Nash Inventions

Court Studies from The Tempest
Crowd [London premiere]
Life’s Splinters [Nash Ensemble commission: world premiere]
4 Quarters [Nash Ensemble commission: London premiere]
Lied [UK premiere]
David Matthews
Terrible Beauty [Nash Ensemble commission: world premiere]

James Gilchrist (tenor)

Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano)

Nash Ensemble:
Philippa Davies (flute), Timothy Lines (clarinet), Marianne Thorsen & Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power (viola), Paul Watkins (cello), Lucy Wakeford (harp) & Ian Brown (piano)
Lionel Friend [Matthews]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 March, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Nash Ensemble’s commissioning and performance of new works has always been central to its artistic policy, and this concert maintained that commitment with a varied if uneven programme.

Both recent pieces by Harrison Birtwistle were highlights. Crowd (2005) draws on connotations with the lyre in a harp study that surely ranks as the most imaginative and eventful for the instrument in recent years. Yet for all the audible rhythmic dexterity, it is the use of resonance as a structural even more than a colouristic device that gives the music its identity, especially when played with the assurance of Lucy Wakeford. Lied (2006) was almost as impressive: this 75th-birthday tribute to Alfred Brendel unfolds as a straightforward A-B-A form, with cello and piano maintaining a measured co-existence in the outer sections and engaging in rather more heated opposition at its centre.

These two pieces were placed in either half, with those accompanying it before the interval being the less absorbing. In Court Studies, Thomas Adès has freely transcribed six of the solo numbers from his opera “The Tempest” (about to be revived at Covent Garden) for clarinet, violin, cello and piano, andarranged them in a non-chronological sequence that makes for a satisfying musical follow-through. Resourceful in its interplay of timbres, too, if no more emotionally involving than is the parent work.

“Life’s Splinters” finds David Horne setting six poems by D. H. Lawrence in a continuous sequence for tenor, flute, clarinet and string trio. Lawrence’s poetry, very much secondary to his novels, has a tendency to confirm that ‘less is more’. Horne brought out the keen wit of “The Mosquito Knows” and “Little Fish”, with many evocative touches, but the over-wrought syntax of “Flapper” summoned almost as perfunctory a response as did the mawkish sentimentality of “Piano”. Horne as yet lacks Britten’s ability to conjure magic out of the mundane, for all that his vocal writing – never less than stylish and thoughtfully rendered here by James Gilchrist – seems a little too redolent of the earlier composer.

The two other works after the interval brought greater rewards. Simon Holt’s 4 Quarters (2005) is a diverse but cohesive sequence for string trio – moving from an evocation for solo viola of ‘Choler’ (stunningly played by Lawrence Power), via the increasingly combative studies that are ‘North’ and ‘Spring’, to the raptly intense depiction of ‘Ether’. Better known for his numerous mixed-ensemble pieces, Holt here demonstrated equal conviction in his judicious handling of a more Classical medium.

The evening concluded with the first performance of “Terrible Beauty” by David Matthews, conducted by Lionel Friend. This scena for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, harp and string quartet has a ‘prologue’ in which the voice is accompanied only by harp, then continues with a sensuous setting of lines from Act Two of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”. Effusive in their description of the chemistry between the seasoned seductress and the archetypal ‘man about town’, they have duly inspired Matthews to some of his most lyrically sustained vocal-writing – tellingly realised by Susan Bickley, with an instrumental component as resourcefully scored as one expects from this composer, and a pleasurable end to a rewarding evening of new music.

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