Nash Ensemble Celebrations!

Two Baudelaire Songs for soprano and ensemble [World première] *
Sinfonietta, Op.1
Piano Quartet in G minor, K478
Debussy trans. Walter
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Piano Quintet in A, D667 (Trout)

Sally Matthews (soprano) *

Nash Ensemble
Lionel Friend *

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 23 October, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

If boyhood memory serves correctly, Frank Sinatra had a ‘hit’ in the 1960s with a song entitled “Strangers in the Night”. I mention this curiosity since “Harmonie du soir” – the first of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Two Baudelaire Songs – begins with a phrase in the piano that is, co-incidentally or otherwise, identical to the music that fits the words of the title of the Kaempfert/Singleton/Snyder number. This was, not surprisingly, a degree disconcerting. Turnage’s approach to these poems is, on the whole, rather restrained and in contrast to the quite aggressive sounds which often characterise his music. But what might be termed a ‘lyrical’ approach does not reveal anything especially distinctive or melodically memorable. Neither is the particular imagery of the poetry matched by any significant musical illumination. To be sure, there is some effective writing, with evocative string harmonies being especially notable. In “L’invitation au voyage”, Turnage invites comparison with Henri Duparc. This new setting had a lighter mood from that of its companion piece, with a relaxed atmosphere and, again, some characteristic accompanimental writing, such as a pizzicato texture towards the end, but I waited in vain for the “lonely monody where time is suspended, reaching into infinity” promised by the effusive programme note.

Encountering Sally Matthews live was something of a disappointment. Her mezzo-ish tone is warm, though cloudy on occasions, but her French diction was not ideal. Lionel Friend conducted with his customary care and diligence. Indeed, from the interpretative and playing aspects, this seemed to be a well-nigh-impeccable première. A pity the music wasn’t more distinguished.

Benjamin Britten was less than half Turnage’s present age – a mere 18 in fact – when he completed his Sinfonietta for ten instruments in 1932. Ironically, by the side of the new work, Britten’s invention seemed much more fresh and vital, the three movements developed with clarity and purpose, and it was interesting to detect shadows – however fleeting – of works that were to come. Perhaps it is no co-incidence that Britten used this instrumental combination – wind quintet and string quintet – as the foundation of the scoring for his chamber operas. The conductor-less Nash Ensemble gave a deft performance, fully alert to the varied textures and felicitations of a work which must have seemed very strange to its first audience, being quite ‘un-English’ in its overall mood and sonority.

The first half of this quite substantial programme concluded with Mozart’s remarkable G minor Piano Quartet, in which we were able to savour the musicianship of pianist Ian Brown. The sense of interplay between piano and strings was infectious, with the players readily responsive to one another, which was evidence of committed and meticulous preparation; yet the music never failed to sound spontaneous. The repose of the Andante was poised in perfect contrast to the serious mien of the first and the fresh sparkle of the final movements.

Debussy’s Faune was given in a transcription for chamber ensemble by David Walter. This was expertly made, though I failed, frankly, to see the point of it or, for that matter, its raison d’être in this particular programme. Of course, it was scrupulously performed, with Philippa Davies’s flute expressive and mellifluous, but reducing Debussy’s expectations lessened the impact of the composer’s original intentions.

To conclude, Schubert’s verdant ‘Trout’ Quintet received a winning performance. As in the Mozart, the interaction between the ensemble was a joy to behold. The players revelled in the Schubert’s lyrical inspiration – even the double bass sang via Duncan McTier’s hands – yet the whole had impressive integrity. Tempos were aptly judged, the scherzo benefiting from having a degree of almost Beethovenian weight.

To perform ‘classics’ in a totally unhackneyed way, alongside more recent repertoire with conviction is an attribute that marks out the Nash Ensemble as an exceptional body. This concert was part of its 40th-Anniversary Celebrations, and one that demonstrated many fine qualities, both collectively and individually.

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