United Kingdom Rossini, Spohr, Schubert: Nash Ensemble (Richard Hosford [clarinet], Ursula Leveaux [bassoon], Richard Watkins & Michael Thompson [horns], Stephanie Gonley & Jonathan Stone [violins], Lawrence Power & Scott Dickinson [violas], Adrian Brendel [cello], Graham Mitchell [double bass]) Wigmore Hall, 18.1.2020. (CS)
Rossini – Sonate a quattro for strings No.1 in G minor
Spohr – Octet in E major for wind and strings Op.32
Schubert – Octet in F major for wind and strings D803
The Nash Ensemble’s 2019-20 Wigmore Hall series is titled Around Schubert and features some of Schubert’s greatest chamber works alongside music by his contemporaries – leading lights such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn and the Schumanns, as well as lesser-known figures such as Beethoven’s pupil and friend, Ferdinand Ries. Perhaps this concert might have been sub-titled, ‘The famous and the forgotten’? For, it placed music by Rossini and Schubert either side of a composition by the less frequently performed Louis Spohr, and in so doing offered a welcome opportunity to hear Spohr’s 1814 Octet for wind and strings alongside Schubert’s own Octet, composed ten years later.
Before the Viennese fare, though, we had an Italian aperitif: the first of the six string sonatas that the twelve-year-old Rossini composed in 1804 during a summer sojourn in Ravenna at the home of the amateur double bass player Agostini Triossi. The Moderato moved fluently forward, violinists Stephanie Gonley and Jonathan Stone forming a well-matched pair, Adrian Brendel’s cello singing warmly, and Graham Mitchell nimbly negotiating the busy double bass writing. There was a nice grain to the sound at the start of the Andantino, against which Gonley’s subsequent solo shone cleanly, set off too by the double bass’s rich low ventures. The final Allegro showed the young Rossini experimenting with some piquant harmonies and modulations and was persuasively and gracefully played.
Were one to summon two or three words to describe the Nash Ensemble’s performance of Spohr’s Octet, then precise, stylish and politely convivial come readily to mind. The presence of two violas and two horns lent a comforting warmth and richness to the ensemble sound, Mitchell’s double bass providing a firm anchor in the centre of the arc, the strings to his right and wind to the left, with violinist Stephanie Gonley countered by clarinettist Richard Hosford at the extremes of the curve. The fullness of the string and horn tone offered a beneficial complement to Hosford’s silky clarinet: he often seemed a sort of dramatic ‘narrator’, leading the other performers through the tale. While I’d have liked Gonley’s violin line to have gleamed a little more brightly at times, the musicians shaped the individual voices with clarity while sustaining overall equilibrium.
In the Allegro, the conversational interactions between clarinet and horn, and between woodwind and strings, were articulated with refinement, though Spohr’s musical material is less than memorable and the general impression is of a social gathering during which well-mannered pleasantries are exchanged but nothing of great import is said. The Menuetto had more character: a certain gravity, and a finely etched melody with neat ornamentation. In the Trio, Gonley demonstrated her dexterity – a reminder that Spohr was himself a virtuoso violinist – added interest arising from the darkness and strength of the lower strings, with Brendel enjoying the cello’s rises to the top of the texture.
The story goes that the Viennese merchant-violinist Johann von Tost commissioned the Octet at a time when he was planning a business trip to England, and so prevailed upon Spohr to appeal to English audiences by including Handel’s ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ theme among the Octet’s movements. Spohr duly provided an intricate Andante con Variationi on Handel’s theme. One can almost feel the compositional effort as the variations unfold, not because the material is mechanical but just that Spohr seems to be striving for every contrast of colour he can find – taut pizzicato strings complemented by pianissimo syncopated wind, for example – squeezing the harmonic and rhythmic juices as he proceeds and exploiting chromaticism and rhythmic to the full. If at times the treatment of Handel’s sturdy melody feels rather over-elaborate, the Nash’s playing was agile and effortless. The Allegretto finale romped home exuberantly and attractively but once again Spohr’s quasi-orchestral Romantic declamations, though played with accomplishment, did not make much of a mark on the memory.
From its very first bars, Schubert’s Octet – scored for string quartet, double bass, bassoon, horn and clarinet – makes quite a different impression. Here, gentility and professional competence are replaced by Schubert’s fecundity and daring, the music no less finely crafted than Spohr’s but hinting at an innate impulsiveness, even rowdiness, that perches on the cusp of indecorousness. I’d have liked the Nash Ensemble to have relished the unruliness a little more; at times it seemed they were endeavouring, through technical assurance, to quell it into submission. But, the Octet comprises six movements and lasts almost an hour: Schubert’s rebelliousness is not so easily silenced! Even the key which he chose for the Octet issues a challenge, F major presenting some problems of intonation for an ensemble formed of wind and strings, problems which were not always mastered on this occasion.
To my ears, the opening Allegro, surging forth from the introductory Adagio’s rising motifs, is brimming with life and aspiration. Here, while there was good balance and blend, I missed the sense of excitement that blooms from the energy and independence of the inner voices, born from dynamic dotted rhythms and leaping gestures, though I did enjoy the reedy warmth with which Ursula Leveaux’s bassoon imbued the ensemble sound. The Adagio was beautifully played: the long arches of the clarinet melody were wonderfully crafted by Hosford and answered warmly by Gonley, and the movement’s expanse was confidently grasped and shaped. The Scherzo danced merrily, but the circling figures would not have alarmed high-society Vienna: I hear more boldness, and a wider smile, in this music. Hosford again impressed in the Andante, and the variation form allowed the members of the Nash Ensemble to demonstrate both individual prowess and clarity of ensemble. There were some lovely colours in this movement: the pairing of bassoon and horn, the contrasts between the wind trio and the upper three strings. Here, the ‘refinement’ felt just right. After a relaxed Menuetto, the tremolos, sforzandi and see-sawing dynamics of the short Andante molto that precedes the finale might have conjured a little more frisson and tension, as the Allegro might have worn a jauntier feather in its cap, though the concluding accelerando did whip up a whirl.
The Nash Ensemble are Wigmore Hall’s resident chamber ensemble, and one senses that the Hall is the perfect venue for the Octets that the large audience enjoyed: small enough for the scale of the works’ ambition to make a mark, not so small as to render clarity and definition difficult to achieve. Clearly enjoying each other’s musical company, the instrumentalist’s collective demeanour was unassuming and relaxed. Though they did not communicate all of the multifarious and often contradictory impulses that imbue Schubert’s Octet with its spontaneity and spark, they gave a polished performance – indeed, one that conjured the spirit of 19th-century Viennese music-making: one might have imagined the players as genteel Hapsburgians, enjoying an evening of Hausmusik.