The Nash Ensemble of London Continue Their 50th Birthday Celebrations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Mozart and Richard Strauss: Sally Matthews (soprano), The Nash Ensemble of London/ Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Wigmore Hall, London, 17.1.2015 (CS)

Wagner: Siegfried Idyll (original version, 1870)
Mozart: String Quintet No.3 in C major K.515
Richard Strauss: Prelude to Capriccio for String Sextet; Moonlight Scene and Closing Scene from Capriccio (1904/41) arranged by David Matthews for soprano and ensemble (2005)

Continuing their 50th-anniversary celebrations, the Nash Ensemble of London returned to the Wigmore Hall for the fifth event in this ‘Ensemble in Residence’ series.  Founded in 1964 by clarinettist and pianist Amelia Freedman – who remains Artistic Director to this day – the Ensemble  is renowned as one of the finest chamber music groups today, esteemed for their superlative musicianship, innovative programming and adventurous collaborative partnerships with singers, actors and dance companies.  They have also proved a rich well-spring for new music, commissioning 193 works during the past 50 years: the list of premieres (over 300, from 250 different composers) and commissions included in the celebratory programme booklet reads like a compositional map of post-war twentieth century music, spanning from Britten to Birtwistle, Henze to Holloway, Maw to Maxwell Davies, Poulenc to Patterson – with diversions along many interesting by-ways, at home and abroad, along the way.

Shorter concerts preceding the main evening performances in the series are being devoted to such first performances and new works; and earlier in the evening, compositions by Alexander Goehr, John Casken and Judith Weir had been heard in the Hall.  But, Freedman’s commitment to ‘extending the boundaries of chamber music’ was the energy driving this later evening concert with Mozart’s String Quintet in C major K.515 framed by Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and the Prelude to Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, together with the opera’s Moonlight Music and Closing Scene.

Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is the composer’s declaration of love to his wife Cosima.  It was first performed on her thirty-third birthday on Christmas Day 1870, when their son Siegfried was eighteen months old, by a chamber ensemble at their villa beside Lake Lucerne.  Subsequently the work has most frequently been performed by larger orchestral forces, but the Nash Ensemble – reverting to the original scoring for flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, trumpet, two horns and strings – were able to fully demonstrate the inherent grace of the Idyll and to celebrate its moments of delicate refinement.  There was much fine playing: gorgeous lyricism from the cello, lullaby-sweetness from the oboe, a strong double bass foundation and brightness from the trumpet at the close.  Conductor Martyn Brabbins led a well-paced performance which was at once sumptuous and intimate.

Many consider Mozart’s string quintets with two violas to be his finest achievement in chamber music, with the two quintets which were composed in close succession in 1787 – the C major K.515 and G minor K.516 – forming a contrasting and complementary pair, and standing at the pinnacle.  This evening we heard K. 515. In the Nash Ensemble’s hands, the expansive opening Allegro was rich and majestic, the varied melodies flowing forward freely from the first skipping, ascending phrase in the cello, accompanied by lightly pulsing inner voices.  The five-part texture was never heavy: the fluctuating pairings had spontaneity and freshness, like solo voices in duet.  Harmonic shifts and turns were dramatic and surprising; the syncopated dialogue between the first violin (Stephanie Gonley deputising authoritatively for the sadly indisposed Marianne Thorsen) and the lower voices was lithe, while Adrian Brendel’s cello provided a sure footing in the recurring pedal points.

Graceful phrasing and quirky dynamics characterised the Menuetto and Trio: Allegretto, where the ever-changing textures and partnerships swept onwards with dance-like fluidity, the chromatic inflections in the Trio casting only momentary shadows.   The Andante was wonderfully broad and expressive, the first violin and viola (James Boyd) relishing their song-like duet and articulating the cadenza-like elaborations at the close with grace and clarity.  The Nash Ensemble enjoyed the lyrical abundance of the finale, romping home with effervescent humour.

After the interval, real-life gave way to fiction with the string-sextet Prelude from Richard Strauss’s opera Capriccio (with Bjørg Lewis on second cello). This is the Composer Flamand’s homage to the Countess, performed in the elegant conservatory of her château near Paris, in 1775, and designed by Strauss to reflect the spirit of the age in which the opera is set.  Developments of the fragmentary motif which is introduced by the first violin were by turns elegant and impassioned: the classical gentility of Mozart married with the Romanticism of Wagner, serenity only briefly troubled by the striking tremolando episode.

The full Nash Ensemble, now led by Lesley Hatfield, were joined by soprano Sally Matthews for the final scene of the opera in which the Countess, unable to determine either how the opera being composed for her by Flamand and the poet Olivier should end, or to choose between her two artistic suitors, stands alone in the moonlight musing on the respective power of words and music.

Introduced by Richard Watkins’ ravishing horn solo, Matthews revealed an impressive technique and characteristically powerful, bright tone.  At times it felt a touch too gleaming, lacking a softer bloom and delicate shades; perhaps at times the soprano might have trusted the resonant Wigmore Hall acoustic to carry the voice to the far reaches of Hall and Balcony?  Initially too, the vocal line was rather consonant-less, though in the Countess’s concluding deliberations Matthews made the text tell as, accompanied by Lucy Wakeford’s magical harp accompaniment, the Countess gazes at her reflection, hopeful that the mirrored image might help her decide where her love should be bestowed and how the opera should end.  Here, there was a more touching vulnerability in evidence.  The opera concludes with a question: ‘Gibt es einen, der nich trivial ist?’ (‘Can I find [an ending] that is not trivial?’).  Watkins’ glorious horn melody is all that Strauss offers in answer.

Claire Seymour

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