Nash Ensemble – Schumann & Holloway

Fantasy-Pieces (on the Heine ‘Leiderkreis’ of Schumann), Op.16 incorporating Schumann Liederkreis, Op.24
Piano Quartet in E flat, Op.47

Toby Spence (tenor) & Ian Brown (piano)

Nash Ensemble
Edward Gardner [Fantasy-Pieces]

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 28 August, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Over 90 minutes of chamber music without a break can be a long haul for musicians and audiences alike but time passes quickly when treated to the quality of performances the Nash Ensemble served up here.

Toby Spence. Photograph: Mitch JenkinsAlmost an hour was devoted to the fascinating Robin Holloway work “incorporating” Schumann’s Heine settings. Fantasy-Pieces is a kind of re-working of the Schumann song-cycle, using themes, quotations, and allusions, some of the five movements paying homage to Schumann, and others in which Holloway’s voice is more prominent. The whole of Schumann’s Opus 24 “Liederkreis” is performed as part of the Holloway, framed by a two-minute ‘Praeludium’ and the rest of Holloway’s Fantasy-Pieces, which follow seamlessly after the Schumann and scored for an ensemble of twelve musicians conducted here by Edward Gardner.

Edward Gardner. Photograph: Jillian Edelstein, Camera Press LondonAfter the scene-setting ‘Praeludium’, Toby Spence and Ian Brown, an experienced duo in this music, gave us a memorable “Liederkreis”. Spence had mastered Heine’s passionate poetry, entering into the mood of every twist and turn, from the grieving lover in ‘Ich wanndelte unter den Bäumen’ to the warm lyricism of ‘Berg und Burgen schaun herunter’. Spence’s voice was in fine shape, sweet-toned in the higher registers with power in reserve when needed in the violent imagery of ‘Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann’. Ian Brown’s expressive accompaniment was the perfect foil, a classic example of two musicians working in harmony.

There was an array of emotions on display in the four ensuing Holloway pieces, the most obvious nod to Schumann coming in ‘Half Asleep’ which immediately follows the “Leiderkreis”, the piano seemingly still tracking Schumann’s soundworld while the rest of the musicians follow Holloway’s. The next three movements mirror the vacillating moods of the Schumann (from manic to lyrical) and with some references to works beyond the song-cycle. With such a mishmash of styles and cross-referencing, Gardner did a fine job in giving the Fantasy-Pieces shape and real momentum in the more rhythmically challenged jazz-inflected passages.

The key to success with the sumptuous Piano Quartet is balance. There’s always the danger of the piano dominating in a work in which it is rarely silent, but all credit to Ian Brown for being so well attuned to the needs of his fellow musicians. Hence Benjamin Nabarro’s eloquently phrased violin was allowed space to shine in the Andante whilst Brown’s piano-playing bubbled gently underneath. The deftness of ensemble was a delight throughout, the nimble scherzo fleet of foot and the exhilarating finale carried off with style and aplomb. With all four musicians (Paul Watkins, cello, and Lawrence Power, viola, being the others) in peak form, this beautifully shaped performance was one to cherish.

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