Nash Inventions

Huw Watkins
Bleak Moments [World premiere]
the other side of silence
Scrawling Out [World premiere]
Slide Stride

Nash Ensemble
Lionel Friend*

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 March, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Having often spread new and recent commissions out across a whole season, the Nash Ensemble here chose to concentrate them into a single concert: thus Nash Inventions, with its sequence of premieres and revivals combining for a 70-minute programme as varied as it was absorbing.

Two of the revivals were commissions first heard last year. Gig is the most recent of Huw Watkins’s works for the Nash – a deftly achieved acceleration up to a central apex of activity, then a gradual slowing-down of pace and incident through to the rapt close. Beautifully written for its instrumental septet too (flute, harp, clarinet and string quartet), if without the sheer panache that Elliott Carter seems to summon up effortlessly in his tenth decade – with Mosaic no exception. A piece where the harp is very much ‘first among equals’ among the eight instruments (Carter made a point of exploring the many techniques developed by inter-war virtuoso Carlos Salzedo), its robust initial exchanges coalesce into a scurrying section whose energy spills over into a passage of hushed intensity, before accumulated tension is released in an explosive toccata and capped by brusque gestures across the ensemble. The work overall exudes a disciplined virtuosity that the musicians as a whole, and harpist Hugh Webb in particular, seized upon gratefully.

The Nash Ensemble has given unstinting support over the years to younger British composers – not least Simon Holt, whose the other side of silence was a notable commission from two years ago. Drawing on both the music and aura of his music-theatre piece “Who put Bella in the Wych elm?”, its three movements evolve their own abstract drama: flute (doubling piccolo), viola and harp (respectively Philippa Davies, Lawrence Power and Hugh Webb) engaging in a tense and often-fractious discourse in the opening movement, followed by one where the violist retreats to the rear of the platform as the harpist unfolds a forceful soliloquy – only to fall silent so that the finale is given over to the violist’s ruminative monologue. Engrossing stuff (more so, in fact, than Holt’s recent violin concerto), such that the premiere of Jonathan Cole’s Scrawling Out risked being overshadowed. In fact, it proved to be another instance of this uncommonly resourceful composer using favoured technical means to unexpected musical ends. Thus oboe and string trio are drawn into a constantly-changing relationship in which the former evolves a continuous, if rarely settled, melodic line against strings that variously serve to disrupt its linear flow and also act as a resonating chamber for its more lyrical effusions. A tenuous though tangible balance between incompatible forces is thus secured – something that came over strongly on a first hearing, with Gareth Hulse seated tellingly apart from his string colleagues.

The premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Bleak Moments brought the one marginal disappointment of the evening. Not that this ‘meditation’ on the carol “In the bleak mid-winter” was at all routine in its integrating of horn (Richard Watkins) and string quartet, or in the way with which Turnage effects a discreetly cumulative discourse over three methodical episodes separated by two more spontaneous interludes: rather, the musical content itself seems a little anonymous compared to certain of his earlier chamber works. Above all, Slide Stride – a Nash commission from 2002 and a fantasy for piano quintet on the jazz idioms of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, whose sense of growing organically out of its often wickedly amusing discontinuities makes for an effervescent and apposite tribute to Richard Rodney Bennett. Brilliantly rendered by pianist Ian Brown, it rounded off an evening whose high level of musical significance was never in doubt thanks to the commissioning zeal of the Nash Ensemble.

Earlier, in association with the Purcell School, the Purcell Contemporary Ensemble was at the centre of a free pre-concert event which opened with a sequence framed by George Benjamin’s Olicantus (2002) – a gentle yet teasing fiftieth birthday tribute to Oliver Knussen – and the energetic third movement (of five) from Jonathan Cole’s Tafos, a stark memorial tribute to Xenakis. Between them came the quiet intensity of Turnage’s Eulogy – laudably rendered by Lawrence Power – and all three were judiciously connected with flute interludes written by conductor Edward Longstaff.

There followed four short pieces by students at the Purcell School, each of which featured a member of the Nash Ensemble playing alongside the Purcell Contemporary Ensemble (suffice to say that 14-year-old Clement Rooney is a name worth remembering), before the event closed with George Benjamin’s Viola, Viola (1997): a revelling in imitative textures that conjures a whole ensemble from its like instruments, and as diverting to hear as it must be to perform – especially when given with the panache evinced by Power and Philip Dukes. A well-planned sequence, then; those who made time to attend clearly did not regret doing so.

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