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

Quintet for harp, two violins, viola and cello
Vaughan Williams
Five Mystical Songs
Love Blows as the Wind Blows
String Quartet in E minor, Op.83

Christopher Maltman (baritone)

Nash Ensemble:
Ian Brown (piano)
Marianne Thorsen (violin)
Malin Bruman (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola)
Paul Watkins (cello)
Duncan McTier (double bass)
Lucy Wakeford (harp)

Reviewed by: Anne Ozorio

Reviewed: 17 February, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Nash Ensemble has an excellent reputation for imaginative programming. This Wigmore Hall Elgar-related series has indeed struck ‘realms of gold’. This programme placed some lesser-known treasures in a setting that illuminated the context.

The harp features in Celtic culture, so Arnold Bax was consciously writing a piece that would evoke a dream-world beyond modern and urban values. This imaginary sensibility was a kind of subversion of establishment ethos so dominant in Victorian times. Symbolically, Bax, like Elgar the Catholic outsider, was demonstrating his liberation from composers like Stanford and Parry who had hitherto moulded English music. So often the harp is used only for incidental colour, but here it becomes a virtuoso instrument. Lucy Wakeford, played almost impossibly extended harmonics, showing the instrument’s full range. Reinforced by the deeper resonance of the cello, the harp leads the strings, developing melodies of genial charm.

Vaughan Williams’s “Five Mystical Songs” (arranged here for string quartet, double bass and piano) may seem uncompromisingly fervid. “Rise heart: The Lord is Risen!” proclaims the first song. Vaughan Williams even writes sonorities that sound like the pealing of cathedral bells. No wonder the song-cycle was premiered at the Three Choirs Festival. Yet the plaintive musical settings subvert the certainty of the text. In ‘Love Bade me Welcome’, for example, there are distinct echoes of the strange otherworldly, modern harmonies of this composer’s “On Wenlock Edge”.

Christopher Maltman‘s voice is particularly rich and vibrant at the moment, but what was even more impressive was his interpretation. George Butterworth’s “Love Blows as the Wind Blows” (string quartet version) gave him much greater opportunities for nuance and feeling. This was an exquisite performance and the highpoint of the evening. Butterworth was instrumental in prodding the older Vaughan Williams to stretch himself musically: the latter’s A London Symphony (Symphony No.2) is thus dedicated to his memory. Butterworth was even more attuned to folk-music, and to ideas of an imagined rural past. The second song, from which the cycle derives its title recalls the ‘wind’-music passages in Vaughan Williams’s ‘Wenlock’ cycle, and the tricky transits of tempo, volume and mode reflect Vaughan Williams’s preoccupations. Yet Butterworth’s distinct style is present. ‘In the year that’s come and gone’ ends in an abrupt single note. It’s quite a jolt, like a musical exclamation mark. In the final song ‘On the way to Kew’, Butterworth gives the ensemble a trudging, repetitive rhythm which propels the music forward. It contrasts with the freer, more expansive vocal line until the postlude, when the voice falls silent and the first violin takes up its melody.

Elgar was by far the oldest of the composers featured in this recital. Yet he didn’t learn his music from Stanford and Parry. He wasn’t upper-class, London based, or even particularly sophisticated. He didn’t need to differentiate himself from the establishment because he wasn’t really part of it until later in life. Hence the free spirited, lively String Quartet in E minor. The second movement is an expansive pastoral, in which a lovely, hymn-like melody arises repeatedly as if vistas were continually being opened in the imagination. In contrast, the finale comes across with considerable force. The Nash Ensemble played it with sheer enjoyment. The interaction between players was a pleasure to watch as well as to listen to.

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