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

Phantasy Quartet in F sharp minor
Sonata for Violin and Piano in E minor, Op.82
Vaughan Williams
Phantasy String Quintet
Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, Op.49

The Nash Ensemble

Reviewed by: Michael Allen

Reviewed: 7 October, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The initial disappointment that Philip Langridge had cancelled, and which meant that the Ivor Gurney piece could not be performed, soon gave way to renewed admiration, that even in difficult circumstances, The Nash Ensemble seems incapable of giving anything less than a first-rate performance. The regular line-up of musicians is now stronger than it ever has been and, together with the imaginative and carefully thought out programmes, make Nash concerts unmissable.

Mendelssohn’s D minor Piano Trio (which the present writer wasn’t exactly thrilled at hearing, at least on paper, instead of the Gurney), came to life in the hands of violinist Marianne Thorsen, cellist Paul Watkins and piano Ian Brown – this was akin to hearing a new piece. Even the torrents of notes in the piano part, which can so easily descend into tedious note-spinning were full of colour, wit and charm – all three players just seemed to be having a ball! The ‘Song without words’ that makes up the slow movement provided a moment of real repose and depth of thought.

The rest of the programme returned to the advertised English theme. How is it possible for the Phantasy Quartet of 1910 (for piano, violin, viola and cello) by Frank Bridge to be so rarely played? In terms of chamber music at least, whether from this earlier period or the more radical works of his later years, Bridge is surely one of our finest composers and it really is time that we should stop knowing him as just ‘the teacher of Benjamin Britten’. A good string player and pianist himself as well as a master-craftsman of a composer, his music demands to be heard – powerful, romantic without being sentimental, every note carefully thought out with a truly magical ‘fade-out’ ending – and wonderfully played of course.

At the risk of me being drummed out of the country, Elgar’s three late chamber works have always seemed to be too long for their own good, and although the last movement of this Sonata still seems to go round in circles a little, I cannot recall ever hearing a performance that made such a strong case for the piece. Thorsen really is a spectacular player, the opening huge leaps in the violin part driving the music forward in a hugely dramatic but thoroughly musical way. The middle movement ‘Romance’ had mystery, poise and a wonderful bright, golden climax. Ian Brown demonstrated why he is in such demand as an accompanist – if ever that word was less appropriate it is here!

It is probably fair to say that chamber music does not show Vaughan Williams in his best light, although this Quintet (written for string quartet plus a second viola) must be one of his strongest efforts. It is certainly a thoroughly personal and characteristic work – the opening viola tune asserting his totally individual voice within the first two bars. The most effective section is a reflective ‘Sarabande’ (the third of four linked movements) during which the cello is silent – a really unexpected and imaginative texture. What Lewis Foreman called in his notes the “Falstaffian galumphing opening” of the finale seemed somewhat forced and out of place – in fact the piece just seems to just run out of steam, but it was certainly not for the want of a another fine performance.

This series of concerts runs through until March 2007 culminating in a programme of no less than five premieres of one sort or another and includes a celebration of the music of Britten as well as more Vaughan Williams, Bridge and Elgar, as well as Bliss, Finzi, Delius and Bax – and cannot be too highly recommended.

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