It’s not often that Alma Mahler shares the billing with her husband Gustav. He was the control freak who made it clear he didn’t want his spouse to pursue her own journey, and perhaps steal the limelight from him, though towards the end of his life he did relent. Three of Alma’s songs heard in this concert given by the Nash Ensemble were published in 1910, as part of a collection of five. It is sad to think that of the 100 examples of her art which she wrote under the tutelage of Zemlinsky, just over a dozen have actually survived. Regrettably, this programme offered just these three, and in another odd decision, Um Mitternacht was omitted from the Rückert-Lieder.

Roderick Williams
© Theo Williams

On his 57th birthday, and despite the fact that, according to one of his own tweets, he was suffering from a cold, Roderick Williams was his usual resplendent self. One reason he always carries authority in whatever he does is because he acts with his voice and sings with every fibre of his body. He started with two early songs by Gustav in which there were distinct echoes of Schumann and hints of the later Des Knaben Wunderhorn. His care over each individual word, delivered in impeccable German, ensured the depth of the conversational quality which he found in Hans und Grete

The writer Stefan Zweig described the Vienna of Alma’s time as “sticky, perfumed, sultry, unhealthy”. There was a sense of that in these songs of hers, marked by a darker tone and a starker, more chromatic accompaniment, sensitively rendered here as throughout the evening by the pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips. In Die stille Stadt, where the composer is quite close to Schubert’s twilight world, Williams’ voice opened out magnificently for “durch den Rauch und Nebel”. He had the full measure of the four Rückert-Lieder too, finding the necessary inwardness and Weltschmerz of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, the tone bleaching out for the closing line of “In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied”. 

This trilaterally designed evening had begun with an example of a quintet in rare instrumentation, written by the young Beethoven before he moved into big-ticket genres. Yet, despite the notion that he had modelled himself on a similar quintet by Mozart, and in the same key, there was no mistaking the very individual voice that asserted itself here. From the peremptory opening chords immediately commanding attention, through some of the sharply accented phrasing in the long initial Allegro ma non troppo to the ebullient and dramatically inflected Finale, already pointing ahead to the closing movement of the B flat piano concerto, the Nash players found plenty of vibrancy and high-spirited fun. The only weakness in the ensemble was the somewhat submerged bassoon line. 

Atmosphere matters enormously in Schubert’s Trout Quintet: the listener needs to be made aware of the aqueous surroundings. There was quite a languorous start, the downward drift emphasised, and then once entered the waters quickly became fast-flowing, the ripples on the surface signalling the energy beneath, the crystalline piano tone enhancing the inherent freshness. My ear was constantly drawn to the lovingly phrased richness of the cello line in moments of gentle rapture. The Scherzo, though hard-pressed, had all the impetuosity of youth.

How far should tonal equivalence matter? In a performance imbued with such Romantic spirit, breaking free from any classical restraint, it might be argued that individual coloration succeeds in extending the emotional range. Though the three lower string players were beautifully matched, there was an excessive brightness coming from the violin in the earlier movements, tempered only towards the close.