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23 Jan 2013

Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall - Warlock, Britten

Surveying British chamber and instrumental music written between the 1890s and WWII, the Nash Ensemble’s Wigmore Hall residency series, Dreamers of Dreams, has illuminated the creativity and originality of British musical life during this period, revealing the shared and the idiosyncratic preoccupations of composers; the intertwined biographies of musicians; the influence of key individual performers on repertoire, style and idiom; the dialogue between old and new; and the prevailing shadows of war and irreversible change.

This recital was enriched by all these elements, its constituent works informed by an interest in the nation’s folk traditions as well as Celtic romanticism and custom; by expanding boundaries and new musical and geographical horizons; by elegiac melancholy and also by optimism, freshness and renewal.

The desolate tones of Peter Warlock’s darkly prophetic The Curlew, for tenor, flute, cor anglais and string quartet, dominated the first half of the concert. Setting four poems by W.B. Yeats, Warlock evokes an almost unalleviated mood of despair; much of the vitality of the music derives from the composer’s uncannily apposite setting of the text, and tenor Mark Padmore’s eloquent, unmannered delivery of the rhythmically elaborate text did much to communicate the vividness and immediacy of the work. The opening instrumental mood-painting was moving and atmospheric: the plangent cor anglais (Gareth Hulse) announcing the eponymous bird’s plaintive lament, answered by the gentle repetitive murmuring of the flute’s peewit (Philippa Davies). The players adroitly established the bleak vista before the first, delayed entry of the voice, “O curlew, cry no more in the air”. Throughout the instrumental fabric was clearly articulated, both solos and ensemble presenting thematic wisps with delicacy and dolefulness - a perfect illustrative backdrop for the melancholic texts. The string players wove an intricate web of tremolo and sul ponticello traceries, complementing the woodwind’s mournful diminuendos and echoes.

Padmore shaped the vocal lines intelligently, although perhaps he did not fully reveal the emotional disturbance at the heart of the work, for the text and score demand that we be truly discomforted and perturbed. But there was affecting contrast and drama. With the opening of final stanza of ‘The Withering of the Boughs’, the tenor evoked tentative intimations of hope and new life, warmed by a string rocking motif, which was then immediately and unequivocally destroyed by the voice’s exposed quasi parlando repetition: “The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams.” The composer instructs the singer to use a “low tone - almost a whisper” and Padmore executed this challenging line with consummate control.

Yeats’ pensive Celtic lyricism and the plaintive cor anglais colouring of Warlock’s songs harked back to the opening work of the evening, Arnold Bax’s Oboe Quintet, the melodies of which mimic, though do not quote, Irish folksong and dance. Composed at the end of 1922, this composition was pioneering in its integration of oboe and strings. In the opening movement, Gareth Hulse’s wistful oboe figures rose with graceful melancholy from the strings’ introductory elegiac chords; and the muted pianissimo ending - the upper strings’ tranquillity disturbed by the cello’s insistent repetitions and the oboe’s final curlicue - was spell-binding.

But, while asked to create an endless range of textures and timbres, the strings do more than simply accompany. In the second movement, violinist Marianne Thorson spun a silky espressivo thread, accompanied by rich string chords, a beautiful contrast to the subsequent improvisatory flourishes from the oboe. Laurence Power conveyed the power and vitality of Bax’s writing for the viola. Moreover, despite the prevailing ambience of lament, lively folk gestures and rhythms provide energy and drive, culminating in an animated, jig-like final movement. The shadow of war darkens the hues of the closing bars, however, and the Nash Ensemble brought the piece to a sober, forlorn, but not sentimental, conclusion.

Britten’s Songs from the Chinese for voice and guitar followed the interval. These ancient texts, with their mild formality and distance, suited Padmore perfectly. In ‘The Old Lute’ - a setting of Arthur Waley’s translation of a poem by Emperor Wu-ti of the Han dynasty, who ruled more than 2000 years ago - Padmore floated the higher pitches and elongated the syllables to create a calm quietness, evoking the sound of the lute, now dusty and faded, but whose sound “is still cold and clear”. In contrast, the rhythm drive of Wu-ti’s ‘The Autumn Wind’, with its short phrases and vigorous consonants, enabled the tenor to re-create the dynamism of the racing wind, and to evoke the unstoppable momentum of passing time. Guitarist Craig Ogden sculpted crystalline accompaniments, establishing a fitting airiness and transparency. Together the performers ensured that the concentrated focus of the songs, and the formal and thematic unity of Britten’s score, was clearly communicated.

The evening ended with a rare opportunity to hear Vaughan Williams’ C Minor string quartet of 1898. Although one senses the young composer searching for an individual musical voice - the influence of Dvorak, Brahms and Tchaikovsky is evident - there is much of merit in these four movements, and the medium is convincingly handled, the string textures accomplished. The inner movements, Andantino and Intermezzo: Allegretto characteristically make use of Elizabethan modality and English folksong to create a meditative ambience, while the Variazione con finale fugato which concludes the work is a rhythmically invigorating presto. The four string players of the Nash Ensemble gave a committed performance of what essentially feels like ‘work in progress’; the ensemble work and attention to detail was exemplary and the players exhibited considerable technical mastery.

Given the thoughtfulness and imagination which has clearly informed the Nash Ensemble’s programming throughout this series, the inclusion of Elgar’s three tuneful yet rather light-weight violin encores - Salut d’Amour, Chanson de Matin and Chanson de Nuit - seemed an odd decision. Thorsen and Ian Brown (piano) performed them with refinement and artistry but the works seemed out of context here.

Claire Seymour

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