Those Blue Remembered Hills – Nash Ensemble (24 January)

Sonata for cello and piano
Vaughan Williams
Romance for viola and piano
Piano Quintet in C minor
The Western Playland (baritone/piano quintet)
Love Blows as the Wind Blows (baritone/string quartet)

Gerald Finley (baritone)

The Nash Ensemble

Reviewed by: Michael Allen

Reviewed: 24 January, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

The Nash Ensemble’s Wigmore Hall series focusing on British music from the first years of the last century (but also including a 60th-birthday concert for that arch romantic Robin Holloway), continued with a programme juxtaposing works by two significant figures with two who may well have been had they not been the victims of terrible circumstance.

So fine are the performances of the Nash on every occasion that it becomes necessary to remind oneself not to take them for granted – if there is an ensemble in this country (or anywhere else for that matter) that plays such a wide variety of repertoire in such a musical and impassioned way then I have yet to come across them. It’s hardly the Ensemble’s fault that some of the material they were faced with on this occasion was, shall we say, rather less than first rate – and if a piece cannot come over well when played by the Nash, I fear it has not much hope of a life thereafter.

In the not too distant past I listened avidly and loved pretty much every note that Delius wrote – the formless rhapsodising of the Cello Sonata had much the same effect on me that most of his music does now: profound irritation. Far too long for its meagre material, the vocal-like lines and block chord accompaniment didn’t seem to “constantly renew” as the programme suggested, but stay pretty much the same. Cellist Paul Watkins and pianist Ian Brown gave the piece everything they had, and more, and the response of the audience, not for the last time in the evening, was very much the opposite of the present writer!

The Western Playland is a dark, brooding cycle setting parts of A. E Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad”, so beloved of British composers of the period. Ivor Gurney’s sense of anger and despair at the futility of war is perhaps more marked here than in comparable better-known settings by Butterworth or Vaughan Williams and, yet, where as one cannot but feel involved and profoundly effected by VW’s On Wenlock Edge or George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, there is a level of detachment in the Gurney that somehow makes his settings less striking.

The vocal line is nowhere near as memorable – not having the score I would hate to make unjust criticisms but there were one or two occasions where Gerald Finley seemed unsure of the pitches too. The turbulent accompaniment urging a sometimes-hectoring delivery made the whole thing draining – but not for the right reasons. With Butterworth’s cycle we had rather the opposite – wonderful music, beautifully sung, but with toe-curling words. Housman treads a dangerous tight-rope between the touching and the sentimental – a couplet such as “…Murmured and smiled anew, on the way to Kew…” seems to be asking for trouble and might demonstrate why the name W. E Henley hasn’t lasted as long as George Butterworth. Ironically, Love Blows as the Wind Blows was not published until after World War One, during which its composer, one of the most gifted of that generation, was killed in action. Throughout both cycles the Nash players gave Finley exemplary support and, most significant of all, every single word was crystal-clear.

The final two pieces lift the lid on an unfortunate practise, which seems to have become commonplace in recent years, that of digging around in a composer’s bottom drawer and performing/publishing works which they themselves thought unworthy. Perhaps a case could be made for the six-minute Romance for viola and piano, passionately played by Lawrence Power and Ian Brown – it is thought that the work was written for Lionel Tertis but that he never got around to playing it and it was not heard until 1962, four years after VW’s death. The work is at least thoroughly characteristic of its composer, although its modest title belies the rather large emotional content.

The much earlier Piano Quintet in C minor (1903 – scored for the same combination as Schubert’s Trout Quintet) is much less convincing and was withdrawn by the composer in 1918. One assumes that VW had his reasons for this, perhaps along the lines that the piece sprawls, and, with the possible exception of the slow movement, there is very little inimitable VW in it. One can argue until the cows come home about this, but the ultimate question is why do players, or more likely musicologists – this work was described in the programme as being “substantial and worthwhile” – know better than composers? The answer is that they don’t, but the pound-signs hovering over an important composer’s early work mean more than loyalty to the artist they proffer admiration of. If this work has to be played, it couldn’t have hoped for a better re-launch, Ian Brown particularly relishing the Brahmsian piano writing

It seems to me that with the huge amount of great repertoire that we have, and hopefully some still to be created, we should cease blowing the dust off shavings from the workbenches of our great masters.

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