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Nash Inventions

Nash Ensemble cond. Lionel Friend – Wigmore Hall 6 March 2007


We were in truly illustrious company as the Nash Ensemble treated us to an evening of premières by British composers. All those who had works performed were present, except Thomas Adés (no doubt in Berlin rehearsing for the world première of his new orchestral work Tivot ), but Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt, David Horne and both the Matthews brothers, Colin and David, were in the house.


The pre-concert event was a concert of short works by students at the Purcell School aged between thirteen and seventeen, for their age compositions all of the highest calibre, and performed superbly by their colleagues. It was a shame that the audience were requested not to applaud until the end – I felt rather ungrateful watching the young performers leave the stage in silence. This feeling was only consolidated after performances of selected movements from Birtwistle's solo piano work Harrison's Clocks; again by young pianists from the Purcell School. They completely stole the show. Harrison's Clocks, originally written for Joanna MacGregor, is of course a highly virtuosic piece and these performances easily rivalled recordings by both MacGregor and Nicholas Hodges. Sir Harry appeared to be more than satisfied.


The main concert began with the Adés' Court Studies from “The Tempest” . Thomas Adés appears to be flavour of the month in London at the moment, soon to have a festival of his music at the Barbican Centre. As is the case with much of Adés' music of late, including his Violin Concerto Concentric Paths (premièred at the Proms in 2005) the piece opened promisingly, but soon started to ramble. My particular criticism was that it never really got going – rather starting over and over again. Often there was not even an attempt to link the parts together, just pregnant pauses before a new section got under way. Of course, every note was played beautifully, but it was still a case of making the best of bad situation. The' flavour of the month' is beginning to leave a nasty aftertaste, we can only hope that his festival is more engaging than tonight's offering.


Next came Crowd, the London première of Birtwistle's new work for harp solo. Earlier that day I was lucky enough to peruse a score, which informed me that ‘crowd' is derived from the Celtic ‘crwth', ‘cruit' and ‘crot', and that 'crowd' was the medieval English term for all instruments related to the harp or lyre.

In the pre-concert talk, Birtwistle said that the work was concerned with resonance, incorporating sounds that we might not expect from the harp. Indeed the score includes a strangely notated technique marked ‘xyloph.', no doubt intended to sound like a xylophone. This technique was either misconceived or misperformed, since there was not a single moment to me where an unusual timbre stood out. Nevertheless, Crowd is an engaging, slowly unfolding work, based on clearly audible mechanismsl, changing very slightly each time in a way similar to the slower movements of Harrison's Clocks . As a devoted fan of Birtwistle's work, I can say that it gripped me throughout, though I feel he is perhaps resting on his laurels. His work has mellowed considerably in the last decade, but on the evidence of Crowd, Birtwistle has stopped trying to break new ground, preferring to just do what he does very, very well.


Next was David Horne's Life's Splinters for tenor, flute, clarinet and string trio. These D. H. Lawrence settings had all the lucidity and sonic dexterity that we who know his music have come to expect. The programme note tells us that we should hear insect-like scratchings in the first song, The Mosquito Knows , and flashes of light in The Little Fish . This was true, but neither idea was presented in a clichéd manner, preferring to merely allude to these sounds and gestures in unconventional ways. Other than these two small ideas, obvious word painting is deliberately avoided throughout the cycle, rather keeping to a more abstract treatment of the ensemble, linking movements via a viola drone and a fleeting, supple clarinet gesture that harks back to his Phantom Instruments for clarinet and ensemble, premièred in Liverpool in February. An interesting idea structurally in the piece (incidentally echoed in Simon Holt's trio later in the concert) is the decision to set one of the poems for voice alone, giving a moment of relief before the slow, yet climactic final setting of Piano .


The second half opened with Birtwistle's Lied for ‘cello and piano – a UK première of a piece written for Alfred Brendel's 75 th birthday. As the title suggests, the work is very song-like, indeed Birtwistle tells us that it is “a song, one step along in a game of Chinese Whispers”. The melodic lines are reminiscent of the endless melodies in other works such as An Interrupted Endless Melody , Secret Theatre or recently Theseus Game, and as such can become rather drawn out and difficult to follow. It is perhaps a criticism of the notion of ‘Chinese Whispers' that any concrete ideas are immediately blurred, never to come into any kind of clarity. All in all, the work shows a charming, more human side of Birtwistle's work than is often heard, but lacks the directness and engaging character of his other music. He has said that he plans to compose three more works in a kind of ‘Chinese Whispers' cycle, with the song that is the impetus for this ‘cello piece becoming almost inaudible by the fourth piece in the set.


Simon Holt's 2005 work for string trio, 4 Quarters , was full of typical Holtian strangeness; including the subtitles of the movements: each being one part of a four-part entity, such as humours (Choler), compass points (North), seasons (Spring) and elements (Ether). The strangeness does not end there; we are told that the first three movements each feature one of the players in the trio, but the opening movement is scored for viola sola, with the other two players sat in silence! This opening was ferociously virtuosic, and magnificently performed by Lawrence Power before giving way to a moment of quiet repose, only to be rudely broken by the return of the more strident material, just as vicious as before, but not without a sense of mischievous humour at its relentlessness. The movement featuring the violinist appeared to be a kind of rondo, with noticeable recapitulations of material, but over an accompaniment that changed with each statement, but essentially remaining fast throughout, though less virtuosic than the viola movement, perhaps even reminiscent of the opening of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet in its unemotional nature. Mr Holt's programme note tells us simply that the fourth movement is ‘meditative' and does not focus on any of the instruments in particular. It certainly was that – glacially slow, and with only fragments of what could be deemed material, but gave a satisfying and poignant close to a piece that had multiple unexpected twists and turns, both in terms of the sounds, and the overall structure of the work.


Finally we had the world première of Terrible Beauty, David Matthews' new work for mezzo-soprano and chamber ensemble. Perhaps Matthews is trying to show off some sort of literary knowledge with such an eclectic mixture of allusions in one piece: Yeats for the title (taken from Easter 1916 ), then Homer's Iliad briefly for the beginning of the piece, set in the original Greek, then into Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra , all linked by the theme of tragedy. Terrible Beauty focuses on tragic seductions; Hera seduces Zeus, distracting him from his support of the Trojans; and then Mark Antony's downfall and Cleopatra's suicide after her seduction. This all left me completely cold.


The piece simply lacked definition, with the voice simply meandering on top of an ensemble that seemed to merely coexist with the vocal line, neither complementing nor contradicting. The sudden fast section towards the end was perhaps welcome, and a ray of light after the preceding music, but it was too little, too late – the ensemble returns to the subdued sounds of the opening, before closing with a declamatory minor chord. Matthews gives great importance to this chord saying that it ‘hammers home the dramatic and tragic consequences of both seductions, but it all seems a little trite after hearing quite extended harmony for about twenty minutes, just to end with a basic minor chord. In all, this piece rambled, and was a completely unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise enjoyable evening.


Nathaniel Cope