Concert Review

Nash Inventions The Nash Ensemble New Music Series, Concert 1:
Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London Thursday March 16

Knussen: Songs Without Voices
Carter: Enchanted Preludes
Birtwistle: Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker
Holt: Sparrow Night
For Elliott Carter at 90: Birthday Pieces by Donatoni, Holliger, Knussen, Kurtág, Goehr and Mackey

Valdine Anderson, soprano, Nash Ensemble, Martyn Brabbins, conductor

Although they've played a crucial role in revitalizing the Classical and Romantic chamber repertoires over the past three decades, the Nash Ensemble's track-record in promoting new works is no less impressive, with 85 commissions among a total of 225 first performances. This first of two concerts focussed on a belated but very welcome to Elliott Carter, still active in his 92nd year, including one tribute which took on a life of its own.

Birtwistle's Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker are the latest in the series of miniature (either in scale or number or both) song cycles strewn accross the greater part of his output. The initial three settings of the Carter tribute expanding to the present nine: brief, often laconic treatments of haiku-like texts by the little-known Niedecker (1903-70), who seems - Emily Dickinson-like - to have drawn a whole world of experiencing from her native Wisconsin. Valdine Anderson sang the taut, compressed vocal lines with real appreciation of their localized sentiments made universal in time and place, while Paul Watkins invested the cello part, a parallel vocal line rather than accompaniment as such, with real gravity of purpose.

The remaining six Carter tributes drew a characteristic response from the commissionees: nothing like an anniversary to refocus compositional essentials. Thus we had a teasing three-way rendezvous from Franco Donatoni; a wistful but allusive For Elliott from Heinz Holliger; a wayward but likeable Eccentric Melody from Oliver Knussen; a deceptively elegant Hommage from György Kurtág; a capricious cryptogram, 90 Es and Cs for Elliott Carter, from Alexander Goehr; and an virtuoso rhythmic Etude from Steven Mackey. All engaging miniatures, and a well-contrasted tribute to the greatest living classical composer.

In the first half, Carter's own Enchanted Preludes, a pithy but elegant dialogue for flute and cello, had followed Knussen's Songs Without Voices, among his most expressively-potent miniatures, its final Adagio (Elegiac Arabesques) a poignant remembrance of Andrzej Panufnik. The concert closed with Sparrow Night, an intense 18-minute evocation of nocturnal fear, Chekovian in its inspiration and atmosphere. Admirably conducted by Martyn Brabbins, and with Gareth Hulse shining in the almost concertante oboe part, it made a powerful conclusion to the evening.

[The Carter tributes are published in issue 207 (December 1998) of Tempo magazine]

Richard Whitehouse

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