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S & H Concert Review

Mendelssohn, Zemlinsky, Schubert: The Nash Ensemble, John Mark Ainsley, Richard Watkins. Wigmore Hall, November 30th 2002 (ME)


This concert formed part of the Nash Ensemble’s series ‘Echoes of Romanticism,’ a typically enterprising and illuminating set of concerts which places works by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Schubert and Mahler alongside those of lesser-known composers such as Zemlinsky and Korngold. A beautifully balanced programme here framed songs by Zemlinsky and Schubert’s rarely performed ‘Auf dem Strom’ with piano trios by Mendelssohn and Schubert, all given performances of the highest musical excellence.

Schumann famously regarded Mendelssohn’s C minor Piano Trio as being on a level with Beethoven, and in this performance Marianne Thorsen, Paul Watkins and Ian Brown almost persuaded me that Schumann’s praise was justified; it is typical Mendelssohn in that its structure is fastidiously formal yet its melodic expression is often almost rhapsodic in its freedom and inventiveness, and the playing caught the perfect balance between those two sides, especially in Ian Brown’s fluid, sensitive piano part. The ‘cellist Paul Watkins is a highly individual musician who can at times seem to indulge in a little over-bowing, but that was not entirely inappropriate in the D flat theme of the first movement, and both he and Thorsen played the passionate final movement with real fire.

Zemlinsky does not fit very comfortably into our scheme of twentieth century music: though he was much admired by contemporary composers in his lifetime, he was later overshadowed by the second Viennese school and for some time remembered only as Schoenberg’s brother-in-law, but in recent years his works have gained wider recognition. Those who might know this composer from his opera ‘Der Zwerg’ or perhaps his ‘Lyric Symphony,’ with its intensely romantic fourth song ‘Sprich zu mir, Geliebter!’ might be surprised to hear these often austere songs, which show so clearly that Zemlinsky was in many ways a bridge between the Lied of Schumann and Brahms and the music of Schoenberg. They are neither easy to programme nor straightforward to sing, and it is typical of the Nash and of the tenor soloist, John Mark Ainsley, that such relatively obscure music should be presented here with such a level of commitment.

The Four Songs of 1903-5 were written when Zemlinsky was also working on the fantasy opera ‘Der Traumgörge,’ and they too have a sense of otherworldliness about them, especially in their glimpses into the darker sides of life. Heine’s ‘Es war ein alter König’ was set by many other composers, but not with the kind of grim undercurrents we hear in this version, and the two ‘cradle songs’ are anything but soothing: Liliencron’s ‘Űber eine Wiege’ has the child dead in the crib, and Beer-Hofmann’s ‘Schlummerlied’ offers little comfort save oblivion. The only glimpse of charm comes with the third song, a rather oblique invitation. Ainsley sang them with the intelligence and sensitivity to language which always mark out his performances, although on this occasion he obviously had a cold which affected his production of some of the higher-lying parts, and some of his chest and head notes did not quite join as seamlessly as they usually do. Nevertheless, his performance went far beyond what one often hears in this music, often bringing rare distinction to the musical line and giving real point to such words as ‘Patschen’ (footfall) and ‘Sommervogel.’

The four ‘waltz songs after Tuscan folksongs’ are perhaps less problematic in that their musical language is more readily recognizable, and they gave Ainsley and Ian Brown a chance to show intimacy of ensemble and often eloquent virtuosity, especially in the last stanza of the first song and the final line, which one could imagine Mahler setting in a similar way – ‘Es siegt, we dauert in Ewigkeit’ and which was sung with ringing authority.

The all-Schubert second half began with ‘Auf dem Strom,’ written in the final year of Schubert’s life and first sung by the tenor Ludwig Tietze, whose technical facility at the top of his voice influenced Schubert to write other songs for what his friend Walcher called a ‘damnably high’ tenor voice. This setting of one of Rellstab’s more sombre poems for tenor, horn and piano is not performed often, for fairly obvious reasons: not only is the horn obbligato part a demanding one, but the singer’s role is challenging in terms of achieving the right balance between a perfect legato line and the bleak anguish of the words. Richard Watkins’ playing provided the right note of sombre, haunting companionship, whilst Ainsley gave pulsating drama to ‘Durch das grau gehobne Meer!’ and evoked the characteristic Schubertian sense of longing in such lines as ‘Wo ich ihre Liebe fand,’ and most obviously the muted hopefulness of the final stanza, where the melancholy beauty of his timbre at ‘Dort begegn’ ich ihrem Blick’ closed a performance of the most heartfelt tenderness.

The final work was Schubert’s much more frequently heard B flat major Piano Trio, superbly played by Thorsen, Brown and Paul Watkins, each of whom invested it with ideal warmth and melodic finesse. It was an especially apposite partner for the preceding work, since it was probably written for the same trio of musicians who played the E flat trio at the concert in March 1828 where ‘Auf dem Strom’ was first performed; a typically Nash Ensemble piece of planning. The wonderful Andante, its harmonies so evocative of ‘Im Abendrot,’ highlighted Thorsen’s wonderfully supple articulation, and the Scherzo drew from all three some lively, highly communicative playing, especially in the animated, Landler-like finale.

This concert was typical of the Nash Ensemble’s inspired programming and high standards of musicianship, and the next two concerts in the series look equally appealing: on December 14th they will be joined by Wolfgang Holzmair for Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and songs by Weber, framed by Mozart’s G minor Piano Quartet and Schumann’s E flat Piano Quartet, and on January 11th they will give a concert dedicated to William Lyne, including works by Mahler, Debussy and Mozart, with Lisa Milne as soloist – all highly recommended.

Melanie Eskenazi

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