RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet

Terry Blain is impressed by a rarely performed Beethoven quintet and an appearance by viola maestro Nobuku Imai

In an age of virtually instant online access to any cultural artefact you care to think of, is there really such a thing as a neglected masterpiece?

The hard-nosed answer is probably no. Most of what is ultimately rejected artistically is rejected for a reason, namely that it simply isn’t good enough to warrant repeated investigation.

And yet, as I listen to the first half of the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet’s Moving on Music recital at the MAC in Belfast, that heard-it-all, seen-it-all, know-what-I-like-and-why-I-like-it type of certainty begins to waver. How on earth, I wonder, has Beethoven’s 'Op. 29 String Quintet' managed to escape my attention these past three decades?

The work comes immediately after the 'Op. 18 String Quartets' in Beethoven’s chamber output, and has languished in their masterly shadow. It’s a less obviously extroverted, attention-grabbing piece of music: that, and the logistical difficulties of mounting quintet performances (you need to find, hire and pay an extra player) probably puts promoters off the idea of staging the quintet more often.

It’s precisely the differences in tone between 'Op. 29' and its quartet predecessors that the Vanbrugh players catch so beautifully in this performance. First violinist Gregory Ellis’s sweetly songful statement of the opening thematic material sets a tone of thoughtful intimacy that pervades the entire interpretation.

There’s wit and ebullience in the quintet, certainly, but it’s generally less explicitly communicated than in the 'Op.18' quartets. The Vanbrughs are constantly alive to this, and avoid over-stating the bounce and brio of the Scherzo with the kind of mindlessly aggressive accenting that disfigures too much contemporary Beethoven playing.

The Adagio is alluringly lyrical, cellist Christopher Marwood’s softly weighted pizzicatos at the opening one among many moments to savour. And the Vanbrugh’s guest for the evening, Nobuku Imai, has little of consequence to do but stitch in the extra tonal texturing provided by Beethoven’s undemanding part for second viola.

After the interval, however, Imai features briefly in 'Dialogue for Viola', a solo item by Dublin-born composer John Kinsella. The piece is virtually bi-polar in its blunt juxtapositions of gruff staccato figurations on the lower strings with keening, more reflective material in the upper.

It’s in the gentler sections particularly that Imai reminds her Belfast audience exactly why, as she approaches 70, she retains a reputation as one classical music’s most eminent viola players. The depth of tone that she elicits from the instrument, and the poised elegance of her phrasing, seem uneroded by the decades.

Brahms’s 'Second String Quintet (Op. 111)' concludes the concert. Not even the finesse and sensitivity of Imai and the four Vanbrugh players can totally conceal the fact that Joseph Joachim, a friend of Brahms who advised him to thin down the scoring at the work’s opening – giving the glorious cello melody more prominence – was probably a better judge of the passage than he was.

Cellist Christopher Marwood again phrases with great tastefulness and eloquence, but is over-faced by the rich-toned, burgeoning accompaniment of the other four instruments. Not his fault, certainly: the necessary sense of balance is probably much easier to achieve on the lighter, pure-gut strings of Brahms’s period, than on the heavier, steel-based strings more common in our own.

Overall, though, it’s another excellent performance, capped by a rollicking account of the concluding ‘Vivace, ma non troppo presto’ movement, which snaps and swaggers with the csárdás rhythms of Hungarian gypsy music.

It’s the Beethoven quintet, though, that really makes the concert – a revelatory interpretation, and a salutary reminder that, even in a globally wired-up era enabling blanket coverage of virtually everything, there are still surprises waiting round the corner artistically, with groups as enterprisingly proficient as the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet waiting to spring them.