This is a generously filled set, and at first glance the idea is appealing – a disc of chamber music for mixed ensembles from the Second Viennese School coupled with a separate disc containing three masterpieces from what one might call the First. In fact, the gap between these two discs isn’t just historical and it’s tempting to wonder whether Champs Hill originally intended to release them together. The Mozart and Beethoven pieces were recorded in 2012 and 2013, while the later works were laid down in 2015, though the venue (Champs Hill Music Room) and the performers are common to both.
Good news first: the second disc is a thoughtfully devised programme, performed with considerable conviction and style. The chamber-scale acoustic serves it well; and moments such as the fiendishly complex scherzo-like central section of the Schoenberg (recorded here in Webern’s elegant five-player reduction) come through with clarity and verve. In fact everything here has an unmistakable sense of forward movement, which means that the slower passages of the Berg and Schoenberg, while certainly atmospheric, never lose the sense of tension necessary in these big single-movement structures.
The real gem, though, is the Zemlinsky, a lovely showcase for the plangent cello tone of Thomas Carroll and Maximiliano Martín’s deep, chocolatey clarinet sound, ideally poised between Brahmsian lyricism, gypsy firelight and fin de siècle angst. A fresh, witty account of the Emperor Waltz finds a real sense of delight in Schoenberg’s sometimes startling rescoring.
I wish I could be as positive about the first disc, in which that energy becomes relentless and the playing occasionally lacks finesse. These performances have their moments – the double-act of Andrea De Flammineis on bassoon and Nicholas Korth’s horn in K452 is particularly engaging – but overall these are big, brash concert-hall interpretations that never fully relax, marred by the garishly bright upper register of Robin Milford’s piano. That’s just about passable in a work as extrovert as the Beethoven, but Mozart’s Quintet begs for more tenderness, and the Kegelstatt Trio – domestic music at its most intimate – absolutely demands it. A set of two halves, then: take your pick.