This entire concert at Wigmore Hall was very much an imaginary, but musical journey through Germanic forests experiencing nature's rich colours, musty smells, dewy airs and the ever changing light synonymous with autumn. From first note to last, the Nash Ensemble was commanding and authoritative, treating the direction of the programme as a well-trodden path. The Nash took the audience by the hand, pausing to show us new sights and new colours, showing us that there is much to admire in music written by these composers in their twilight years.

Nash Ensemble © Hanya Chlala | ArenaPAL
Nash Ensemble
© Hanya Chlala | ArenaPAL

Opening the programme was a chamber music rarity, Max Bruch’s posthumous Octet in B flat major composed in 1920, months before his death. This almost symphonic sounding work, in three movements, is scored for four violins, two violas, cello and double bass. Brimming full of vibrant shades of crimson, ochre and persimmon, the Nash Ensemble sparkled. There was a energy in the playing, uplifting the spirits with the bow of each player akin to a paintbrush creating a musical picture. Each gesture ensured every note was lovingly placed with equal respect, diligence and clarity of attack. The double bass offered a grounding, mostly doubling the cello, often at the lower end of its register, counterbalancing the violins and enriching the luscious colours.

The vivacious first movement, opened with a foreboding seriousness giving way to passionate playing where sadness was never far away. The Adagio was stately, echoing the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony with its repeated use of a similar motif. The Allegro molto conclusion was suitably jovial. The violas and cello ascended out of the dense texture to bloom lovingly like the last roses of summer. Rhythmically exuberant, this finale was sheer brilliance. 

Mendelssohn’s String Quintet no. 2 – also in B flat major – was composed in 1845, two years before his early death. The first movement carried on almost seamlessly from the Bruch, with the same key and identical mood.  The Nash Ensemble followed the Allegro vivace tempo marking well, which could have easily fallen apart at such a speed, but these players have such chemistry and technique they were able to push the music to its limits. On reaching the recapitulation the players drew out the Beethovenian qualities, adding a dark wash to the autumnal shades. The slow movement is the emotional heart of the piece; here the autumnal glow turned to shades of grey in a Schubertian ether, with moments of bleakness, desolation and isolation. A captivating and scintillating finale lifted one’s spirits.

After the interval, the universally acknowledged autumnally tinged Brahms' Clarinet Quintet; written at the end of his life in 1891, it is in possibly the most sombre of all keys, B minor. Gone were the vibrant shades as the Nash mellowed, tempered and reduced the palette. This didn’t lessen the musical experience, but intensified it as each and every hue was given a voice, crimsons became burgundy, bronzes became rusts, as descending heady mists turned the distant trees from pewter to jet as we stared towards wintry remoteness.

The opening was affirmative, the violins in thirds played with complete unity and conviction in anticipation of how the whole piece would end. The balance was perfect throughout. The recapitulation of the subjects, again spoke differently to their expositions, darker and full of melancholy. The Adagio sang like Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” in Tosca, as a man looks out towards his fate, with a similar clarinet solo. The tone of Richard Horsford’s chalumeau register blossomed whilst blending into the strings with effortless ease. His clarion top was vivid, with the exact level of projection to cut through the rich string textures.

The lighter Andantino was beautifully paced and phrased, while in the fourth movement the interplay between the clarinet and the first violin was exceptional, a true dialogue. In the closing bars of this exceptionally curated journey, each rest was given as equal an importance as each note. As the final chord faded, a silence fell – sombre, resolute, conclusive. 

*****