Clarinet Quartet, Op.35
J. F. Brown
A Dream and a Dance [Nash Ensemble commission: world premiere]
A Blackbird Sang, Op.121 [Nash Ensemble commission: world premiere]
The Sleeping Lord, Op.58
Gillian Keith (soprano)
Nash Ensemble [Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford (clarinet), David Alberman & Laura Samuel (violins), Lawrence Power (viola), Paul Watkins (cello) & Lucy Wakeford (harp)]
Ian Brown [A Dream and a Dance; The Sleeping Lord]
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 19 March, 2013
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Over several decades, David Matthews has amassed one of the most consistent outputs of any British composer in the post-war era. Among those who have commissioned him on a frequent basis is the Nash Ensemble, hence the inclusion in this 70th-birthday concert of three works which between them gave a fair overview of his music from the past thirty years.
Speaking before the concert, Matthews expressed surprise at the distance travelled from the Clarinet Quartet (1984) that was his first Nash commission. Yet if the content here is appreciably more chromatic than his recent work, the fastidious motivic writing and thematic coherence across the whole is audibly his – whether in the first movement’s volatile sequence of variations that move from relative dynamism to overt stasis, or its successor’s scherzo-like animation climactically waylaid by the intrusion of first-movement material prior to a questioning close. This is music which is tailor-made for the Nash musicians, for all that there were hardly any players remaining from those that had given the premiere.
The programme continued with works by two composers often associated with, if not thereby influenced by, Matthews (a first hearing of Michael Berkeley’s Three Rilke Sonnets had to be postponed owing to the indisposition of Claire Booth). The degree to which Julian Anderson achieved expressive diversity through instrumental uniformity was always evident in Prayer (2009), a series of variants and episodes on an ascending melodic line that exploits the viola’s distinctive range with a tensile energy such as was clearly appreciated by Lawrence Power in this finely sustained reading. With A Dream and a Dance (2013), James Francis Brown has had recourse to music overheard in a dream and fashioned an ’Introduction and Allegro’ whose initial calm and mystery proved (overly?) short-lived within the context of a swift rondo-like episode; and with the incisively contrapuntal texture effortlessly maintained through to an unequivocal close. Music that is far harder to play than to listen to – not that this scrupulously prepared performance left anything to chance.
After the interval, a Matthews premiere in the guise of A Blackbird Sang (2012). Its inspiration – a four-note phrase that the composer heard at dawn – might be obvious enough, though not the exquisitely poised formal trajectory in which the songster-inspired material alternates with subtly contrasted ideas in a palindromic sequence of the deftest eloquence. As one of the longest serving members of the Nash, Philippa Davies (here switching between flute and alto flute as well as piccolo) is nothing if not conversant with this composer’s music, and her assurance was matched by that of the string trio which provided far more than accompaniment – enhancing one of the most ingratiating pieces Matthews has yet written. Even so, it was the revival of The Sleeping Lord (1992) that proved to be the highlight. Throughout his career Matthews has been astute in his setting of a wide variety of writings and never more so than in the present work, which takes an extract from the eponymous poem by artist and author David Jones in a scena that, having traversed its text within the first half, explores its thematic elements via a combination of instrumental dialogue and vocal melisma of ethereal beauty. Gillian Keith gave little evidence of having stood in at the last moment – projecting the vocal line with thoughtful conviction, and bringing this intelligently conceived and impressively executed concert to a spellbinding close.