The Vanbrugh with Michael McHale and Malachy Robinson, at Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, on 28 January 2020

While it’s a chilly night out by the coast, there’s a convivial warmth in the Pavilion as the audience gathers. When violinist Gregory Ellis retired from the Vanbrugh Quartet in 2017, the three remaining players (Keith Pascoe, violin; Simon Aspell, viola; Christopher Marwood, cello) decided to stick together as simply The Vanbrugh. Having moved away from string quartet playing, they now explore new chamber collaborations, and we’re about to hear the latest of these, as the ‘Trout Tour’ reaches Co. Dublin. With Michael McHale (piano) and Malachy Robinson (double-bass) joining them, there is plenty for tonight’s nearly-full house to look forward to. Before the start, however, there is an unexpected announcement: Simon Aspell, suddenly indisposed, is tonight replaced by Adèle Johnson, principal viola with the National Symphony Orchestra.

If there are any nerves with today’s sudden change of personnel, it doesn’t show. McHale and the Vanbrugh open with the Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor by Brahms. The nervy energy and drama of the work’s opening is matched by committed playing, the four working together to invigorating effect. Each player has a moment to shine, with McHale projecting a wonderful sense of focus and impassioned attention in his playing, underpinning a cohesive sound from across the ensemble. There are many moments to enjoy. The only thing one could have wished for was a more sympathetic acoustic than what the Pavilion has to offer, which is frustratingly dry, the space almost sucking energy from the music.

The programme’s main feature follows the interval with Schubert’s superb Piano Quintet in A, known as ‘the Trout Quintet’ after its use of Schubert’s original song. The deep glow of Robinson’s bass makes an immediate difference, transforming the scope and balance of the ensemble, and freeing Marwood’s cello to become an ‘inner’ voice within the texture. The bell-like chords of the opening set the scene beautifully, and the players’ stylish sense of phrasing and colour draw us into a richly lyrical world of expression, the music both compelling and joyful. The variations on ‘The Trout’ in the fourth movement are played thoughtfully and with instinctive good humour, propelling us into a brilliantly-lit account of the finale. Responding to warm applause, the ensemble offers a timely encore in the form of an arrangement of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ from his Ninth Symphony, marking both a significant birthday and the week’s politics as a wry parting-shot. And it made you realise that what the world might just need is simply more piano quintets, especially with this combination – a great night out.

Brahms: Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60
Schubert: Piano Quintet in A major, D667 ‘The Trout’
The Vanbrugh, with Michael McHale (piano) and Malachy Robinson (double-bass)