Nash Ensemble at Wigmore Hall – Elliott Carter 100th-Birthday Celebration

Cello Sonata
Scrivo in vento
Oboe Quartet
Enchanted Preludes
Figment IV [UK premiere]
Tempo e tempi

Claire Booth (soprano)

Nash Ensemble [Philippa Davies (flute), Gareth Hulse (oboe & cor anglais), Richard Hosford (clarinet & bass clarinet), Marianne Thorsen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Paul Watkins (cello), Duncan McTier (double bass), Lucy Wakeford (harp) & Ian Brown (piano)
Lionel Friend

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 25 March, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Elliott Carter (b. 11 Dec 1908)Whether in terms of commissioning new works or playing his existing music, the Nash Ensemble has done Elliott Carter proud during recent years. This concert in honour of his centenary (last December) provided a persuasive overview of his ensemble output, and it was a measure of Carter’s unflagging creative drive that only one of the works heard this evening had been written more than two decades ago.

It made sense, then, to open with the Cello Sonata (1948), the radical harmonic and rhythmic aspects of Carter’s mature idiom in close accord with the neo-classical cut of the themes and their evolution. Just as thought-provoking is the way that the initial Moderato actually concludes the developmental process – with the brusquely syncopated Vivace and eloquent Adagio being more orthodox in matters of form and expression, before the combative final Allegro closes in decidedly equivocal yet hardly illogical fashion. His initial reticence aside, Paul Watkins proved as insightful as the music required, while Ian Brown shaped the no-less-important piano part with comparable poise and impulsiveness.

As an interlude with purpose, Philippa Davies revelled in the very contrasted gestures and oblique continuity of the Petrarch-inspired Scrivo in vento (1991), before the ensemble once more did justice to the Nash-commissioned Mosaic (2004). A harp is first among equals here – Carter having spoken of his desire to explore techniques developed by the inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo. Not that these are deployed merely for effect; indeed, the piece evinces an almost continuous ‘through line’ around which evolves a discourse as inventive as it is diverting, with an incitement to disciplined virtuosity that the eight musicians, Lucy Wakeford in particular, seized on with grateful assurance.

The Nash Ensemble. ©Maurice J. BeznosAfter the interval, the Oboe Quartet (2001) presented a sequence of duets – acerbic and plaintive by turns – for oboe, violin, viola and cello: a Baroque combination that could never remotely be taken for pastiche, not least with the interaction of character-types so finely subsumed into the texture and the vitality of the musical argument never in doubt. Equally typical of such fluency is Enchanted Preludes (1988), one of the several dozen ‘tribute’ (though not necessarily ‘occasional’) pieces that the composer has penned over the last quarter-century – here with flute and cello heard intertwining in a sensuous instance of Carterian counterpoint and deftly dispatched by Davies and Watkins, while Lawrence Power was no less assured in the tensile velocity of Figment IV (2008).

It remained for “Tempo e Tempi” (1999) to round off the concert on an undoubted high. This is quite likely the deepest of Carter’s song-cycles in its eight diverse settings of three modern Italian poets – each of them dwelling on the transience of things in often imaginative and always affecting terms. Claire Booth projected the vocal line with requisite clarity, as well as a poignancy that was right for its context. Music of experience though this may be, its frankness and affirmation of poetic vision ensures that any speculation on the past is ultimately transcended by conviction toward the future.

As with the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s recent concert for Carter’s centenary, video clips of the composer introducing and reminiscing about each work complemented what was in the programme, besides providing the most engaging means of continuity between each item. Hopefully he will still be going strong come his 105th-birthday, and the Nash Ensemble will be there to mark it in like fashion.

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