Nash Inventions

Returning [London premiere]
Orpheus Elegies [selections]
Horn Quintet [London premiere]
Clarinet Quintet [BBC Radio 3 commission: World premiere]
Colin Matthews
The Island [World premiere]

Andrew Watts (countertenor)

Claire Booth (soprano)

Nash Ensemble
Paul Watkins [Matthews]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 March, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Nash EnsembleThis year’s Nash Inventions concert offered a generous assortment of new and recent commissions; preceded, as on previous occasions, by an early-evening event featuring short pieces by students at the Purcell School, along with revivals for Colin Matthews’s engaging First Oboe Quartet (1981), James MacMillan’s unusually thoughtful tribute, For Max (2004), and Scrawling Out (2006) by Jonathan Cole – which latter confirmed the favourable impression it made at its premiere here two years ago.

The main concert comprised three instrumental and two vocal works. Of the former, Returning (2007) is Mark-Anthony Turnage’s latest Nash commission and perhaps his most affecting. Inscribed to his parents on their fiftieth wedding anniversary, it unfolds from almost static harmonies to a climax of considerable melodic fervency before retracing its steps to a noticeably more serene close. Superbly conceived for the undervalued medium of string sextet, it suggests Turnage has finally come into his own as a composer for strings: maybe another attempt at a string quartet will follow?

An earlier Nash commission by Turnage was for horn and string quartet, and the current contribution to that medium was by James MacMillan. Also structured in one movement, his Horn Quintet (2007) derives its momentum from the intensifying alternation of ‘hunting’ and ‘lament’ ideas that develop in various ways over its course. Although not overly distinctive in themselves, their evolution has a welcome tautness and immediacy, the ever-reliable Richard Watkins secure in some bravura writing, even though the slow fade-out and off-stage horn ‘epilogue’ did feel rather over-extended in context.

The most substantial of these pieces was Alexander Goehr’s Clarinet Quintet (2007). Another one-movement structure, here unfolding as a sequence of 12 sections with its musical substance derived from an initial motif following the example of masses by Josquin and Ockeghem. While this imparted a consistency, even austerity, to the content, it also generated an expressive logic in which the often-combative interplay between clarinet and string quartet offset the relative lack of rhythmic variety. With Michael Collins on commanding form, this is a distinctive work and an impressive achievement.

The vocal works were well contrasted in that both were settings of poems by Rilke. For his “Orpheus Elegies” (2004), Harrison Birtwistle looks to the Sonnets to Orpheus – intensely rarefied poetry that can admit any number of approaches. Birtwistle’s is a typically personal one: out of the 26 individual movements, only around a quarter are settings (whole or in part) per se; the remainder draw on their texts in more covert ways. The 11 movements featured here evinced a range of emotion from near- stasis to manic activity – lucidly realised for oboe (Gareth Hulse) and harp (Lucy Wakeford), with Andrew Watts making an obliquely ‘Baroque’ contribution to four of them. That of lines from Sonnet VI which ends the sequence could hardly be more apt in its treatment, making one hope for a revival of the complete work before long.

Claire BoothColin Matthews looks to Rilke’s groundbreaking earlier volume “Neue Gedichte” for the three poems that make up his short song-cycle “The Island” (2007). As translated by Stephen Cohn, these evocations of an island in the North Sea made otherworldly through its isolation are a ready invitation to musical setting – yet, despite eloquent singing from Claire Booth and committed playing from the Nash players under the expert direction of Paul Watkins, the overall impression was that of a bland uniformity, with little response either to the incidental qualities found in each poem or to their cumulative overall vision: hence the ‘new directions’ spoken of in relation to the third poem stubbornly failed to materialise.

A pity that the evening ended thus, but the concert as a whole was a fine reminder of the Nash’s prowess over such a wide-ranging and demanding programme. Just the sort of programme, in fact, that would be a most welcome addition to Wigmore Hall’s CD series: even better were the Nash to launch its own label, so giving listeners the chance to rehear some of the many World and UK premieres which have made the Ensemble’s four-decade contribution to British music such a valuable one.

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