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S & H Concert Review

Delius, Warlock, Vaughan Williams, Bax: The Nash Ensemble, Mark Padmore, Wigmore Hall, November 15th 2003 (ME)


This was the third concert in the Nash Ensemble’s series of British music from the first half of the 20th century, evocatively titled ‘Those Blue Remembered Hills’ from Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ and it was the now – expected mixture of the well – loved and the unfamiliar, with the latter being seen this time in a premiere public performance of a very early Vaughan Williams work.

Delius’ second Violin Sonata began the evening, a little tentative in the hands of Marianne Thorsen and Ian Brown, but both warmed to the lyrical second part where the violin’s music is lush and redolent of the natural scenery which the composer so loved. Warlock’s Songs for tenor and string quartet followed: these settings of 16th century poems are perhaps mostly familiar from their piano and voice versions, especially in the lovely Hyperion recording of Warlock’s songs by John Mark Ainsley and Roger Vignoles. That recording features a striking performance of ‘My Lady is a Pretty one’ or as it is called there, ‘That Ever I Saw,’ a piece which this evening’s programme note informs us does not exist as a version with piano. Mark Padmore sang them carefully and accurately but without much sense of their special quality.

Vaughan Williams was 26 when he wrote the C minor String Quartet, receiving here its first public performance. It’s such a slight work that one wonders about the merits of exhuming it: true, Keats, say, died at 26 after writing a handful of immortal poems, but I’m not sure that it’s quite fair to assume that every creative artist is so mature at so young an age, and to say that Vaughan Williams developed his art in the years to come is an understatement. It’s charming enough, especially in the Andantino section and the Intermezzo, and I’m glad to have heard it – but I won’t rush to hear it again.

The second half was composed of Bax’s Concerto for flute, oboe, harp and string quartet, played with confident ease by the ensemble, especially in the cases of Philippa Davies’ flute and Bryn Lewis’ harp. Those odd programme notes again – we’re informed this time that Bax was ‘soaked’ (does this mean ‘steeped?’) in Irish history…I’m unsure as to the relevance of this except insofar as the piece is of a folksy nature.

And so to the evening’s major work, ‘On Wenlock Edge’ which is something of speciality of this ensemble, their recording of it – again on Hyperion, and again with Ainsley as the soloist – being as near to perfection as can be imagined, although Ian Partridge’s eloquently lyrical version also gives much pleasure. Mark Padmore is not in the same league as these tenors: he sings with taste and style, for the most part (save for an unmusical ‘H’ before ‘I will come’) but he entirely lacks the fire, passion and poetry required by this work. He was at his best in the quiet, direct sections such as ‘From far, from eve and morning’ and he sang ‘Clun’ with thoughtfulness and care for the words, but ‘Is my team ploughing’ and ‘Bredon Hill’ both lacked drama and contrast: the latter’s first line should be floated out ecstatically, and its final utterances should feel like a frank release, but here both were merely pleasant. Marianne Thorsen played with verve and engagement, her violin often supplying the passion which the singing lacked.

Melanie Eskenazi

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