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

Miniatures [selection]
Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano, Op.23
Cello Sonata
Music for Wind Quintet – Promenade and Intermezzo
The Curlew
Oboe Quintet
Vaughan Williams
On Wenlock Edge

John Mark Ainsley (tenor)

Nash Ensemble:
Ian Brown (piano)
Marianne Thorsen (violin)
Malin Bruman (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola)
Richard Lester (cello)
Philippa Davies (flute)
Helen Keen (flute)
Gareth Hulse (oboe/cor anglais)
Richard Hosford (clarinet)
Ursula Leveaux (bassoon)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 20 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

In an evening of English music, two concerts (one at 6 p.m. and one at 7.30, the second kicking-off with Elgar), using various resources and written in various styles, a consistent factor was the Nash Ensemble’s excellently practised and suave accomplishment in whatever its members were called upon to do.

Frank Bridge’s Miniatures were a delight – three from a total of nine, written around 1908 for himself and a couple of pupils, the Misses Hanbury. ‘Valse Russe’ swayed soulfully, giving way to a perky ‘Hornpipe’, followed by a vigorous ‘Saltarello’. From a tasteful afternoon-tea room, we moved outside into brisk, fresh air. Ian Brown, Marianne Thorsen and Richard Lester played these pieces with a breezy gusto – fully appreciating their brevity. Bridge was not tempted to over-blow his modest but engaging material.

Initially, the BBC turned down Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano. The first four appeared publicly in 1943 at a National Gallery concert. The set sold well in published form, a coherent whole in respect of mood. The first begins strikingly: solemn and spare, moving with grave tread. Then we ease into more familiar territory – English pastoral strolling under a damp, grey sky. Finzi wrote the final Bagatelle in response to friends and his publisher; it is a vigorous, virtuoso piece. Richard Hosford played it with brilliant panache – evoking a totally different soundworld from the flowing and wistful nature of its predecessors.

Delius’s Cello Sonata was written for Beatrice Harrison. She gave the first performance, in the Wigmore Hall in 1918. It is a one-movement work in three sections (rhapsodic–more intensely rhapsodic–rhapsodic) and is essentially an elegy for cello with piano accompaniment. Richard Lester, committed and determined, played warmly with strenuous feeling. The sound I heard was less than immediate – I do not commend the rear left of the hall for hearing the cello. Ian Brown underpinned the cello’s Romantic looseness with thoughtful, flexible limpidity – a pleasure to hear, a gem.

The Elgar pieces, written in youth for himself and his friends, are witty and carefree. Elgar taught himself to play the bassoon, ready for performance by “The Brothers Wind” (flutes, oboe, clarinet and bassoon). Ursula Leveaux, on the last-named instrument, enjoyed being ponderous with a twinkle in her eye. The ensemble played with a rare, dry wit. I was reminded of Sir Arthur Sullivan who also aspired to move on to more serious works, leaving the money-making trivia of the “Savoy Operas” behind.

Arthur Bliss’s Oboe Quintet is an amiable enough piece of work, but somewhat curious – played vividly, with due commitment, though. The opening to the first movement, deliberately delays the oboe’s first entry, was cautious without being hesitant. Some ear-catching chords and harmonies suggested there might be some notable originality to come. Thereafter – until the Andante closed – we reverted to English pastoral, with bucolic phrases for the oboe – long, agile, taxing, swooping and arching; Gareth Hulse presented them smoothly, soaring with ease through and over the strings. The concluding Vivace took a step into the 20th-century. It abounded in dark, abrasive harmonies and intervals, as if its base, ‘Conolly’s Jig’, had unearthed a rather sinister sub-text to Irish jollity.

John Mark Ainsley has an imposing presence. He is tall and his voice is surprisingly thin, though warm. It carries, however, and can glide above instruments. He sounds a little remote – rather like a distinguished visitor recently flown in. His manner is disengaged and dispassionate – and yet he conveys feeling and sensitivity. His is an unusual presentation, worth listening to.

Both “The Curlew” and “On Wenlock Edge” were remarkable performances. The Curlew – to poems by W. B. Yeats – achieved a mood of grave sonority, loftily sustained throughout. John Mark Ainsley sang in such a way that one could not be sure which side of the grave he was actually on – an extraordinarily detached and dignified experience, this living with death at one’s side. “On Wenlock Edge” was outstanding. This masterpiece unerringly captures the varied moods of each of the six A. E. Housman poems selected. As the programme note rightly stated: “each movement [has] the impact of a miniature tone-poem, wonderfully dramatic and evocative in their contrasted textures”. Add to this the pointed, authoritative performance from John Mark Ainsley, Ian Brown and the string quartet and you have a masterful performance, alert to every shivering tremolando and key change, alive to every nuance in the composition, however impassioned, however brittle, however still and unflinching. This was stern, bleak perfection.

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