Ophelia Dances, Op.13
Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker
Cantus Iambeus [World premiere]
Mosaic [World premiere]
A voice to wake [World premiere]
Poetry Nearing Silence
Claron McFadden (soprano)
Paul Watkins (cello)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 16 March, 2005
Venue: Purcell Room, London
A near capacity house greeted this latest concert in the Nash Ensemble’s 40th Anniversary season – comprising three new commissions, the revival of two earlier commissions and an ensemble classic. Most keenly anticipated was the premiere of a recently completed piece by Elliott Carter. Mosaic is a title that might readily be applied to other works by a composer whose indebtedness to Stravinsky has never been other than thoughtfully re-creative. The harp is very much ‘first among equals’ among the eight instruments – Carter having spoken of his desire to explore techniques developed by inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo, who had a significant presence on the New York music scene of the period.
Not that these pungent and physical techniques are deployed for effect; indeed, the piece displays a factor common to most of Carter’s recent works in its almost continuous ‘through line’, around which evolves a discourse both inventive and diverting. Thus robust initial exchanges coalesce into a scurrying section whose energy spills over into a passage of hushed inner intensity, before tension is released in an explosive toccata-like episode and capped by brusque gestures across the whole ensemble. All typically Carterian – deftly achieved over 10 minutes and with an incitement to disciplined virtuosity such as the Nash, and harpist Lucy Wakeford in particular, seized on with grateful assurance. Good to see Carter, 96 at the end of last year, still in rude health and able to enjoy the applause: hopefully he will be present when the BBC devotes its annual Barbican weekend to his music next January.
A further new commission was provided by Colin Matthews, whose “A voice to wake” sets verse of apocalyptic imagery by the late nineteenth-century Scots poet John Davidson. Lines so alive with striking imagery require vocal delivery of a high order, and found it in Claron McFadden’s fearless stamina. Unfortunately, the word-setting itself was pretty mundane – the foursquare manner often at odds with the pliable, engaging interplay that Matthews draws from the ensemble. A pity his vocal works often seem to be affected thus: he might profit from having heard Harrison Birtwistle’s “Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker” (2000), whose near-inscrutable evoking of incident builds in a sequence of arched intensity to a central expressive apex. McFadden’s soulful restraint found a perfect complement in the sparing counterpoint (hardly accompaniment as such) of the cello part, sensitively rendered by Paul Watkins. Small-scale it may be, but Birtwistle has written nothing finer during the last decade.
The concert also provided a welcome opportunity to revisit one of Julian Anderson’s most inventive and entertaining scores. A “Divertimento after Tom Phillips”, Poetry Nearing Silence (1997), for instrumental septet, draws on the artist’s unorthodox conception of palimpsests, in a sequence of eight short movements which explore various angles of the relationship – if such it is – between words and sounds, in music ranging from Feldmanesque calm to visceral folk-music evocations and oblique homage to past masters. The degree to which Anderson achieves an expressive diversity through the demands of instrumental unity is paralleled a generation earlier by Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia Dances (1975), though this classic of the mixed ensemble genre was not best served by a reading that undersold the variety of motion accumulating over the four dances, and which felt becalmed rather than serene in the lengthy coda.
The conclusion to the evening came with a further commission: Birtwistle’s Cantus Iambeus is the latest in a series of pieces whose initial stratification of texture and rhythm is progressively blown apart as the music pursues a well-defined and only superficially predictable course. In this case, the increasingly virtuosic interplay is cut short after barely seven minutes – suggesting the premise for a work that so far has barely been set in motion. Hopefully Birtwistle will continue it at some stage, and the Nash will endow it with the conviction evident throughout this diverse and rewarding evening.