Robin Holloway 60th-Birthday Concert – Wigmore Hall (4 October)

Fantasy-Pieces on the Heine Liederkreis of Schumann, Op.16 for piano and twelve instruments (1971) *
Spring Music for flute, harp and string quartet (2003) [Nash Ensemble commission: first performance]
Liederkreis, Op.24 **
Piano Quintet in E flat, Op.44

The Nash Ensemble
Lionel Friend *

Toby Spence (tenor) &
Ian Brown (piano) **

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 October, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

This was a generous concert with which to celebrate Robin Holloway’s 60th-birthday, which falls on 19 October; we had two hours of actual music. Over 30 years ago the music of Robert Schumann helped Holloway out of something of a composing hole; he thought his music had become sterile. It didn’t have to be Schumann, but it so happened that it was his generosity of utterance that helped Holloway revitalise his own language.

The Fantasy-Pieces on Schumann’s Op.24 should ideally incorporate a complete performance of Schumann’s song-cycle, as happened at this concert. The plan is that the first of Holloway’s purely instrumental commentaries is followed by the Schumann, given exactly as the composer intended, and then come Holloway’s remaining four expansions of the cycle. The result is a 50-minute piece that fuses the two works as indivisible, Schumann’s cycle segued to Holloway’s two-minute ’Praeludium’ and then, after uninterrupted Schumann, Holloway continues, his second Fantasy-Piece adjoining Schumann’s piano postlude by returning to the figuration that opens the cycle.

This was something of an all-change concert. John Mark Ainsley should have sung. Toby Spence was a late replacement and brought a light, ardent and inviting tone to his task, affectingly plangent at times; maybe some hoarse notes were due to him, also, being unwell. I gather that some of the Nash players had similarly been struck down, which affected rehearsals, but you wouldn’t have known this from the quality of the performances. What wasn’t revealed was that violist Lawrence Power didn’t make it – I recognised both viola players as not being Power, and I’m grateful to a friend and colleague for advising James Boyd (who played in the Fantasy-Pieces) and Garfield Jackson as Power’s replacements.

Holloway’s Schumann-studded Pieces, of quotes, allusions and superimposition, enshrine Holloway’s ability to sift his own expression with that of Schumann. Holloway’s ensemble – piano, string quartet plus double bass, two flutes and single oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and trumpet – makes for a varied palette of sound. Emotionally, Holloway works up a fine head of steam in his cross-referencing, a Schumann tapestry with the rhythmic incisiveness of Stravinsky and not a little voluptuousness; rather mad in places, but so was Schumann! There’s an excellent recording of Fantasy-Pieces (with Liederkreis) on Hyperion CDA66930.

With Nash Ensemble concerts, the focus is on the music, the players are there as needed, and their chameleon response to various demands is of the highest order. A conductor is called upon when required. Lionel Friend’s 25-minute contribution was to guide the players through the Fantasy-Pieces.

The second half of the concert was founded on the string quartet (Marianne Thorsen, Benjamin Nabarro, Garfield Jackson and Paul Watkins). In the premiere of Holloway’s Spring Music, the flautist was Philippa Davies and the harpist Bryn Lewis; they sat antiphonally. Spring Music is the third quarter of Holloway’s concertinos based on the seasons. Autumn Music awaits composition. Spring is pure ’white’ music, lyrical, dancing and with many solos for the individual instruments of the sextet. Pastoral certainly, more to Copland’s Appalachian Spring than the green pastures of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, Holloway maybe has written too many sections; each is a delight but, collectively, perhaps does not sustain the work’s 36 unbroken minutes.

Remove flute and harp and return the piano for Schumann’s great Quintet. What a wonderful pianist Ian Brown is. His sensitivity and unassuming virtuosity, as ever, was a particular pleasure. The Quintet was given a robust account, a little too sign-posted at times, quite moving in the time-taken ’In modo d’una marcia’ second movement, a little heavy in the Scherzo but magisterial in the finale in which one sensed a greater sense of interactive contemplation and conclusive endeavour.

Well worth tuning-in to Radio 3’s broadcast of this concert on Tuesday, the 7th. Robin Holloway is also the subject of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s first Music of Today of the new season – Royal Festival Hall, 9 October, 6 p.m., free admission. And the Nash graces the Wigmore Hall with “Those Blue Remembered Hills” until March; the next concert is on November 15.

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