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Beethoven, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Ravel: Nash Ensemble (Ian Brown, Marianne Thorsen, Paul Watkins), Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 24.1.11. (RJ)

This recital contrasted two worlds: one safe, comfortable and optimistic, the other shell-shocked and insecure.  The first was represented by Beethoven's Piano Trio in C minor Op 1 No 3 composed in 1795 (before Napoleon's armies began to menace Europe) and Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No 1 in D minor (composed years before the revolutionary fervour of 1848). On the other hand, the two compositions by Debussy and Ravel represented a world that was tearing itself apart.

Let's start off on a cheerful note. Beethoven had arrived in Vienna and was in his mid-twenties when he composed his Opus 1 trios for Count Lichnowsky, and he was looking forward to the future with confidence. He was the pianist in the first performances of these works so it is perhaps no surprise that the piano should be so prominent, and there were instances where the two stringed instruments had a subordinate role.

Fortunately, the Nash Ensemble were able to call on the versatile and reliable Ian Brown, their pianist for over thirty years - far too youthful in manner and appearance to be dubbed a veteran - who made the piano sing in the Andante Cantabile. He was partnered by two of the Ensemble's “Young Bloods” - Norwegian violin virtuoso Marianne Thorsen and Welsh cellist Paul Watkins (both of whom joined at the turn of the Millennium) - and their teamwork brought out the full invention and promise of this ambitious work.

There seemed to be even more notes for Mr Brown to play in Mendelssohn's Trio and his nimble fingers scurried up and down the keyboard without a break. Despite its gentle introduction this is an extrovert work in which the composer aimed to reinvigorate a musical form which had gone out of fashion and succeeded magnificently. The three musicians threw themselves into the music with splendid crescendos and accelerandos which kept the audience on the edge of their seats.. The slow movement – a kind of Song without Words – offered an expressive contrast and the whimsical Scherzo was sheer delight.

The Ensemble's superb performances of both the Beethoven and Mendelssohn works found great favour with the audience, but their reaction to the two twentieth century works was decidely mixed. Ravel's four movement Sonata for Violin and Cello had started out as a single movement allegro dedicated to memory of Debussy who had died in 1918. This is music “stripped down to the bone” to use the composer's words, and inhabits sa disturbing, atonal sound world.  Marianne Thorsen and Paul Watkins brought tension to the agitated first movement and gave a brilliant rendition of the scherzo which alternates between pizzicato passages and brusque rhymical interludes The slow movement promised to offer an oasis of calm but unexpectedly erupted into a fierce argument. The finale started off with a jolly dance-like melody from the cello but the tension increased as the violin attempted to take the lead.

Debussy's late Sonata for Cello and Piano was written in 1915 and is pervaded with dark undercurrents. It started off promisingly with a soliloquy for cello played with passion by Paul Watkins who handled the technical aspects of the piece – spiccato, flautando bowing and false harmonics – with assurance. The second movement was a mysterious affair with snatches of melody from piano and cello as Pierrot serenaded the moon with desperate pleadings; there is none of the charm of Clair de Lune here. The rhythmic finale was a little more cheerful but did nothing to dispel the overall sense of foreboding.

Thought-provoking programmes like this have always been the Nash Ensemble's stock in trade, and the capacity audience was treated to committed musicianship of the highest quality.

Roger Jones

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