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S & H Concert Review

Schumann, Robin Holloway: Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, October 4th 2003 (ME)


 

The Nash Ensemble’s latest series is ‘Those Blue Remembered Hills,’ featuring British Music from the first half of the 20th century, so I’m not quite sure how this concert celebrating Robin Holloway’s 60th birthday fits into the plan, since all the works presented here were written either in the first half of the 19th century or the second half of the 20th. However, the series promises to be a fascinating journey through some of the most unjustly neglected works of such composers as Gurney, Warlock and Vaughan Williams, so one can forgive a little fudging around the dates.

Robin Holloway, we’re assured in the delightfully overblown introduction (not attributed – did he write it himself, one wonders?) ‘loftily dispelled’ with works later than his ‘Fantasy Pieces…’ of 1971, any accusations of conservatism such works might have attracted, and his further explorations of romantic terms of reference all flowed ‘in a mighty delta from the source of his music of the 1970’s.’ We’re also told that he brings to each of his pieces ‘an unparalleled range of aesthetic concerns’ (unparalleled by whom, one asks) and, more informatively, that he sees the past as something ‘almost tangibly to be desired, whether darkly, playfully or passionately.’ Well, certainly: who can deny that they would love to have written Schumann’s ‘Liederkreis’ Op. 24 to the point of passionate longing for it, but of course most composers don’t go quite so far as to frame their own pieces around it.

Holloway’s declared intention was to ‘make an integral work out of a source that was itself a unity’ but to some ears you can’t improve upon perfection, and having the Schumann ‘inserted’ after Holloway’s ‘Praeludium’ and before the other four parts of his work did not do much to illuminate either: in particular, the wonderful little nachspiel after the singer has just breathed those final words ‘Wehmut und Liebeshauch’ should surely be received in quiet contemplation of the piano and not of the conductor’s back as he arranges himself to direct the subsequent piece. Incidentally, it was interesting to note that one of our most eminent critics clearly is a man who can ‘do it in his sleep,’ since most of the Holloway found him in a peaceful slumber; I await his review with even more than my usual interest, as I do his views on the performance of the evening’s final work, Schumann’s Piano Quintet, before which a whole gaggle of critics made a swift exit.

Holloway’s work does not make the Schumann his own, to paraphrase Stravinsky, but it weaves around the melodies of the songs in such a way as to highlight the most romantic of their sensibilities: what Horn player would not want the chance to play ‘Oben Lust, im Busen Tücken,’ and Michael Thompson played it beautifully - indeed the instrumental performance was very fine, but the Schumann itself formed an uncomfortable quarter of an hour for all concerned. Toby Spence, replacing the indisposed John Mark Ainsley at very short notice, was not himself in his best voice, and despite some lovely moments, notably a fine legato line in ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ and an ideally caressing tone at ‘Einst kommt dies Buch in deine Hand,’ this was a tentative reading which gave little opportunity to reveal the exciting edge which this voice certainly possesses and the innate musicality with which Spence is clearly blessed. He was not helped by Ian Brown’s accompanying: again, it can’t be easy to play for someone with whom you hadn’t expected to be going on, but this was playing which was very far from the sensitivity needed by the music: the introduction to ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’ was perfunctory rather than suggestive of a rocking cradle, and ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’ did little to evoke the required sense of longing: it was hardly surprising that the singer could not manage the closing diminuendo.

The second part of the concert began with the premiere of Holloway’s ‘Spring Music for flute, harp and strung quartet’ which was commissioned by the Nash Ensemble. Holloway writes that each melody-instrument is given a solo in which just one altered coloration is permitted, ‘influencing the harmonic/melodic flavour like a squeeze of lime or lemon or a pinch of herb or paprika.’ Delicious! There is some lovely writing here for the harp and the viola, and the variation in the Chaconne is the most individual music I have heard from this composer, but the overall flavour is somewhat vague and ephemeral – which perhaps was the intention. The Nash Ensemble played it with absolute commitment and unity of purpose, as they did the evening’s final work, Schumann’s E flat major Piano Quintet. Dedicated to Clara, who played the piano part in the first public performance in 1842, this work forms an ideal ending to a concert which began with ‘Liederkreis.’ The piano is dominant throughout, and here Ian Brown was far more at home, especially in the finale, where the tender violin melody was also beautifully played and the Nash’s familiar collaborative excellence made light of the powerful coda.

Despite some fine playing, this was not one of the Nash’s great evenings, but there’s plenty more in store for this series, including the next concert on November 15th which will feature Mark Padmore in ‘On Wenlock Edge,’ and a tempting curiosity on February 21st when Holst’s ‘Savitri’ will receive a rare outing, preceded by Saeed Jaffrey reading from the ‘Mahabharata.’ As always, you can rely on the Nash Ensemble to come up with the enticing and unusual.

Melanie Eskenazi

 

 


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