Dreamers of Dreams – Nash Ensemble with Mark Padmore and Craig Ogden at Wigmore Hall [Songs from the Chinese, The Curlew]

Vaughan Williams
Suite de Ballet for Flute and Piano
Divertimento for Flute, Oboe and Clarinet, Op.37
Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano, Op.23
Three Folksong Arrangements for Tenor and Guitar
I Wonder as I Wander, for Tenor and Oboe

Quintet for Oboe and Strings
Salut d’amour, Op.12; Chanson de nuit, Op.15/1; Chanson de matin, Op.15/2
The Curlew
Songs from the Chinese, Op.58
Vaughan Williams
String Quartet in C minor

Mark Padmore (tenor)

Craig Ogden (guitar)

Nash Ensemble [Ian Brown (piano), Marianne Thorsen & Laura Samuel (violins), Lawrence Power (viola), Paul Watkins (cello), Philippa Davies (flute), Gareth Hulse (oboe & cor anglais) and Richard Hosford (clarinet)]

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 12 January, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Nash Ensemble. © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPALAlthough a brace of tickets was required, this was in effect one long concert with two intervals. As a buffet of twentieth-century English music it was laden with rich delights, mixing familiar fare (Finzi, Elgar) with lesser-known items such as the Vaughan Williams works that framed the evening. Four hours flew by in a trice as the polished and endlessly permutable Nash Ensemble kept ennui at bay through canny programming and some immaculate performances.

Arnold Bax’s Oboe Quintet (1922) is a powerfully atmospheric work whose opening movement inhabits a landscape midway between Fauré and Ravel, albeit shaded with elusive tints of Ireland. These Celtic undertones come into greater focus during the overwhelmingly beautiful Lento espressivo which follows, an episode of serene peace led by a wistful oboe melody (played with heartbreaking plangency by Gareth Hulse) which gives way to a dancing finale of myriad colours. While it is always a joyful moment to realise one is discovering a masterpiece, to do so in a performance as superlative as this makes for an experience that is quite delirious and, I anticipate, unforgettable.

The Nash Ensemble’s starry line-up of string-players had less luck with their advocacy of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s early (1898) String Quartet in C minor. The opening Allegro starts promisingly, tripping along in an angular progression, but it goes nowhere and its meagre material offers little sense of the symphonic master its composer would become. To compensate for his lack of a personal voice (then), Vaughan Williams resorts to the courtly option, invoking Elizabethan viols in the inner movements and ending on an unduly grandiose theme-and-variation finale. It was sad for such a royal evening of musical fireworks to end on a damp squib, but plenty of memorable moments had gone before.

Malcolm Arnold’s Divertimento is diverting indeed: six movements of pure entertainment that include a charming Andantino whose lyrical oboe melody is accompanied by a delicious rocking accompaniment on flute and clarinet. The incredible Hulse was joined by Philippa Davies and Richard Hosford, fine players both but neither on top form for their solo offerings. Davies’s playing was smudgy in RVW’s Suite de ballet and Hosford proved characterless in Gerald Finzi’s Bagatelles, a much-loved set of miniatures that demands a rather more suave approach.

It was brave of Marianne Thorsen and Ian Brown to place Elgar’s trio of popular violin-and-piano miniatures straight after the substantial Bax and immediately before Peter Warlock’s grim song-cycle The Curlew, but in the event they made a well-judged bonne bouche. Thorsen, who presented the two Chansons in the published order (though they were listed erroneously the programme), played all three enchantingly with an ideal combination of elegance, sturdiness and tonal sweetness.

Mark PadmoreCraig Ogden. Photograph: www.craigogden.comMark Padmore and Craig Ogden gave a rare outing to Britten’s Opus 58, a cycle whose title promises an exoticism the music does not deliver, nor attempts to. The astonishing thing about the Songs from the Chinese is the timelessness of the verses, for these are translations (by Arthur Waley) of poems that existed centuries before the birth of Christ. Indeed, one, ‘The Old Lute’, is a hymn of nostalgia for “ancient melodies” – ancient, that is, to the people of China almost three thousand years ago. Hard to imagine! Padmore’s voice had a youthful sheen and there was a startling beauty to his high notes; he sounded younger and fresher than he has on recent occasions and he revelled in music whose nature is more discursive than melodic. Ogden, for his part, was a forthright and sympathetic accompanist both here and in Britten’s folksong threesome (taken from Volume 6).

Despite its ornithological title, The Curlew is far from being a slice of English pastoral life. The poems, for a start, are by that quintessential Irishman W. B. Yeats, and with their evocation of desolation they are to wildfowl what Schubert’s ‘Der Leiermann’ is to a travelling circus. Peter Warlock’s extraordinary sequence, surely his greatest achievement, is doom-laden, bleak and spectral – music that mourns – and Padmore and the Nash Ensemble gave a shattering sense of its despair. “The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams” sings the poet. What could those dreams possibly have been? One dreads to think.

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