Cadogan Hall *****

Though there were only three composers named on the programme, there was in fact a fourth hovering over proceedings, and that was Brahms, exerting a posthumous presence not only over two fledgling composers, Ireland and Vaughan Williams, but also over a well-established composer nearing the end of his life, Elgar.

In this wonderful programme in the acoustically- and comfort-friendly Cadogan Hall pianist Mark Bebbington and principals from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra gave heroically generous accounts of works from the first two above-named, and then an absolutely magnificent reading of Elgar’s Piano Quintet which in reminiscence disturbed my sleep and still haunts the memory.

John Ireland’s Phantasie Trio in A minor, written according to the tenets of William Cobbett’s chamber music competition, requiring a compact, single-movement multi-structured composition mirroring the works of English consort composers centuries earlier, begins bracingly, Brahmsian surges filigreed with a tinge of fashionable Frenchness. Cobbett’s requirements are more of a straitjacket than a backbone, however, and transitions seem unconvincing, with the conclusion to the rumbustious finale coming too quickly.

Bebbington’s pianism was compelling, drawing us into the Cadogan’s natural, accommodating acoustic, and the RPO players relished their freedom from orchestral ranks.

Listening to it blind, you would be hard pressed to identify the next offering, a 1903 Piano Quintet in C minor as by Vaughan Williams, speaking as it does in so many tongues, Brahms shoulder-pushing among them, the poor composer helpless to decide which of them is his.

The scoring is the same as that of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Benjamin Cunningham’s double bass here adding a sturdiness to the string unisons, and Bebbington’s piano articulation, now crisp, now full-throated, brought as much personality as could be found in this anodyne work. It is not surprising that the composer later withdrew it, and perhaps unfair that his widow agreed to its resuscitation towards the end of the last century. Scored for similar forces, Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge of 1909 proclaims much more of a well-found voice, his studies with Ravel kicking Brahms into touch.

But Brahms still cast a presence even up to the declining years of Elgar’s career, perhaps not so evident in the Violin Sonata and String Quartet, but certainly in the Piano Quintet which completed that magnificent chamber trilogy composed in Fittleworth, and which here received an absolutely tremendous performance from Bebbington and the RPO players, bringing their orchestral experience to the expansive generosity of the score.

There is certainly a Brahmsian subtext threatening to break through in the Quintet, but Elgar has so many novel surprises up his sleeve, beginning with the shadowy, pointillistic textures of the opening. This was a well-built account throughout, finding all the conviction of Elgar’s thrusting forward whilst cherishing his recourse to previous material during the progress of the three movements.

Bebbington brought an almost concerto-like personality to the piano writing, but another major feature in this reading was the ardent viola of Abigail Fenna, her tone properly forward in all the opportunities Elgar gives in the poignant endless valediction of the slow movement – making one wish he had written a viola sonata, also thinking back to the Canto Popolare of  In the South (a rhythm from that much earlier work permeating the finale here).

The players had provided their best advocacy for the material of the concert’s first half, but it was perhaps unfair to pit those works against this masterpiece, written with such a proud, confident voice.

Christopher Morley

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