Slavonic Dances, Opp.46 & 72 [selection]
Piano Trio quasi una ballata, Op.27
String Quartet No.1 (The Kreutzer Sonata)
String Quintet in E flat, Op.97
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115
The Nash Ensemble [Ian Brown & Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano), Marianne Thorsen & Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power & Philip Dukes (violas), Paul Watkins (cello) & Richard Hosford (clarinet)]
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 7 February, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
The culmination of the Nash Ensemble’s seven-part series “From My Homeland”, this double-helping rounded off an imaginatively planned traversal of 19th- and early-20th-century Czech music. Besides the expected Dvořák, Janáček, Suk, Smetana, Martinů and Novák, the sequence has also included several pieces by Brahms, co-opted because of his relationship with Dvořák. The sequence has been particularly valuable for mixing the well-known and the less familiar.
What ultimately turned out to be an exceptional evening got off to a slightly prosaic start (an early-evening recital) with penny-plain performances of three Slavonic Dances in their four-handed versions from Ian Brown and Simon Crawford-Phillips, the best of the group being the slow and melancholy Opus 72/Number 2, a Lachian processional dance, a starodávny.
Much better followed with Paul Watkins’s account of the three-movement Fairy Tale (for cello and piano) with its unusual pizzicato opening. Watkins made the most of Janáček’s abrupt juxtapositions of short pithy utterances and soaring lyricism, the central movement in particular having an intensity and ecstatic quality not.
Best of all was Novák’s seldom-performed Piano Trio with its arresting opening and demanding piano part. Its rapidly changing moods – an arresting, tragic opening, quicksilver skittish scherzo and impassioned finale – drew a highly convincing response from Marianne Thorsen, Watkins and Brown (although Novák’s demanding piano-writing could perhaps have done with greater depth of sound than Brown was able to bring to it). Nonetheless, this was an impressive outing for a work that – at around 16 minutes – is difficult to position in most conventional chamber-music programmes.
The evening’s main concert opened with a hugely impressive account of Janáček’s The Kreutzer Sonata (after Tolstoy). For all its familiarity, this is a difficult work to bring off. Many long-established quartets fail with this extreme music because they attempt to shoehorn it into conventional notions and end up prettifying the music rather than releasing its extraordinary vehemence. Where the Nash Ensemble players succeeded brilliantly was precisely because the four players – Marianne Thorsen, Malin Broman (Leader of the Swedish Radio Orchestra), Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins (an aspiring conductor) – are all such strong individual personalities. They attacked this music with rare abandon, caution thrown to the winds, releasing its full febrile intensity as well as realising those abrupt moments of stillness and reflection.
Dvořák’s String Quintet (Opus 97), is one of his ‘American’ works (composed in Spillsville, Iowa) contains much wonderful music (only the finale slightly disappoints by dint of repetition). It has doubtless suffered a degree of neglect by comparison with its more famous neighbour, the ‘American’ String Quartet, composed the previous month. With two violas instead of two cellos, the Quintet is joyous life-affirming music with an exuberant scherzo where the world of “Campdown Races” never seems far away. However, it also touches on deeper things – the Larghetto is almost Beethovenian in its gravitas – and it received a sure-footed affectionate performance, Paul Watkins especially eloquent in the slow movement.
Richard Hosford (Principal of the BBC Symphony Orchestra) joined for Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet. Slightly retiring in demeanour, Hosford may lack the recognition of some of his more flamboyant peers, but this was a remarkably satisfying and complete account. For just a few moments at the outset it sounded as if we were listening to a string quartet with clarinet obbligato, such was the almost orchestral power of the strings, but quickly the playing settled. Rightly, this was a reading of introspection – the becalmed moments especially expressive – and there was subtlety in abundance (Thorsen’s caressing exchanges with Hosford in the slow movement being notable). Seldom either has one heard such a perfect emotional balance between the movements or that deeply moving sense of a journey completed at the work’s close.