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Sally Matthews [Photo by Johan Persson]
05 Oct 2012

“Dreamers of Dreams”

During the years from 1890 to 1940, the so-called ‘land without music’ witnessed a remarkable outpouring of chamber and instrumental music.

“Dreamers of Dreams”

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sally Matthews [Photo by Johan Persson]


This deluge of creativity and achievement is being celebrated by the Wigmore Hall’s resident chamber ensemble, The Nash Ensemble, in an exciting series of recitals showcasing some of the quintessentially British masterpieces, as well as some lesser-known gems, of the period.

“Dreamers of Dreams” commenced with a varied and intriguing selection of the renowned and rare. Following an early evening concert of Bax (Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp), Britten (Suite for Harp, Op.83) and Bridge (Three Idylls for string quartet), the instrumentalists of the Nash Ensemble were joined by soprano Sally Matthews in songs by Arthur Bliss and Roger Quilter reflecting the both the idiosyncratic innovations and pastoral traditions of English cultural and musical life in the 1920s.

Arthur Bliss’s ‘Rout’ is scored for soprano and a large chamber orchestra, conducted here by Ian Brown, comprising flute, clarinet, string quartet, double bass, harp, side-drum and glockenspiel, a varied array which is skilfully deployed to capture a dazzling melange of the “scraps of song that might reach a listener watching a carnival from an open window”, so declared the composer. Certainly the short rhythmic, melodic and textural motifs which repeat, alternate and return generate a busy, sparkling mood, as we move swiftly through interludes of contrasting texture and tempo. Interactions between the voice, which delivers a mixture of made-up words and syllables, and the instrumentalists bring moments of clarity and focus in the shifting soundscape, as when a touching clarinet solo (Richard Hosford) blended silkily with the low voice, before transforming into a march-like episode, which itself then slid into a lively triple-time frolic.

Lacking the sharp sardonic wit of Walton’s Façade, ‘Rout’ nevertheless conjures an air of cabaret and fun, mingling stylisation and realism, dance and depiction. Matthews delivered the syllabic cries with energy and clarity, blending effectively into the vigorous ensemble and projecting the significant vocal gestures with panache.

Two further songs by Bliss followed, both of which suffered somewhat from Matthew’s poor enunciation of the text. Clarity of diction is essential if the quirky incongruity of the seemingly trivial ‘nonsense’ of ‘Madam Noy’ - a variant, by E.W.H. Meyerstein, of the nursery rhyme ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ - is to be articulated. Indeed, Bliss dedicated this ‘Witchery Song’ to the American mezzo-soprano Anne Thursfield, who was renowned for her linguistic flair, and it was disappointing that Matthews, while dramatising the inconsequential episodes with a gentle, engaging irony, did not make more of the nuances of the text. Such nuances were, however, grasped by the instrumentalists, to pleasing and amusing effect. The delicate blend of harp (Lucy Wakeford) and flute (Philippa Davies) beautifully evoked the nocturnal vista: “winds are asleep on the ocean’s back/ The moon’s ring faint and the skyline black”; while a frolicsome trill by clarinet and flute frivolously announced the concluding “low mocking laugh on the air”.

‘The Women of Yueh’ presents settings of five poems by the Chinese poet, Li-Po; although originally for soprano and piano, a subsequent instrumental arrangement allowed Bliss to capture the full range of the inferences of the Chinese kanji through instrumental colour and shade; the flute arabesques in ‘She is a southern girl’ conveyed the mystery and fragility of the girl whose face is “prettier than star or moon” and whose feet are “white like frost”, while the low bass register of “She is gathering lotus buds” was moodily atmospheric, as the girl “hides away among the lilies” and “will not show her face again”. The moments of low, still recitation were the most affecting: the unaccompanied conclusion to “Many a girl of the South” settled seductively on a repeating tone, “She will pluck the flowers of the water/ For amorous wayfarers”, while at the close of “She, a Tung-yang girl” Matthews’ tender, slow recitation, “The moon has not yet set/ They look at each other - broken-hearted”, was enriched by woodwind trills, the latter evolving into a troubled, oscillating gesture before finally resolving into a consoling major chord.

After the interval, Matthews returned with Ian Brown now as pianist for three ‘pastoral’ songs by Roger Quilter, songs which capture the composer’s sensitivity to the Suffolk countryside of his youth. In ‘I Will Go With My Father A-Ploughing’, Brown’s soothing but penetrating compound lilt conveyed a deep connection with the earth, while Matthews brought a gleam to “the shine of the air”, suggesting the depth of the speaker’s love for the “rooks and the crows and the sea-gulls”. The sparse texture of the final verse, delivered after a slight but telling pause, poignantly suggested the pleasure in the harvest done, but also a subconscious recognition of the passing of traditional ways.

Brown’s accompaniment in ‘I Wish and I Wish’ was fittingly fey and faery-like, and ‘Cherry Valley’, with its tender unfolding melody (reminiscent of Finzi) darkened with complex harmonic shadows, was touching; but, while the low concluding line - “In Cherry Valley the cherries blow/ The valley paths are white as slow” - was wonderfully controlled, Matthews did not really capture the simplicity in which the poet’s meaning resides. These are intimate songs, and the Wigmore Hall (where, in fact, many of these songs and those programmed later in the series were first heard) offers a sympathetic acoustic, of which Matthews did not always take advantage.

The vocal offerings were preceded and followed by purely instrumental works, beginning with a refreshing and rich performance of Vaughan William’s Phantasy String Quintet. Lawrence Power’s opening viola theme, which reappears in each movement, was delivered without overly fussy vibrato but with a wonderfully focused, rich tone, delightfully complemented by the translucent traceries of Marianne Thorsen’s high violin. The four movements (Prelude, Scherzo, Alla Sarabanda, Burlesca) are played without a break, and the players moved adroitly through the varying moods: Paul Watkin’s energised cello staccato in the Scherzo initiated some dense rhythmic polyphony and syncopation, which was followed by the serene muted blend of the four upper strings in Alla Sarabanda. After much contrapuntal complexity the Burlesca ended with the return of the viola motif above a held dissonant chord, before an effulgent outpouring from the first violin, in the manner of a lark ascending, brought the work to an elevating close.

Three folksong arranged by Percy Grainger for piano and strings entertained, with the crisp dance textures, pizzicato bite and flamboyant final variant of ‘Shepherd’s Hey’ giving way to the restful cadence of ‘My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone’, the cello’s calm melody supported by stirring harmonic progressions. Brown, Thorsen and Watkins were joined by Power in ‘Clog Dance’, which ran through a gamut of moods embracing decorum, rumbustiousness and insouciance.

The concert concluded with a committed and intelligent performance of Elgar’s E minor String Quartet. A mood of nervous speculation characterised the first movement, the spry rhythms and irresolute harmonies combining to create a restlessness which was resolved into an ebullient, confident energy in the final movement. The intervening andante, marked Piacevole, was contemplative, its peace undisturbed - a perfect embodiment of the words of Arthur O’Shaughnessy which inspired Elgar, “We are the Music Makers, and we are the Dreamers of Dreams”.

Claire Seymour


Vaughan Williams: Phantasy String Quintet in D minor
Grainger: ‘My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone’; ‘Shepherd’s Hey’; ‘Handel in the Strand’; Bliss‘Rout’; ‘Madame Noy’; ‘Women of Yueh’
Quilter: Three pastoral songs for soprano and piano trio
Elgar: String Quartet in E minor Op.83

Nash Ensemble. Sally Matthews, soprano. Ian Brown, conductor. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday, 22nd September 2012.

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