Nash Ensemble: Realms of Gold – Elgar, His Contemporaries and Successors

Cello Sonata in D minor
Cello Sonata in C, Op.65

Paul Watkins (cello) & Ian Brown (piano)

Violin Sonata No.2
Clarinet Quintet in F sharp minor, Op.10
Piano Quintet in A minor, Op.84

Nash Ensemble:
Richard Hosford (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano), Marianne Thorsen & Benjamin Nabarro (violins), Lawrence Power (viola) & Paul Watkins (cello)


Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 9 December, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was a two-for-the-price-of-one-concert, a signal of typical generosity from the Nash Ensemble. Within the package we heard some of the best-known and some of the most obscure British chamber music, with Elgar representing the first and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor the second.

The beginning of the evening was cunningly constructed around master (Frank Bridge) and pupil (Benjamin Britten), both represented by their cello sonatas, both works written during their maturity.

Bridge’s sonata begins with a lush, late Romanticism tinged with chromatic aspects reminiscent of the Brahms ‘school’ of composition. As the work unfolds, Bridge moves away from Austro-German links towards a more Italianate sound that would not be out of place in a work by Respighi.There is no such warmth in the Britten sonata written for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1960 and 1961. It is true the world had moved on from the late Edwardian era that begot the Bridge but this master-work by Britten seems to offer the antithesis of the sort of lyricism proffered by Bridge, and also by Britten’s contemporary, Michael Tippett. It is full of wonderful effects but not much melody; the one opportunity for human warmth that lies in the ‘Elegia’ movement proves a particularly arid affair. The other movements show Britten to be proficient in instrumental flair, which so delighted the dedicatee.

Both works were played in consummate fashion by Paul Watkins and Ian Brown; warmly and full of feeling in the Bridge, nicely contrasted by the necessary displays of virtuosity required in the Britten.

This early gift (literally) of a concert was swiftly followed by the main fare with three British composers representing late Romanticism in the early twentieth-century.

First came the luscious Second Violin Sonata by Delius played with feeling and a rich tone by Marianne Thorsen, with Ian Brown living up to his reputation as a wonderful artistic collaborator. Delius still gets a rather condescending press but his music surely deserves recognition for his skill in ‘continuous creation’ that is generally regarded as the preserve of his near contemporary, Sibelius. This, combined with his free flowing expression, makes Delius more relevant to modern composers than does Elgar and his music contains more heart than Britten‘s does. This sonata, written near the end of an unfettered creative period, is a wonderful example of all that is best in Delius’s music – and like all good music it deserves the closest attention.

This was followed by the Clarinet Quintet by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, written when he was 20 and a student at the Royal College of Music. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford challenged Coleridge-Taylor and his fellow students to write a chamber work “which did not show the influence of Brahms”. Quite a task and compounded by the composer’s choice of including an instrument of Brahmsian sentiment, the clarinet.

This rarity was well worth hearing, opening with an energetic allegro in the style of Dvořák and ending with a finale that was tinged by more than a little Scandinavian influence. If all four movements show a conventional layout, they possess an emotional richness and a mastery of conventional form astonishing for student. Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) remains a footnote in British musical history, but this Quintet was a most enjoyable way to spend 35 minutes.

Whether the same can be said for Elgar’s Piano Quintet remains questionable. This work contains a curious mixture of typical Elgarian expression with a reticence quite new to his music at the time of writing (1918), shortly after an operation for the removal of his tonsils.

The work clearly shows new avenues being explored by Elgar. The effort in writing a big-boned, Romantic work was often subsumed by the sadness and dilution-of-spirit brought about by the Great War. This dichotomy of feeling counts against the work’s popularity, so it was a privilege to hear it played so idiomatically and with such care for its range of emotions by the hugely impressive and inimitable Nash Ensemble.

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