping into the work, just playing the notes rather than sounding it ‘from within’ or giving a sense of a vision of the piece as a whole.

Performing this quintet is a challenge for any group and here unfortunately it exposes weaknesses in the ensemble, which will have to be addressed if it is to develop in a coherent fashion. Even as a work-in-progress, though, there is still much to enjoy, and real promise.


Schubert: String Quintet in C major, D.956