The very flexibility of the Nash Ensemble enables it to put together some fascinating and wide-ranging concert programmes. String quartet? No problem. Voice and piano? But of course. Bring in a harpist, second flautist and extra clarinettist just for a ten-minute piece? Why not! For the last in its current Wigmore Hall series entitled The French Connection, all these configurations came into play, and more besides, as well as in the early-evening pre-concert in which some of the professionals were joined by students from the Royal Academy of Music (where the Nash was founded) for a complementary programme of Stravinsky and French wind music.

Nash Ensemble © Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL
Nash Ensemble
© Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL

If there was a theme knitting these diverse elements together – apart from the obvious one of the series title – it was the idea of late-19th and early 20th-century Paris as a global melting pot, a place where foreign cultures were welcomed and indeed sought out. The main programme began with Saint-Saëns’ slight but characterful Caprice sur des airs Danois et Russes, written to pay tribute to the Danish-born Russian Empress and given a spirited performance by flautist Philippa Davies, oboist Gareth Hulse, clarinettist Richard Hosford and pianist Ian Brown. Brown indeed had his work cut out, playing in four of the six works in the main concert and conducting a fifth. He was next joined by soprano Rebecca Evans for two sets of folk song arrangements by Ravel, the Cinq mélodies populaires grecques and most of the survivors from a rarely heard entry the composer submitted to a Moscow competition in 1910 with elaborate settings of folk melodies from Spain, France, Italy and Scotland. Linguistically, Evans sounded least at home in the Burnsian Scots, but her lustrous sound, crisp diction and charismatic stage presentation were never less than communicative of the sense behind the words. She was at her best in Maurice Delage’s Quatre poèmes hindous for voice and ensemble (conducted by Brown) where, in the second song, the text dissolves into wordless and hummed melismas and she floated the phrases beautifully above the sitar-imitating pizzicatos of Adrian Brendel’s cello.

Surrounding these exotic vocal excursions were two examples of chamber works bound to more solidly Western European principles, the String Quartet by Debussy and the second of Fauré’s two piano quartets. Strangely, the Nash normally shies away from including a medium as ubiquitous as the string quartet in its programmes, usually leaving that form to the many specialist ensembles that fill the Wigmore week in, week out. But it fielded a tightly integrated foursome of players for the Debussy in the week of his centenary, with viola player Lawrence Power, in particular, on fine form and with the undoubted highlight being the spellbinding slow movement which faded into the most rapt of endings. The lesser-known of Fauré’s two piano quartets, no. 2 in G minor, made for a heady and ultimately exultant climax to the evening, with the tireless Brown sailing through the composer’s demanding reams of notes as the three string players surged above in unison or in harmony.

The early-evening RAM concert had its notable aspects, too, including a well-judged performance of Stravinsky’s knotty Three Pieces for String Quartet, a welcome outing for Poulenc’s Sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone, and the same composer’s Trio for piano, oboe and bassoon among them. But the laurels went to clarinettist Luke English’s suave, silky-toned and appropriately winning account of Debussy’s examination test piece, his Première Rhapsodie.

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