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

Salut d’amour; Chanson de matin; Chanson de nuit
String Quartet in A minor, Op.13
Piano Quartet in E flat, Op.87

Nash Ensemble:
Ian Brown (piano)
Marianne Thorsen (violin)
Malin Bruman (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola)
Paul Watkins (cello)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 February, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This Sunday morning “Coffee Concert” (‘Sherry Concert’ might be the more apt description since that seems to be the main tipple) was part of an ongoing Nash Ensemble Elgar-based series. Much have I travelled in the realms of gold and many goodly states and kingdoms seen (as the poem has it), but this programme was a definite case of poetic licence as Mendelssohn died some ten years before Elgar was even born. No matter: this was a thoroughly agreeable mix of works.

Marianne Thorsen’s affectionate account, with Ian Brown, of the three Elgar miniatures – unforgettable melodies which would have assured Elgar a place in the pantheon of great composers had he written nothing else – got the morning off to the best possible start. Salon music it may be, but the concluding Chanson de nuit touches on an altogether deeper vein of Elgarian introspection and received the most sympathetic treatment.

Mendelssohn’s A minor String Quartet – hard to believe it was written in 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death, and when Mendelssohn was just 18 – received a near-ideal performance, its slow introduction taken very gently, the succeeding Vivace light on its feet and the Adagio warm and eloquent. Mendelssohn had clearly being doing his homework – there are echoes of Schubert and of Beethoven. This was colloquial unforced playing which made the best possible case for this precocious music, giving it due care but not trying to give it greater weight than it merits.

Dvořák’s E flat Piano Quartet is a glorious work of the composer’s full maturity, which deserves a place amongst the greatest works of its type. It would be nice to report a similar success, especially given the calibre of these performers. However, there was a slightly ad hoc feel to this reading. Undoubtedly there were good things such as Lawrence Power’s eloquent introduction of the opening movement’s second theme but all too often the playing seemed effortful, enthusiasm frequently taking the place of finesse. The slow movement’s soaring cello line was pulled about and disrupted and the finale’s exuberance forced rather than welling up from deep inside the music. Given the piano’s leading role, it also needed a more assertive pianist; too often, Ian Brown seemed content to accompany when dominating proceedings would have been more in order. It is said that the excellent is the enemy of the good. More than adequate this Nash account undoubtedly was, but with another Wigmore Hall performance a couple of years ago, by the Fauré Quartett, still ringing in one’s ears, there was little question that it could have been a whole lot better.

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