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Fauré, Falla, Ravel, Debussy, Franck
Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall, London, 5.12. 2009 (J-PJ)

: Dolly Suite for piano duet, Op. 56
Falla: Trois Mélodies
Falla: Psyché
Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Cello
Debussy: Danse Sacrée et Danse Profane
Franck: Piano Quintet in F minor

Piano – Ian Brown, Charles Owen
Flute – Philippa Davies
Violin – Marianne Thorsen, David Adams
Viola – Lawrence Power
Cello – Paul Watkins
Double bass – Duncan McTier
Harp – Lucy Wakeford
Mezzo-soprano – Karen Cargill

The programme for this concert by the Nash Ensemble promised an ‘invitation au voyage’, with a musical journey through France and Spain during the belle époque and early modernist years of 1890-1925. In fact, we never got much further than Paris, although it was a pleasant ride along the way.

The more ‘exotic’ works in the programme came from Manuel de Falla, whose Trois Mélodies for voice and piano were composed in 1909-10 during his stay in Paris. It is a pity that these songs are so neglected. Combining Spanish tonalities with more pronounced French instrumentation, they made for enchanting listening, particularly with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill’s full-throated delivery. Falla’s Psyché of 1924 for voice, flute, harp and string trio is altogether a different composition. Although the inclusion of flute and harp points to the French influences of Debussy and Ravel, the stately metre and freer declamations of the solo singer (Karen Cargill again) make it unmistakeably Spanish.

Two heavyweight works ended both halves of the concert – Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello (1920-22), and Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor (1878-79). The Ravel sonata was fantastically played by Marianne Thorsen and Paul Watkins, with Thorsen just having the edge over Watkins with her thrilling playing on violin. But this was not an exercise in technical showmanship. Rather it was a model lesson in ensemble partnership playing. Both players’ timing was flawless, and there was clearly a shared sense of mission from the brilliant first movement, through the darkly menacing Lento, to the jerkily upbeat finale.

Franck’s Piano Quintet was equally well played. A comparatively long work, Franck’s composition is also thematically complex, with its exploration of cyclical forms. In lesser hands, the quintet can sound heavy, even boring. But the players of the Nash Ensemble lived up to their collective reputation with a performance that drew the listener deeper and deeper into Franck’s musical journey. In true ensemble style, no single player dominated the work, although Ian Brown on piano kept an appropriate aloofness. The thrilling, agitated climax to the first movement was especially exciting.

Two lesser works were slotted into the rest of the programme – Fauré’s Dolly Suite for piano duet, and Debussy’s Danse Sacré et Danse Profane. A light, familiar work, the Dolly Suite was played well enough by Ian Brown and Charles Owen, though more mechanically than affectionately. Debussy’s Danses, however, provided a brilliant spectacle, with Lucy Wakeford perfectly executing on a conventional instrument Debussy’s showy exercise for chromatic harp.

John-Pierre Joyce


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