Ficino Ensemble at the John Field Room, National Concert Hall, on 4 August 2016

The Ficino Ensemble opens its first concert series in the John Field Room to a full house, putting to rest (for today at least) the idea that chamber music is a minority interest. While staff put out extra seats for latecomers, there is a buzz of expectation as the audience await relatively unknown music by two otherwise familiar composers. The Ficinos specialise in enterprising programming and today’s concert is no exception.

Despite their excellence, Beethoven’s Op. 9 trios are the kinds of works that get written about more often than heard or played. The balance between the three instruments is somehow more difficult to maintain than in a string quartet, challenging for composer and players alike. In the String Trio in D, the ensemble creates a distinctive sound, transparent and carefully poised but without losing the natural warmth of instrumental colour. Elaine Clark makes light work of the tricky violin part, her tone well-matched by Nathan Sherman (viola) and cellist Ailbhe McDonagh.

After the light, unassuming suavity of the Beethoven, the density of Richard Strauss’ early Piano Quartet in C minor makes for a strong contrast. For a composer known for his songs, orchestral tone poems and lush operas, this rare piece proves to be more than just a curiosity, with tantalising hints of later works to come. For this the three string players are joined by pianist Lance Coburn. At times Coburn, faced with a virtuoso part, seems less assured in his own playing than the others, but this doesn’t detract from the rich sense of sweeping and playful energy of the ensemble as a whole. Particularly telling is the beautifully sustained playing of the slow third movement, ending with a strange fore-taste of Der Rosenkavalier in the violin’s motto-like interjections. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, this is a good opening to the ensemble’s lunchtime series.


Ludwig van Beethoven: String Trio in D major, Op. 9 no. 2

Richard Strauss: Piano Quartet in C minor, Op. 13