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For Schubert, distinction knows no boundaries

London ensemble expands its slim, signature repertoire with ease.

January 24, 2003|Josef Woodard | Special to The Times

Saving the best for last, the rightfully esteemed Schubert Ensemble of London gave a bold and nuanced reading of its namesake's "Trout" Quintet after intermission Wednesday at The Irvine Barclay Theatre. Schubert's famed quintet, bolstered in the low end by double bass, came alive in a way that revitalized a chestnut while showcasing the group's strengths.

A signature piece for the ensemble, the "Trout" emerged with focused gusto in the playing but also a fealty to the whole as much as the parts. It was a tribute to the early Romantic language of Schubert and the very spirit of ensemble playing.

The 20-year-old chamber group is not only about polishing up old work, however, as the opener demonstrated. Martin Butler's "American Rounds," written in 1998, is one of many new works commissioned through the Schubert, partly as a way of expanding the slim repertory for the double bass-fortified quintet format. Extra weight below, from the cello and bass forces, seems an integral and grounding part of Butler's work, based loosely on American folk and vernacular influences. Hearing Butler's designs, one thinks reflexively of Aaron Copland and Steve Reich, but they also boast a stylistic stamp, perhaps the result of the British composer's European filter. It teems with dancing rhythms, open harmonies and an emotional character somewhere north of hope-tinged melancholy.

Between the new music and the sturdy "Trout" came another rousing performance: Dvorak's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat, Opus 87. Pared down to a foursome, the ensemble offered a typically dynamic interpretation without sacrificing poise.

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