On record – Nash Ensemble – Julian Anderson: Poetry Nearing Silence (NMC)

Nash Ensemble / Martyn Brabbins

Julian Anderson
Ring Dance (1987) Benjamin Nabarro, Michael Gurevich (violins)
The Bearded Lady (1994) Richard Hosford (clarinet), Ian Brown (piano)
The Colour of Pomegranates (1994) Philippa Davies (alto flute), Ian Brown (piano)
Prayer (2009) Lawrence Power (viola)
Poetry Nearing Silence (1997) Benjamin Nabarro (violin, triangle), Michael Gurevich (violin, triangle), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)
Another Prayer (2012) Benjamin Nabarro (viola)
Van Gogh Blue (2015) Ian Brown (piano), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Marie Lloyd (clarinet, bass clarinet), Lawrence Power (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello), Philippa Davies (flute, piccolo), Richard Hosford (clarinet, E-flat clarinet), Hugh Webb (harp)

Producer and Engineer David Lefeber
Digital Editing Susanne Stanzeleit

Recorded 1-3 April 2019 at Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, Kent

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Back in 2007 NMC released a disc called Book of Hours, a highly enjoyable compendium of the work of Julian Anderson, where smaller-scale music rubbed shoulders with ambitious works like the Symphony and the Book of Hours itself, which combined an ensemble and electronics to fascinating effect.

Poetry Nearing Silence is to all intents and purposes a follow-up release to that Gramophone Award winner, and features the Nash Ensemble and their members in short works by Anderson. They range from solo instrumental pieces to suites for ensemble, written from 1987 to 2015.

What’s the music like?

Concentrated, effective and stimulating. It is great to have such variety within a disc the listener can either dip into or experience in full. Either approach brings dividends.

Ring Dance, for two violins, opens the collection with the instruction that it should ‘be played with unimaginable joy!’ The open string drones with which the piece starts give a penetrating sound, and this approach is consistent with the piece. The instruction with some of the bowing is often to dig in hard near the strings, which gives an extra scratchy timbre. The sound is also striking when the open strings shift up a fifth, accentuating the positive if not always obviously joyful.

The Bearded Lady is next, receiving a tour de force account from clarinetist Richard Hosford and pianist Ian Brown. After the bold opening it becomes more lyrical if still high in its register, defiant yet mournful in its regret at how characters such as the bearded lady – in this case, Baba the Turk from Auden’s The Rake’s Progress – have been portrayed on stage. The uncompromising notes from the piano at the end speak plenty here.

It is surprising not more composers write for alto flute, for the instrument has a really appealing sonority. Anderson writes enchantingly on his nocturne The Colour of Pomegranates, aided by a richly coloured performance from Philippa Davies and Ian Brown, which builds to the sound of tolling bells on the piano and sharper, bird like squawks from the flute. This piece sounds a lot further East than England – and indeed is named after an Armenian film.

Another change of sound brings in the husky viola of Lawrence Power for Prayer, a more recent piece in which Anderson enjoys writing for the instrument he learned briefly in his teens. Here is a reminder that the instrument has a much bigger range than composers often use, grainy in its lower register but with a penetrating line higher up where Anderson capitalises for his melodic material. You might expect Prayer to be a contemplation but this one lets its thoughts unravel and regroup.

After four pieces bringing forward solo instruments, the disc moves to the ensemble number that gave its name. Poetry Nearing Silence is for seven players and runs through eight short movements, where Anderson reacts to the unusual drawings and words therein of Tom Phillips. The crisp chords that open Muse in Rocks or Pebbles or Clouds or Foliage are immediately appealing for their watery colours, and the suite continues to deliver keen illustrations of its subject matter. Anderson writes dreamy lines through Know Vienna, while the intriguing buzzing of a ratchet, played by the second violin, adds mystery to the bigger ensemble number My Future as the Star in a Film of My Room. As the suite progresses Anderson makes keen use of his resources in concentrated, expressive music that charms and impresses in equal measure. Shrill clarinet and gritty strings make notable colours, yet when the piece collapses as the bell tolls in Tall Rain Rattled Over Paris, the music subsides into silence. A dramatic piece well worth returning to.

Another Prayer returns us to solo instruments, this time for violin. It is around the same length as its viola counterpart heard earlier on, and shares some melodic material. It shares its restlessness too, forthright from the start and buzzing with nervous energy. Benjamin Nabarro rises to its challenges comfortably, but also creates a rarefied atmosphere with the harmonics of the central section.

Finally the most substantial piece, Van Gogh Blue, based on the painter’s letters that relish ‘the sheer stuff of which his own art is made’. This is the most obviously expressive piece of the collection, with clarinet-rich sonorities and expansive piano teamed to immediate effect in L’Aube, soleil naissant. Second movement Les Vignobles invokes the dance, while Les Alpilles teems with activity and life, the painter seemingly writing faster than his pen will allow. The clarinets dominate here. Eygalieres is a heat haze, with lovely colours emanating from the suspended chords of the ensemble, expanded by the piano. They create fuzzy yet bright sound worlds. Finally la nuit, peindre les étoiles is more playful, pizzicato violin and clarinet often in cahoots. There is a bigger scope to this movement, the recording playing effectively with perspective as some of the group sound detached and distant, almost bickering in the room next door.  The sparring, completed over solemn piano notes, completes an eventful and compelling piece.

Does it all work?

Yes. It is well worth giving the disc several airings so the works make themselves clear. It will be apparent that Julian Anderson is capable of writing concentrated music that sticks, and that he is incredibly versatile in his writing either for alto flute, viola or even the ratchet. Martyn Brabbins conducts superb accounts of the ensemble pieces, technically fault free in the way the Nash Ensemble tend to be – but also finding the sensitive centre of Van Gogh Blue in the beautifully voiced Eygalieres.

Is it recommended?

Yes, very much so. While Anderson’s orchestral works have rightly enjoyed good exposure of late, the chamber music has tended to drift under the radar. What it needed was a collection like this to push it into the spotlight.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from Poetry Nearing Silence and to purchase a copy at the Presto website here

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics II: Brahms, Mendelssohn & Schumann

Nash Ensemble: Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), Lawrence Power, Timothy Ridout (violas), Adrian Brendel (cello), Graham Mitchell (double bass), Philippa Davies (flute), Richard Hosford, Marie Lloyd (clarinets), Ursula Leveaux (bassoon), Richard Watkins (horn) / Martyn Brabbins (conductor, Brahms Serenade)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2018 7.30pm

Schumann Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (1853)
Brahms String Quintet no.2 in G major Op.111 (1890)
Mendelssohn Song Without Words in D major Op.109 (1845)
Brahms, reconstructed Alan Boustead Serenade no.1 in D major Op.11 (1857/58)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The second of the day’s concerts in the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall presented some of the finest 19th century chamber music to come from the country, picking up where the earlier concert of music by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn left off.

We began with late Robert Schumann, his Marchenerzahlüngen Op.132 (Fairy Tales), written for the appealing combination of clarinet, viola and piano that Mozart had pioneered in his own Kegelstatt trio of 1786. Schumann’s approach was formally less rigid, preferring to give his trio a quartet of character pieces, unlabelled in meaning but clear in tempo. Richard Hosford, Lawrence Power and Ian Brown were the perfect foil for these pieces, where the second especially stood out for its questioning harmony. The first and third pieces were songlike and romantic, while the fourth felt like one of Schumann’s celebrations of life itself. It is difficult to imagine a better performance than this one, the beauty of tone from clarinet and viola in particular a joy.

BrahmsString Quintet no.2, his last of seven chamber works for strings, is if anything even more positive and life affirming. While writing the piece in 1890 Brahms thought it would be his last work altogether, before going on to enjoy an unexpected Indian summer thanks to the inspiration of clarinettist Richard Mühlfield. The opening bars of the quintet are some of the very best in chamber music, and the tricky theme here was tackled heroically by cellist Adrian Brendel, the melody rising through the heady accompaniment of the others. The second theme of this movement was beautifully and soulfully rendered, setting the tone in the process for the second movement, an Adagio of heartfelt and profound utterance. The third movement, a silvery Intermezzo, was light on its feet while the finale recaptured the positive spirits of the first movement and pressed forward with impressive urgency. The Nash played brilliantly, communicating Brahms’ congested textures with apparent ease and enjoying the exchanges of ideas right to the end.

The second half of the concert, given to a packed Wigmore Hall, began with one of Mendelssohn’s most enjoyable trifles. His last work for cello and piano, the Song Without Words has at its heart a wonderful tune, which Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown clearly enjoyed. Brendel’s tone and forcefulness in the contrasting middle section were ideal.

This made an ideal prelude for early Brahms, the Serenade no.1. This wonderfully positive piece is usually heard in orchestral form, but here we heard Alan Boustead’s recreation of the original instrumentation of the piece, for nine solo instruments. With the combination of flute, two clarinets, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass, we were taken into the sound world of Beethoven’s Septet, written for a similar combination. Musically we were not far off either, and Martyn Brabbins joined the Nash Ensemble to conduct a highly spirited performance. Richard Watkins’ horn was the star of the show, projecting Brahms’s outdoorsy tunes with rustic charm, but in reality all nine players were superb, enjoying the relative lightness of texture and abundance of melody. The slow movement was placed second – not third, as the program said it would be – but this was an effective placement with some gorgeous textures. While this music was more thoughtful the Minuets and Scherzo returned us to the open air, while the Finale positively threw open the shutters for another winsome horn tune. This was Brahms at his most carefree, and Brabbins ensured the Nash Ensemble were too.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics series at the Wigmore Hall visit their website

Further listening

The below Spotify playlist compiles the music used in both of the evening’s German Romantics series from the Nash Ensemble, using their recordings where possible:

Nash Ensemble – German Romantics I: Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn

Nash Ensemble: Stephanie Gonley (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), Ian Brown (piano)

Clara Schumann 3 Romances for violin and piano Op.22 (1853)
Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes for cello and piano Op.17 (1829)
Fanny Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor Op.11 (1847)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2019 (5.30pm)

Review by Ben Hogwood

As part of the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics season at the Wigmore Hall, it was gratifying indeed to find a concert paying tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as composers in their own right rather than simply inspiration for their more frequently performed husbands.

Clara was the muse for Robert Schumann, and even after his death sacrificed her own career as a composer to ensure his music was best heard. Here we heard her last published work, the 3 Romances of 1853, written when Robert was still alive. Using a method of presentation her husband often employed in chamber music, she wrote these three attractive pieces for great violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom Clara gave the first performance in Germany. Stephanie Gonley and Ian Brown gave a thoughtful and rather beautiful account here, Gonley’s tone and phrasing ideally suited to the longer romantic melodies. The first piece was tender and expressive, the second thoughtful but with glimpses of sunshine, and the third a flowing account with an attractive, long-phrased melody.

There followed the Variations concertantes Op.19, the first of several works by Felix Mendelssohn for cello and piano. Written for his younger brother Paul, they are a virtuoso collection of far reaching interpretations of a theme, and were brilliantly played here by Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown, whose eager dialogue caught the energetic approach of the early Mendelssohn. The music moved from affirmative major key to tempestuous minor, but its return was a beautifully realised shift in mood.

We then heard Fanny Mendelssohn’s final published work, a Piano Trio to place alongside – if not even slightly ahead of – the two great works in the form by her brother. With the unison opening from violin and cello, presented above flowing piano figurations, she immediately ensures the audience are held in the drama of a piece that picks you up from the outset and doesn’t let you go.

Gonley, Brendel and Brown were ideal vehicles to present the piece, revelling in the exchanges of the first movement and the warmly romantic themes when the music became more affirmative. The middle two movements, effectively Songs Without Words in the Mendelssohn tradition, were beautifully presented with lyricism and charm, the third becoming distinctly chilly towards its close, leading to a cadenza from Brown to resume the drama in the final movement. The considerable struggles here were played out with thrilling virtuosity, distilling even the most complicated counterpoint before a glorious closing section that swept all before it.

It is to be hoped Clara Schumann’s 200th anniversary year – together with festival’s such as Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place – will raise the profile of women composers, which it has to be said could hardly have been lower in previous years. Concerts such as this help immensely, bringing forward the quality evident from both Clara and Fanny, with the pertinent reminder that neither Schumann nor Mendelssohn – nor indeed Brahms – could have achieved their musical goals without these creative forces.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble and their German Romantics series, visit their website

Further listening

You can listen to the music from both concerts of the latest German Romantics evening on the Spotify playlist below:

Live review – Nash Ensemble: War’s Embers – Elgar Piano Quintet & John Ireland Piano Trio no.2

Nash Ensemble (above) [Ian Brown (piano), Stephanie Gonley, Michael Gurevich (violins), David Adams (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello) (N.B. the line-up pictured above is not the same as the one appearing at this concert)

LSO St Luke’s, Friday 12 October 2018 (lunchtime concert)

Ireland Piano Trio no.2 (1917)
Elgar Piano Quintet in A minor Op.84 (1918)

Written by Ben Hogwood

The First World War had a profound effect on composers of classical music. Many of them served or were closely involved with the conflict, and even those who weren’t used their music as a vehicle for the shock and dismay felt at the turn of events.

John Ireland expressed his horror through two chamber works completed in 1917, the Violin Sonata no.2 and the Piano Trio no.2. The latter work began this concert from the Nash Ensemble, part of their War’s Embers series focusing on music written around the War in England. Set in one compact movement, it is a powerfully expressive utterance, even when the music is quiet – as it was when the first cello melody began – to when it reaches peaks of intensity in the march sections, depicting the war itself. Ian Brown, Stephanie Gonley and Adrian Brendel were united in voice, their three instruments often linked in melody, while Brendel’s eloquent solo at the start set the solemn tone.

Stylistically the work draws part of its inspiration from Debussy and Ravel, and these links were nicely played up by the trio, but the opening music dominated to the point of obsession, sweeping all before it. As evidenced in an interview with BBC Radio 3 host Fiona Talkington after the performance, the players had a clear understanding of Ireland’s writing, and his still underrated status in chamber music form.

Ireland’s trio was first heard at the Wigmore Hall in June 1917, and at the same venue nearly two years later audiences heard the premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet. Composed in Sussex, this autumnal work, written just prior to the Cello Concerto, reflects a fascination the Elgars held with a group of dead trees in Flexham Park, their branches twisted ‘in an eerie manner’.

The spidery tendrils of the first few bars reflected this eerie vision, and refused to release their grip on the piece despite a first movement that really got into top gear in this performance, passionately played and majestically poised. There was an affecting second theme before we heard for the first time some Spanish rhythms, also inspired by legend around the dead trees and refracted through a prism in Elgar’s mind, strangely sketched but never fully coloured-in.

The relative serenity of the slow movement, was countered by an emotional distance, as though here Elgar was conscious of the War, itself audible to him through the use of artillery just across the Channel. Perhaps because of this the trees made themselves known in closer proximity as the finale began, though here Elgar – and the Nash Ensemble – threw off the shackles to power through to an upward looking conclusion.

This was a fine performance of a work the Nash – and certainly Ian Brown – have had in their repertoire for more than 25 years. Brown displayed a natural instinct with the tricker phrases and was helped by a lovely string tone from the quartet in a performance that made sense of some of Elgar’s more distorted rhythms.

War’s Embers will come to BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 13 November and I urge you to hear it, placing this elusive work in the context of a fine performance.

Further listening

You will be able to listen to this concert on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 13 November. In the meantime recordings of the works heard are on the Spotify playlist below:

For further information on the Nash Ensemble’s War’s Embers series, visit the diary section on the ensemble’s website

The Nash Ensemble play Julian Anderson at the Wigmore Hall

julian-anderson

Contemporary Music Series: Julian Anderson, Composer in Residence – Wigmore Hall, Saturday 7 November

Stravinsky: Three Pieces
Ravel: Chansons madécasses
Anderson: The Colour of Pomegranates; Seadrift; Ring Dance [UK premiere]
Woolrich: Pluck from the Air [London premiere]
Anderson: Van Gough Blue [World premiere]

Claire Booth (soprano), Nash Ensemble [Philippa Davies (flute/piccolo), Richard Hosford, Marie Lloyd (clarinets), Laura Samuel, David Adams (violins), Laurence Power (viola); Adrian Brendel (cello), Peter Buckoke (double bass), Sally Pryce (harp)]
Alexandre Bloch, conductor

Review by Richard Whitehouse

nash-ensemble
The Nash Ensemble. © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

Julian Anderson’s residency at Wigmore Hall has brought a variety of artists and ensembles in performances of music – notably from the early twentieth century – so often difficult to schedule in recitals. One such opened tonight’s programme: Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for string quartet (1914) – a work no less radical than the ballets preceding it, given with the rhythmic trenchancy, gestural precision and harmonic plangency as characterize each piece.

Quite a contrast with Ravel’s Chansons madécasses (1926), a song-cycle whose singular scoring – soprano with flute, cello and piano – makes it awkward to find the right context. Not that this inhibited Claire Booth, whose unforced eloquence in the sensual ‘Nahandove’ and languorous ‘Il est doux de se coucher’ was balanced by the accusatory wrath of ‘Aoua’.

Anderson was represented in this first half by two pieces from two decades ago. The Colour of Pomegranates (1994) is less the encapsulation of Sergey Paradjanov’s film so much as a recollection of its magical aura, Philippa Davies unfolding the alto flute part with admirable dexterity as partnered by Ian Brown. Seadrift (1993) is a continuous sequence of songs such as renders Walt Whitman’s fabled text from a decidedly fresh perspective – soprano joined by flute (doubling piccolo) clarinet and piano in music that, without downplaying the purely emotional or even sentimental qualities of this poetry, enfolds it within a sonic canvas that underlines the aspects of union and separation at its core. Another fine showing from Booth, with members of the Nash taking its harmonic and rhythmic intricacies decisively in hand.

After the interval, Laura Samuel and David Adams gave the first UK hearing – and the first anywhere in 27 years – of Ring Dance (1987), Anderson’s piece which combines his then fascination for microtonal tuning with harmonic and timbral facets of Norway’s Hardanger fiddle tradition. The result pivots between relative consonance and dissonance in a way that intrigues rather than provokes (though first-night listeners in Stockholm evidently thought otherwise!) and, as with Anderson’s recently revived First String Quartet, a reminder of how early preoccupations have continued along more oblique lines. John Woolrich’s Pluck from the Air (2013) sprang few surprises in comparison, this tensile quintet for piano and strings outlining a longer-term engagement which might have been pursued in a second movement.

All the members of the Nash Ensemble then took the stage for the first hearing of Van Gough Blue (2015), Anderson’s homage to the artist whose preoccupations with colour and shade are embodied over its 20 minutes. Thus ‘l’Aube, soleil naissant’ evokes a tangible awakening, its inwardness duly offset by the pungent rhythmic and melodic interplay of ‘Les Vignobles’ and the ‘coming into focus’ of ‘Les Alpilles’ with its lively apex. The suspenseful harmonic stasis of ‘Eygalières’ then makes way for the culmination of ‘la nuit, peindre les étoiles’: a musical translation of the morning (4:40am on 25th May 1889) when Van Gough sketched his Starry Night painting, heard in terms of a ‘cosmic dance’ as carries all before it to the disintegrative final lament. Alexandre Bloch presided over this assured reading of a significant new work.