Nash Ensemble Concert – 15th December

Sinfonietta, Op.1
French Folksongs – Fileuse; Le roi s’en va-t’en chasse; Il est quelqu’un sur terre
Les Illuminations
Piano Trio in D minor

Joan Rodgers (soprano)
Ian Brown (piano)
Nash Ensemble conducted by Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 15 December, 2001
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Nash Ensemble’s series, “Les Illuminations”, to mark the 25th anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s death has characteristically included a wide variety of composers. This time the focus was more on ’the man himself’ with a performance of the work lending this series its name and proved an interesting programme of diverse influences on Britten and his music.

The concert opened with Britten’s Opus One, the Sinfonietta, a work I certainly admire (who couldn’t admire such extraordinary compositional virtuosity from an 18-year-old!), but I have not found that attractive. However, this incisive, unconducted performance showed the music to be ingenious – full of wit, sparkle, adventure and not a little profundity.

The ’French Connection’ came to the fore with three of Britten’s French folk-settings performed by Joan Rodgers and Ian Brown. The programme note described the piano parts as ’’miracles of imagination and invention” – in the hands of a pianist as experienced as Ian Brown they certainly are. I think it was Constant Lambert who once declared that there was only so much one could do with a folk-song – “play it once and then repeat it an octave higher” – but Ian Brown conjured up Britten’s evocation of hunting horns in the second song, ’The King is gone a-hunting’, a spinning-wheel in the first, ’Spinster’, and the sad passage of time in the third, ’There’s someone in my fancy’. Joan Rodgers seemed to take some time to find her voice; and in the first song the balance between voice and piano was far from ideal, but thereafter much improved.

The first half of the concert ended with one of Faure’s last works, the Piano Trio, his only work in this genre, written at the age of 77. I cannot imagine why Faure’s chamber music is not better known. Although it is true to say that it does not reveal its qualities easily – not flashy in any way, restrained, civilised … maybe I have answered my own question! I certainly find more in Faure every time I hear him – this fine performance of the Piano Trio by Marianne Thorsen, Richard Lester and Ian Brown penetrated convincingly beneath the notes. The strings soared over the rippling (and very awkward) piano accompaniments in the first movement and the players responded with enthusiasm to the sometimes surprising, almost Bartokian energy of the finale – the closing pages, which swing unexpectedly into the major key, were exhilarating.

The Nash’s harpist, Skaila Kanga, having gone down with flu the night before, we were denied the chance to hear a Nash party-piece, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. Phillipa Davies gamely stepped in to play Debussy’s little classic, Syrinx, performed, as at the premiere apparently, in darkness!

The final work brought a very cramped stage – the conductor Martyn Brabbins, the cream of British string players and Joan Rodgers to perform Britten’s early song-cycle, Les Illuminations. With musicians of the calibre of Pauline Lowbury, Gina McCormack, Richard Lester and Lawrence Power in the orchestra, one would only expect playing of great character and virtuosity. This, however, was almost to the detriment of the performance – for the balance in the small hall, despite the best endeavours of one of the most versatile conductors, was, again, far from ideal. I am sure that Joan Rodgers’s French is wonderful – but on this occasion it was impossible to tell. It did at least remind me, as I haven’t heard this song-cycle for some time, what an extraordinary creation it is.

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