Monday 17 October 2022

Serenade to Music: Nash Ensemble and a fine array of soloists celebrate Vaughan Williams' 150th birthday

Serenade to Music - Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge, Five Mystical Songs, Phantasy Quintet, Serenade to Music, Bridge, Bax, Elgar; Nash Ensemble, Alessandro Fisher, Roderick Williams; Wigmore Hall

Serenade to Music
- Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge, Five Mystical Songs, Phantasy Quintet, Serenade to Music, Bridge, Bax, Elgar; Nash Ensemble, Alessandro Fisher, Roderick Williams; Wigmore Hall

A long evening, full of good things from the familiar to new views of the familiar to the unfamiliar, with strong illuminating performances

As part of the celebrations for Ralph Vaughan Williams' 150th birthday, the Nash Ensemble presented a substantial survey of the composers smaller scale works as part of the ensemble's residency at Wigmore Hall (15 October 2022). Nine members of the Nash Ensemble were joined by tenor Alessandro Fisher, baritone Roderick Williams and a fine array of 13 other soloists for a programme that placed RVW alongside his friends and contemporaries, concentrating on music from 1900 to 1916.

We heard RVW's On Wenlock Edge, chamber versions of the Five Mystical Songs and Serenade to Music, plus Nocturne & Scherzo, Six Studies in English Folksong and Phantasy String Quintet, along with music by Bridge, Bax and Elgar.

We began with RVW's Nocturne & Scherzo for string quintet dating from 1906, almost before RVW was RVW, the music recognisably English but not yet typical of the composer's voice. An expressively intense Nocturne let to a busy yet evocative Scherzo. We followed this with Bax's Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp. Written in 1916, in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in Dublin, the work uses the same instrumentation as Debussy's sonata, a work Bax probably knew of, but was unlikely to have heard. Rhapsodic solos for viola and flute over flowing harp textures, led to music that moved from pastoral melancholy so something more agitated.

The first part ended with RVW's On Wenlock Edge for tenor (Alessandro Fisher), piano and string quartet written in 1908/9, in the wake of RVW's lessons with Ravel. This was a performance where Fisher's engaging tenor was fully part of the chamber ensemble rather than being over spotlit. The playing from the Nash Ensemble was vivid and full of details, with dramatic contrasts in colour and textures, and the opening of Bredon Hill was pure magic. Fisher sang with vibrant, Italianate tone combined with superb diction. He is a fine story teller, easily moving between high drama and comedy, always with expressive phrasing.

The second part of the evening opening with Bridge's Phantasie Piano Quartet, a commission from 1910 arising from Bridge's winning the 1907 W.W. Cobbett  competition for works in the phantasy genre. In the work's structure, slow fast slow, we could detect Bridge's fondness for an arch structure. After a moment of passionate rhapsody, the music developed into something flowing, complex yet romantic. The middle section was a delicate scherzo with underlying edge. The opening material returned leading to slow, achingly romantic music and a coda that slowly unwound.

RVW's Six Studies in English Folksong was written in 1926 for his friend, the cellist May Mukle. Cellist Adrian Brendel played the piece with singing tone and expressive phrasing, accompanied by Simon Crawford-Phillips, this was a restrained performance, very much about tone and expression.

RVW's Five Mystical Songs (setting the 17th century poet, George Herbert) was premiered in 1911 (at the Three Choirs Festival in the same concert as the premiere of Elgar's Violin Concerto), in the version for baritone, choir and orchestra. But the composer created other versions. The one using the same instrumental forces as On Wenlock Edge - baritone (Roderick Williams), piano and string quartet - proved a fascinating chamber take on the work. Roderick Williams sang with a wonderful frankness and openness, lovely tone combined with a sense that the text really meant something to him, and that it was important for us to hear.

The work's accompaniment was fascinatingly akin to the sound world of On Wenlock Edge, bringing mysticism and subtlety to the for but with moments of vivid instrumental drama. It was lovely to hear a chamber approach to this work.

The third part of the concert began with RVW's Phantasy String Quintet commissioned by W.W. Cobbett in 1912 (as part of the same phantasy project as the Bridge we heard earlier in the evening). Writing for string quintet, RVW used a conventional four movements but unconventional titles - Prelude, Scherzo, Alla Sarabanda, Burlesca.

We began with a sense of pastoral mysticism, with a great use of silence. The faster second movement was full of energy yet with an underlying sense of drama and suggestions of the mystical. An intimate and touching sarabande led to the strongly characterised final movement, full of sly wit.

We heard three of Elgar's occasional pieces for solo violin (Stephen Waarts) and piano (Simon Crawford-Phillips). Salut d'Amour (1888) and La Capricieus (1891) were a sort of sophisticated salon music, setting off Waarts' wonderfully sweet, elegant tone. Sospiri (1913-14) is akin to these but far more complex and sophisticated in its expression.

We finished with RVW's Serenade to Musicin the original version for 16 soloists (in fact 15, with one of the sopranos doing double duty), accompanied by two pianos. The line up ranged from young artists through the more experienced right through to distinguished older singers. Written for Henry Wood's gold jubilee in 1938, it is an occasional piece that has gained ground thanks to RVW's magical music and the highly effective way he used his 16 soloists as a chorus yet giving each a moment in the spotlight, each short solo crafted to suit the original soloist's voice, so that the final solo notes floating over the orchestra were specifically designed for the purity and clarity of Isobel Baillie (here finely emulated by Nardus Williams). This was a wonderfully balanced performance, each solo effortlessly appearing from lovely vocal ensemble textures, and each singing bringing a distinct sense of character. Pure magic.

This was long evening, full of good things which built to an engaging survey of early 20th century chamber pieces, mixing known and unknown. Inevitably such a diverse programme had lots of stage resets, impressively accomplished with minimum fuss. Serenade to Music was a lovely final bon bouche, but there was much else to enjoy.

Nash Ensemble (Amelia Freedman, artistic director, Simon Crawford-Phillips, piano, Philip Moore, piano, Philippa Davies, flute, Stephen Waarts, violin, Jonathan Stone, violin, Lars Anders Tomter, viola, Rosalind Ventris, viola, Adrian Brendel, cello, Sally Pryce, harp)

Rebecca Evans, soprano, Nardus Williams, soprano, Ailish Tynan, soprano, Jess Dandy, mezzo-soprano, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano, Grace Durham, mezzo-soprano, Hugh Cutting, counter-tenor, Benjamin Hulett, tenor, Alessandro Fisher, tenor, Kieran Carrel, tenor, Nick Pritchard, tenor, Theodore Platt, tenor, Julien Van Mellaerts, baritone, Roderick Williams, baritone, Jonathan Lemalu, bass) 

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