Wigmore Hall, March 28 *****
A contemporary music concert attracting some of our finest composers, performers, reviewers, sponsors and enlightened listeners was always going to create a high risk assessment, but fortunately the Wigmore Hall remained intact during this generous programme from the Nash Ensemble.
The offerings covered a spectrum of soundworlds, beginning with the evanescent quasi-Northumbrian soundscapes of John Caskens Misted Land for clarinet and string quartet, imaginative string fragments drawing muffled gestures of expectation from the clarinet, occasionally veering into quartertones until at last melancholy nostalgia transforms into a finale driving forward on its nerves. Empathy of ensemble was awe-inspiring.
Imagery more concrete was provided by Colin Matthews’ Seascapes, settings of poetry by Sidney Keyes, who died at the age of 20 in 1943, having just begun war service. There is searching lyricism here, plus dramatic projection so well captured, and it was tempting to cherry-pick some telling moments from the mixed instrumental ensemble (fluttering pizzicato, warm horn) under Martyn Brabbins’ unobtrusive, efficient direction. Soprano Claire Booth was compelling in delivery, singing sturdily off the words, but the high-lying tessitura did not always make for distinct audibility.
Julian Anderson’s Van Gogh Blue is a five-movement instrumental sequence tracing the course of one day in Provence as viewed through the Dutch painter’s eyes, completing a “blue” trilogy by the composer. There is a luminosity in the scoring which evokes the medieval Books of Hours which have long been an attraction for the composer, and vivid directness of expression which recalls Messiaen, such an influence on Anderson.
Claire Booth rejoined the Nash Ensemble for Three Songs for soprano and ensemble by Anderson, an ongoing series scored for the same personnel as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. There were some wonderful instrumental colours here, not least from alto flute and bass clarinet, with impressive virtuoso singing from Booth. The central song is a greeting to Anderson and other friends from Moroccan composer Ahmed Essyad, reaching out during the first Covid lockdown. The final song is THUS, a Longfellow setting here receiving its world premiere, given with huge stamina and versatility, the players’ stamping feet rushing time on inexorably forward.
Then came the most economically scored music of the evening, George Benjamin’s Viola, Viola, a colloquy in which those two instruments seem to merge inextricably into one, lyrical flowing lines, interrupted by jagged, punctuating outbursts. Subliminal dance-rhythms occasionally appear amidst this rich compendium of viola fingerprints, and there was infallible rapport between Lars Anders Tomter and Jennifer Stumm, a late replacement for the indisposed Timothy Ridout. Amazingly, both were playing on instruments made by Gasparo da Salo in the same year, 1590!
We concluded with A Constant Obsession by Mark-Anthony Turnage, five songs plus a limpid Prologue composed for Mark Padmore and the Nash Ensemble, and displaying such an understanding of the voice of this most probing of tenors. Diction was accordingly superlative as the sequence progressed through a range of texts so well-chosen that we could be imagining Britten at work. There were effective instrumental transitions, such as Philippa Davies’ magical flute introducing Edward Thomas’ “No one so much as you”, and Tomter’s elegiac viola leading an emotional interlude in Robert Graves’ “Counting the Beats”, and this deeply-felt work made such a satisfying conclusion to the riches of the evening. It is a very long time since I was tempted by a contemporary concert as rewarding as this.