A Variable – and Over-Long – Soirée from the Nash Ensemble

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Chabrier, Saint-Saëns: Patricia Routledge (reciter), Nash Ensemble (Ian Brown & Simon Crawford-Phillips [piano], Lucy Wakeford [harp], Stephanie Gonley & Michael Gurevich [violin], Lawrence Power [viola], Adrian Brendel [cello], Graham Mitchell [double bass], Philippa Davies [flute], Richard Hosford [clarinet], Chris Brannick [percussion], Wigmore Hall, London, 28.10.2017. (CS)

Debussy – Sonata for flute, viola anad harp
Stravinsky – Three Movements from Petrushka (arr. for 2 pianos)
Ravel – Introduction and Allegro
Chabrier Trois Valses Romantiques, ‘Habanera’ and ‘España (for 2 pianos)
Saint-SaënsTarantelle in A minor Op.6 for flute, clarinet and piano; Carnival of the Animals

This season, as the Wigmore Hall’s Chamber Ensemble in Residence, the Nash Ensemble are presenting a series of concerts entitled The French Connection – the ‘connection’ being that between Igor Stravinsky and the French musicians, composers, artists, musical styles and compositions that he encountered during the years following his first arrival in France in the spring of 1910, to work with Sergei Diaghilev as a composer of ballet scores for the latter’s Paris-based Ballet Russes.

Stravinsky’s works from his ‘French period’ are being juxtaposed with music by composers from the ‘French tradition’: both the established leading figures of the day and the new generation of young talent that emerged after the First World War.  This programme stuck with the elder statesmen of French music – Chabrier, Saint-Saëns, Debussy and Ravel – and presented an unusual and not entirely successful assemblage of notable masterpieces alongside less frequently heard works.

In the first half of the recital two chef-d’oeuvre of French chamber music from the early twentieth century framed a two-piano arrangement of three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka.  The performance of Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1915) was notable for its striking juxtaposition of instrumental colours, textural clarity, and the dynamic tension engendered by the contrast of exotic harmonic gestures and more conventional tonal language.  Philippa Davies’ flute was a dominant presence in the opening Pastorale, swelling powerfully through the clean decorative flourishes.  The flute’s lyrical phrases had a rhapsodic air, but there was no overly sentimental lingering, and the low-lying passages, often at the cadences and particularly at the end of the first movement, were tinged with sombreness.  Lawrence Power was an eloquent partner for Davies in the Interlude, moving from song-like eloquence to textural mood-painting: staccatos, even double-stopped, were feathery light; the bow seemed barely to brush the string during rapid arpeggiac string-crossings.  Such gestures, and the tremolandos, multiple détaché strokes within a single bow, and other textures were meticulously delineated and created strenuous forward momentum.  Lucy Wakeford’s harp was likewise a propulsive ‘motor’ in the Allegro moderato ma risoluto but overall I felt that Wakeford was somewhat reticent, and might have added more sparkle and jouissance.

Similarly, in Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro Wakeford didn’t engage with the opportunities to use her harp to create sumptuousness and flamboyance, thereby exploiting the very potentials of the instrument that might have led Ravel to score the work for harp, rather than for piano, say; and, the harp did not seem to be perfectly tuned.  Ravel tends to keep the woodwind pair and the string quartet as distinct entities, rather than experimenting with coloristic amalgamation and dialogue, and there were passages where – as the strings came to the fore – one recognised the soundscape of the String Quartet.  One advantage of this segregation of colour, however, was that it foregrounded the beautiful silken evenness of the lowest register of Richard Hosford’s clarinet. Overall, the performance was lean and lucid, but lacked a certain luxuriousness.

Between these chamber works, pianists Ian Brown and Simon Crawford-Phillips performed ‘Russian Dance’, ‘In Petrushka’s Cell’ and ‘The Shrovetide Fair’ from Petrushka.  After some rearrangement of the Wigmore Hall’s stage furniture, the two pianos stood facing each other, with Brown on our left and Crawford-Phillips to the right.  One of the advantages of sitting to the rear of the Hall was that one’s vision took in both pianists’ hands, creating exciting visual drama in the rhythmically synchronised, ‘mechanical’ passages.  Only Brown’s Steinway had its lid raised, presumably because to raise both would have restricted Crawford-Phillips’ sight-line, but it did lead to a slight imbalance.  The playing was technically assured and there were many details to admire: folk-influenced melodies of simplicity and purity; terrifically hushed pianissimos, even in the pianos’ lowest depths; jangling metallic coloration; crystalline articulation of driving rhythmic motifs; quasi-neoclassical lucidity and poise.  However, while wild, expansive leaps, racing scales and polyrhythmic finger-twisters were impressively despatched, the two pianists did not sustain a narrative; passages provided colour and contrast, but did not hint at context.

After the interval, Brown and Crawford-Phillips returned for several works by Emmanuel Chabrier.  The dance pulses of the Trois valses romantiques were rather rigid and the third of the trio, ‘Animé’, would have been lifted by greater spaciousness and an airy touch.  Similarly, Brown’s performance of the composer’s Habanera did not really sway with languid sultriness, while the two-piano arrangement of Chabrier’s orchestral rhapsody, España, was exuberant but did not communicate the humour latent in the score.  Saint-Saëns’ Op.6 Tarantelle for flute, clarinet and piano provided the requisite whirl of break-neck scales and slithers, quasi-hysterical trills and other technical virtuosities – all of which were effortlessly delivered by Davies and Hosford, whose unison helter-skeltering was perfectly tuned.  But, again, the overall effect was a little dour – a prodigy’s technical exercise.

After this sequence of contrasting items, we came to the work that brought all members of the Nash Ensemble, excepting Wakeford, together on the platform.  I’ve taken part in countless performances of Saint-Saëns’ zoological parade, Carnival of the Animals, most of them before an audience shy of their teenage years, and many of them boisterously theatrical in nature.  This Wigmore Hall performance was an altogether more sedate affair.  The presence of Patricia Routledge as reciter promised to inject some fun and vivacity into the stagecraft but, whether the cause was the decorum associated with the venue, the rather more advanced age of the average audience member, or the fact that we were coming to the end of a long evening of music-making, this performance felt rather flat.  There’s no doubt that Saint-Saëns’ work is worthy of serious presentation – it’s far more than just a lollipop for children’s delectation – and the performers exploited all of the composer’s imitative, coloristic effects, creating timbral precision and pictorial accuracy.  Occasionally, though, the two pianos were rather too dominant; Adrian Brendel had some intonation mishaps in ‘The Swan’, while Graham Mitchell needed to use a more lyrical bow stroke to conjure the Elephant’s nobility as well as its lumbering unwieldiness.

Routledge, now in her late eighties, remained seated on the extreme left of the platform throughout the performance, which inhibited the directness and strength of her communication of Ogden Nash’s poetry – verses which were added to the score in the 1940s by Goddard Lieberman of Columbia Records and conductor Andre Kostelanetz when they recorded the work with Noël Coward as speaker.  Routledge is a trained singer as well as an actress, and one might have hoped for more range and projection, though her enunciation was crisp.  In the event, this musical menagerie was mild rather than wild.

Claire Seymour

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