Welcome Brahms Rarities Benefit from the Nash Ensemble’s Fine Advocacy

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms: Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins (conductor), Wigmore Hall, London, 12.1.2019. (CS)

Caspar David Friedrich: Moonlight over the Sea
Caspar David Friedrich: Moonrise over the Sea (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

SchumannMärchenerzählungen Op.132
Brahms – String Quintet in G Op.111
MendelssohnSong Without Words Op.109
Brahms – Serenade in D Op.11 (original version for wind and string nonet, reconstructed by Alan Boustead)

Clara Schumann noted in her diary that her husband had scored his 1853 Märchenerzählungen, or ‘Fairy Tales’, for the same group of instruments – clarinet, viola and piano – that Mozart employed in his Kegelstatt Trio K498 as he felt that ‘this combination will have a very Romantic effect’.

‘Romantic effect’, or perhaps that should be affect, is the central concern of the Nash Ensemble’s on-going series at Wigmore Hall: German Romantics.  But, the journey from Beethoven to Brahms, from Weber to Wagner, was a long and diverse one, and, as this programme of music by Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms revealed, Romantic concerns took varied forms of very individual musical expression.

Scholars have often argued that the new form of Kunstmärchen (as opposed to the traditional Volksmärchen) that developed in the nineteenth century contained the essence of Romantic aesthetic and philosophical theories, and while there is no precise ‘narrative’ in the four movements which comprise Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen, their spirit certainly evokes the magic, fantasy and invention which are the product of the imagination and the inner life.  Ian Brown (piano), Richard Hosford (clarinet) and Lawrence Power (viola) played the lively first ‘tale’ with an airiness and delicacy which sparkled, but I felt that the trio took Schumann too literally at his word in the following scherzo-like movement: sehr markiert prompted some very heavy, vigorous bowing from Power, and the insistent dotted rhythm of the last movement was similarly rather unyielding and deliberate.  The third movement, Ruhiges Tempo, mit zartem Ausdruck, was the most persuasive, the limpid trickling piano line supporting a lyrical duet for clarinet and viola which had just the right dash of sentimentality and a well-controlled sense of growing intensity.  Power was thoughtful in his use of vibrato and Hosford moved with smooth elegance between registers.

The Märchenerzählungen are seldom performed so it was good to have the opportunity to hear them played live.  And, while Mendelssohn’s Song with Words for cello and piano is well-known – and was played here, after the interval, with a warm tone by Adrian Brendel, whose melodies were supported by the sure direction of Brown’s bass line and carefully delineated figuration – the programme offered other, welcome ‘rarities’ in the form of two works by Brahms.

The looming shadow of Beethoven led Brahms to shy for many years from the symphonic form.  He was twenty-one years-of-age when he first heard Beethoven’s Ninth, and though, encouraged by Schumann, he was inspired to begin sketches for his own first symphony, he eventually re-arranged his material into a sonata for two pianos.  When his First Symphony was finally completed, Brahms declared that it had been twenty-one years in the making, from 1855 to 1876.  However, in December 1858 he wrote to Joseph Joachim to ask for large manuscript sheets, with the intention of orchestrating his First Serenade.  In the event, he did not let the work stand as his first symphony, striking the first term in the title, ‘Symphony-Serenade’, from the manuscript when it was published – scored for double woodwind, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings – in 1860.

Brahms must have been quite proud of his two serenades, even though he did not grant them symphonic status.  Judging from the Nash Ensemble’s performance of the First Serenade in D major in its original chamber orchestration for wind and string nonet, as reconstructed by Adrian Bousted, and guided here by Martyn Brabbins, the work expresses a spirit of simple happiness.  In fact, if I had been listening ‘blind’, I’d have hazarded that the composer was Haydn, so untroubled and cheerful is the work.  There is freedom and invention aplenty, too, as themes are passed around the ensemble, like melodic gifts, the timbres and textures ever-changing and ear-catching.  One imagined echoes of Mozart, too, and of Mendelssohn at his most charming and easeful.  There was something quasi-rustic about the energy of the opening Allegro molto, enhanced by terrific horn-playing by Richard Watkins and the two clarinettists, Hosford and Marie Lloyd.  The central Adagio non troppo was beautifully played, with double bass player Graham Mitchell adding much to the dignity and depth of this movement.  This was preceded by two minuets that danced gracefully, the minor key dance acquiring a grainier sound, and followed by a scherzo in which leader Stephanie Gonley displayed engaging fluid phrasing and a shining sound.  The Rondo romped ebulliently home, offering a last chance to admire Watkins’ rich rounded tone.

If the Serenade was charming, then Brahms Second String Quintet was a revelation.  It is a late work, composed in the summer of 1890 at Bad Ischl in Upper Austria, and first performed in Vienna later that year.  When surgeon and amateur musician Theodor Billroth visited Brahms at the resort, he found him engrossed in Sybel’s Foundation of the German Empire and averring that he had hung up his composer’s quill for good.  Thank goodness Joachim urged him to continue with his work on this Quintet for it’s a work of breath-taking invention and passion.  Here, Gonley, Power and Brendel were joined by violinist Michael Gurevich and viola player Timothy Ridout and the five string players clearly relished every bar of Brahms’ restless, probing, celebratory musical arguments.

The Allegro no troppo, ma con brio burst into life with Brendel’s swaggering melody leaping up through the restless rippling oscillations above.  The second theme bristled with Brahms’ characteristic rhythmic tugs and pulls.  As the musical ideas unfolded and grew, Gonley produced a powerful, vibrant E-string tone, and both the material and timbres seemed almost orchestral in scale, though the second viola theme in the development section offered calming contrast.  The Adagio was expressive and soulful, though not without moments of theatre, and the five musicians produced rich sonorities.  Brahms’ tempo indication in the following waltz-like movement, Un poco Allegretto, is a little contradictory, and the players conjured an elusive quality at the start, the cello theme later providing stronger direction.  The Vivace ma non troppo presto veritably erupted with gypsy vigour and lust for life.

After the first rehearsal of the work, Billroth wrote to Brahms: ‘Today I heard enthusiastic shouts, “The best music he has ever composed!” … I have often reflected on the subject of what happiness is for humanity.  Well, today, in listening to your music, that was happiness.’  Sentiments with which, at the close of this performance of the Second Quintet, I was entirely in accord.

Claire Seymour

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