Poetry Nearing Silence
Piano Quintet [Nash Ensemble commission: world premiere]
Prayer [Nash Ensemble commission: world premiere]
Horn Trio [Nash Ensemble commission: world premiere]
Piano Figures [UK premiere]
A Constant Obsession [Wigmore Hall commission: world premiere]
Loré Lixenberg (mezzo-soprano)
Lawrence Power (viola)
Ian Brown (piano)
Mark Padmore (tenor)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 5 March, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The Nash Ensemble’s annual Wigmore Hall concert devoted to contemporary British music always produces its fair share of new surprises and worthwhile rediscoveries. Into this latter category came “Poetry Nearing Silence” (1997), one of Julian Anderson’s most inventive and entertaining scores. This “Divertimento after Tom Phillips” draws on the artist’s unorthodox conception of interrelating words and images, in a sequence of eight short movements which explore various angles of this relationship in music that ranges from ominous calm to visceral folk-like evocations and quizzical homage to past masters.
The degree to which Anderson can achieve expressive diversity through instrumental uniformity was strikingly evident in his Nash commission – Prayer (2009), a sequence of variants and episodes on an ascending melodic line which exploited the solo viola’s distinctive timbral range with a tensile energy clearly relished by Lawrence Power in an impressively sustained first performance. George Benjamin’s Piano Figures (2004) provided an admirable foil: ten ‘simple’ pieces intended for children that constitute a breviary of piano technique, vividly dispatched by Ian Brown.
Two new ensemble-works evinced strong but never slavish connections with the chamber ‘tradition’. Inspired by the linear clarity emerging through textural opacity of Mark Rothko’s later work, Michael Berkeley’s Piano Quintet (2009) is strong on contrasts of instrumental activity though its overall expressive trajectory seemed forced rather than inevitable. More satisfying in this respect was Huw Watkins’s Horn Trio (2009), in which alternately fast and slow, rhythmic and lyrical material coalesces into a cogently argued single movement that secures a measure of repose before the incisive coda.
The remaining pieces were both song-cycles. Colin Matthews drew upon Rilke’s groundbreaking “Neue Gedichte” for the three poems that make up “The Island” (2007). As translated by Stephen Cohn, these evocations of an island in the North Sea made otherworldly through its isolation readily invite musical setting yet, despite eloquent singing from Loré Lixenberg – standing in at short notice for Claire Booth and as clearly at home in the domain of art-song as in that of music-theatre with which she is more often associated – and committed playing from the Nash under the authoritative direction of Martyn Brabbins, the overriding impression (as at the premiere last year) was that of a bland uniformity as regards either the incidental qualities in each poem or their cumulative overall vision – with the “new directions” to which the composer refers in relation to the third poem largely failing to materialise.
The evening concluded with a new work by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Recent years have seen numerous settings of English poetry and “A Constant Obsession” (2007) assembles verse by five very different authors into a varied yet organic sequence on the theme of love as an ongoing force. After a brief ‘Prologue’ has strikingly stated the titles of what is to follow, ‘Love expected’ is a plangent setting of John Keats and ‘Love begun’ a non-ironic treatment of Thomas Hardy that leads into ‘The pains of Love’ – a finely-sustained setting of Edward Thomas at his most expressively intense. This is vividly countered by that of Robert Graves in ‘Love continued’, though continuing the instrumental interlude rather than climactically repeating the final verse might have made for a more convincing transition into ‘Love in death’ – the poised yet heartfelt setting of Tennyson with which the cycle ends.
This remains an impressive work overall and a fine vehicle for Mark Padmore, whose commitment left nothing to chance. Neither did that of the Nash and, at around 100 minutes, “Nash Inventions” was not lacking in quantity as well as the quality synonymous with this ever-consistent ensemble.